The Heart of the Western Wildlands Network
The Problem: Here in the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West, native biota and the wild places in which they once flourished have been degraded and fragmented by human activity. A few of these practices include off-road vehicle use, fire suppression, clear cutting, overgrazing and tens of thousands of oil and gas developments, along with a dizzying network of roads that accompany them. Faced with these kinds of damaging activities on the landscape, the conservation community often finds itself in a positions of reaction to development of dams, roads, timber sales, subdivisions, and oil wells on an individual basis. Under these circumstances, its difficult to be proactive in crafting a positive vision that can garner significant public support.
Wildlands network design: taking the science to on-the-ground conservation: Wild Utah Project and our mentoring organization Wildlands Network, along with many scientists and other conservationists, support the concept that the long-term solution to habitat degradation and fragmentation in our region lies with the design and implementation of an integrated landscape wildlands network. Such networks typically consist of core wilderness areas connected by landscape linkages and surrounded by compatible use zones. Core areas remain wild and undeveloped. Landscape linkages, necessary to overcome habitat fragmentation, link core areas to enable wildlife to move and ecological process to flow between core areas. The compatible use zones that surround core areas accommodate increasing levels of human activity. However, compatible use zone activities such as silviculture, agriculture and other uses that occur in deference to the needs of ecosystems.
The Heart of the West: In 1999, a number of biologists and ecologists noted a critical, yet unaddressed, piece of the puzzle that links other reserve design projects between the Northern and Southern Rockies. The Heart of the West region spans southeast Idaho, southwest Wyoming, northwest Colorado and northeast Utah. The call to map critical habitat linkages for conservation to ensure connectivity across the landscape, and maintain viable populations of species within the Heart of the West would be soon answered by the Western Wildlands Network.
Once referred to as the Serengeti of North America, much of this area is dominated by the high plains of the Great Divide Basin. It was in this area that pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep, and vast herds of bison once moved through sagebrush-steppe, followed closely by the plains wolf, grizzly bear and the nomadic Indian tribes of the Great Plains. The region also includes the Wind River and Wyoming Ranges of Wyoming, high Uintas and Book Cliffs of Utah, and the Park Range of Colorado. This 'heartland of the Rockies' encompasses the entire Green, Bear, Uinta, and Sweetwater river basins, as well portions of the Platte, Snake, Big Horn, Wind and Colorado river watersheds. This vast and varied landscape is home to many species of native fauna and flora, many of whom are now at risk. Today, exponentially increasing anthropogenic disturbance of the area is destroying and fragmenting the ecological function and connectivity of the landscape. For example, approximately 90% of the federal land in Southwest Wyoming is currently leased for oil and gas development.
These, and several other serious threats require our immediate attention. Unless we move quickly to design and implement a system of connected wildland cores throughout this region, we stand to lose much of the natural heritage, as well as the opportunity to preserve and restore gene flow between populations of animal and plant species existing to the north and south. In response, Wildlands Network and cooperators (Wild Utah Project, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Western Wildlife Conservancy, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance) identified this critical region where no organization was actively working on wildlands network and implementation, and organized an effort to begin a Wildlands Network Design (WND) for this area, and write a Conservation Plan to accompany the WND.