The Wyoming Wildlife Federation has known for decades that dividing habitat is a problem for big game. Fences, highways and houses all make life just a little harder for Wyoming’s four-legged creatures trying to make a living on a sometimes harsh landscape.
The organization has told developers, government officials and the public about the dangers. And now they have a formal, Wyoming-based study to add to their toolbox, said Joy Bannon, the federation’s field director.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Natural Diversity Database and The Nature Conservancy recently released “Assessing the Future Vulnerability of Wyoming’s Terrestrial Wildlife Species and Habitats.” The study is the first of its kind that examines 131 of Wyoming’s "species of greatest conservation need" as identified by Game and Fish and ranks them based on threats by climate change, energy and residential development and disease.
The authors say the study isn’t meant to be alarmist or stop development but to help inform people -- before projects begin -- of potential threats to Wyoming’s animals, large and small. They hope it could ultimately prevent issues like the ones Wyoming faces with sage grouse, where millions of dollars are being spent to keep the bird off of the endangered species list.
Conservation organizations see the study as a way to focus future efforts and support ongoing projects.
“The idea of the study was to be proactive and think ahead, identify problems while it’s still easy to find solutions to them,” said Amy Pocewicz, a landscape ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. “Then the state can manage wildlife itself voluntarily without regulations from other places.”
The study took three years of compiling known data about each of the 131 species and comparing it with areas of current and future development. It also anticipated disease and impacts on the landscape from climate change.
The Wyoming toad, for example, is listed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as a species of greatest conservation need and is also on the federal endangered species list. Its habitat in Wyoming is tiny and restricted to the Laramie plains. When the group overlapped the toad’s limited living area with development in the next 20 years, the toad’s future looked even tougher, making it one of the most at-risk species in the report.
Other species, including those dependent on specific temperature ranges like the lynx or specific ponds and wetlands such as amphibians, were found to be most susceptible to climate change, Pocewicz said.
Game and Fish and the natural diversity database has been working to compile information on these individual species for years, but many unknowns still exist, she said.
The compilation now gives Game and Fish a more focused place to start habitat projects, said Bob Lanka, the department’s statewide wildlife and habitat management section supervisor.
“It gives us a way to try to make some sense out of all of the chaos that results if you try and focus on every single species and all of the habitats they depend on at the same time,” he said.
Even if it’s hard to muster sympathy for the future of the Wyoming toad, the northern many-lined skink or the prairie lizard, a lot of those species could ultimately be Wyoming’s canary in a coal mine, said the report’s co-author Doug Keinath, a senior zoologist with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, which is a research institute at the University of Wyoming specializing in sensitive species.
“If the plains spadefoot [toad] is taking a nosedive because of something we’re doing to our environment, that could be a precursor to something much bigger,” Keinath said. “It could be that indicator that shows we’re approaching the point that we’re doing real harm.”
Some of the species on the list are larger and more well-known. Moose, loons and trumpeter swans are all included. Their futures depend on wetland areas, which are more susceptible to development and climate change, the report says.
Organizations like the Wyoming Wildlife Federation can use the study to see what threats animals face and begin working on solutions, said Bannon, with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.
Hunters and anglers brought close to $800 million to Wyoming in 2011 alone, which means studying Wyoming’s animals and protecting their habitat becomes a sound economic decision, she said. Any money spent returns in multitudes through hunting and angling pursuits, travel and tourism.
Keinath doesn’t want the study to sound threatening to development, whether residential or energy-related. It’s not meant to say each animal needs millions of dollars in conservation. But with some planning, it could help prevent an animal such as the sage grouse from requiring close to a billion dollars to protect.
“I don’t want people to look at this and take away that the plains spadefoot is the next big thing,” Keinath said. “We’re not saying development is bad, and maybe the benefits of development in the long ways outweigh the impacts to XY or Z, but we should know that ahead of time rather than doing it and then finding out down the road.”