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Habitat Connectivity in Utah: A Story of Collaboration and Bipartisanship

This post is part of our Sustain the Wild series, aimed at highlighting the work Wildlands Network is doing to ensure healthy habitat for wildlife, long into the future. Learn more and support here.

Over the last decade, the wild-hearted who value our native wildlife and landscapes for their beauty, intrinsic value and the escape they offer have been disheartened by the lack of action taken to protect our ecosystems, especially in light of the mass extinction crisis we are currently facing globally.  Even more frustrating, administrations have successfully weakened the protections for lands critical for the health of our habitats, as well as necessary protections for threatened and vulnerable species to recover and thrive.

This has left many of those who work in conservation—and those who support our efforts—with a sense of hopelessness and anger at the possibility of recovering and restoring our landscapes before it is too late. Often this can lead to a sense of resentment towards organizations, agencies and government officials that seemingly do not prioritize environmental health at the same level as they do. Consequently, an “us” and “them” divide emerges that leaves little room for communication, collaboration and understanding between the parties necessary to move forward beneficial, science-based wildlife conservation legislation forward on a state and national level. The result: a stalemate and the question of the future of our wildlife unanswered.

At Wildlands Network, we have a strong commitment to working with legislators from both sides of the aisle, as well as other interest groups including private landowners, sportsmen and many others that are crucial to the conversation surrounding conservation work. As such, we are able to build strong and diverse relationships across the country—which this year allowed us to lead the charge in helping pass substantial wildlife corridor protection legislation in Virginia and a concurrent resolution in Utah, and to begin the conversations and relationship-building necessary to expand these efforts in the future.

I personally had the opportunity to write, advocate and ensure the passage of the concurrent resolution in Utah, known as HCR 13, the Concurrent Resolution Supporting the Protection and Restoration of Wildlife Corridors. During the process of passing the resolution, I was fortunate to see the true power that collaboration and understanding with a variety of interest groups and both Republicans and Democrats can have to impact the political landscape of conservation.

February 21, 2020 – Wildlands Network Campaign Communications Specialist Gabby Saunders testifies alongside HCR 13 champion Representative Mike Schultz in the House Natural Resources Committee in the Utah State legislature. A variety of interest groups came together to testify in in support of the bill which passed through the committee unanimously, showing the power of collaboration in advancing wildlife conservation policy.

Having worked in Utah politics since I was 16, I had the connections and relationships to put the drafted resolution in front of Representative Mike Schultz (R-12), the Majority Whip for the Utah State House of Representatives. He is an avid hunter and outdoor recreation enthusiast, so I approached the importance of protecting and restoring and habitat connectivity through the lens of its necessity for bolstering Utah’s outdoor recreation industry, which is incredibly crucial to the state’s economy. As such, he agreed to sponsor the resolution. Senator David Hinkins (27-R) sponsored the resolution in the state Senate, and 13 co-sponsors joined on to support the bill, both Republican and Democrat.

As the bill moved through committee, Wildlands Network developed relationships with a broad array of state agencies and interest groups including sportsmen, private landowners and other conservation groups who avidly advocate and support the resolution. So much so that the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee remarked that he had never seen a bill move through is committee with such broad support from such diverse and different groups! The resolution passed through both houses unanimously and was signed by the governor on March 23, 2020. With that, the state of Utah officially recognizes the importance of studying wildlife corridors and ensuring they are considered during city- and county-level planning.

Many Utah legislators are now excited about the idea of furthering habitat connectivity in the state, asking what can be done to improve the health of our wildlife corridors. This has opened a window for Wildlands Network and our partners to be able to work together to identify priority projects and connectivity needs for Utah that can be tackled in the future.

To that end, we will begin a wildlife corridors working group to continue to build relationships with and gather insight from necessary partners throughout the state. As we look to the future of Utah’s landscapes, we will be able to create viable solutions as a collective to protect, restore and enhance the corridors within the state.

With so much wildlife in jeopardy across the U.S. and beyond, it is time for us to come together—with the understanding that even though interest groups, agencies and administration may not always see eye-to-eye, effective collaboration is essential to ensure substantial, lasting policies are adopted that protect North America’s wildlife and wild landscapes.

Join Gabby and other Wildlands Network staff Tuesday, April 28 at 5pm Eastern for a webinar diving into the strategy behind our state wildlife corridor policy across the United States. Learn more and register here: Success Stories in State Policy: Protecting Wildlife Corridors Across the U.S.

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