Creating biodiversity by connecting contiguous forests
by Tod Westlake
A mountain lion was struck and killed by a car earlier this summer in the town of Milford, Connecticut. Speculation as to its origin began almost immediately, with most local wildlife experts assuming that it must have been a domesticated cat that had somehow escaped from its handlers.
But that wasn’t the case. A DNA sample confirmed that it was part of a genetic family from the Black Hills of South Dakota. After further study, it was learned that the tissue samples from this mountain lion were an identical match to samples of a specific cat that had been tracked through Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2009 and early 2010.
Thus this cat—the biggest of North America’s feline predators—had traveled approximately 1,400 miles from its last known location. It managed to somehow avoid being captured or killed as it made its way through countryside full of small towns and big cities, crisscrossed by everything from logging roads to multilane interstate highways. It somehow managed to make it all the way to Connecticut in one piece, despite the fact that civilization, perhaps inadvertently, has imposed these human-made barriers that would make such a journey all but impossible—or so we thought.
Indeed, many of us rarely take the time to think about how much of an impact our modern system of roads and highways has on the world around us. Even those of us who are environmentally conscious often have to drive our cars to get to work, go grocery shopping, or take our kids to school. And throughout the country, from coast to coast, roads and highways carve through the landscape, even through many wilderness areas, thereby creating verdant enclaves surrounded by dangerous barriers made of asphalt and concrete.
But this phenomenon hasn’t slipped the attention of John Davis, a lifelong wildlands advocate, triathlete, writer, and conservationist. Davis is keenly aware of the effect this segmentation of our wild areas is having on those species who, because of their feeding or migratory habits, are often forced to cross sections of blacktop that impede them from doing what their instincts are telling them to do, the tragic results of which, as our poor mountain lion can attest, manifest as various types of roadkill.
To bring attention to this issue, Davis—in concert with the Wildlands Network, a Florida-based group working to preserve and create contiguous wild spaces—is in the midst of a more-than 6,000-mile journey that has taken him all the way from the everglades of Florida, zigzagging his way north, until eventually encountering the Shawangunk Ridge, just one of his many stopovers as he makes his way to Quebec, Canada.
This journey, which has been dubbed the “TrekEast” project, is designed to bring attention to the fact that our increasingly fragmented wildlands are having a terrible impact on biodiversity, in particular those creatures that are now cut off from their traditional migratory paths.
In late July, Davis gave a talk at the Mohonk Preserve Visitors Center, where he outlined some of the details of his trip.
“It’s a primarily muscle-powered journey, something in the order of 6,000 miles by the end of the year, and I’ve done about 5,200 miles so far,” Davis said.
The trip has seen Davis hike, bike, and kayak his way from Florida, westward along its panhandle and into northern Alabama, back east across Georgia, where he turned north along the coast of the Carolinas, and then headed into the mountainous areas Kentucky, West Virginia, and Maryland, before returning eastward through Pennsylvania. By the time he reaches Canada late this fall, Davis will also add cross-country skiing to his modes of transportation.
Davis spoke about the importance not just of land preservation but of creative ways to connect these preserved lands so that future generations will inherit a land rich in biodiversity. Davis said that the Wildlands Network, despite its size, has done yeoman’s work when it comes to advocacy, but that a crucial part of the formula comes from organizations actively engaged in the permanent preservation of wildlands.
“The Wildlands Network is a fairly small group,” Davis said. “We have a staff of only about fifteen, and many, many volunteers—and some high-powered conservation biologists on our board of directors…There’s a lot of intellectual power in this small organization. But we don’t actually do the deals on the ground to protect these places, at least not very often. It’s usually groups like the Nature Conservancy, the Open Space Institute, and other land trusts and advocacy groups like Save the Ridge that actually save the habitats necessary to achieve a continental-level connection.”
This connection, according to Davis, would see a contiguous corridor developed stretching all the way from Florida, up across the length of the eastern seaboard, and eventually into Canada, thereby helping to preserve, and even restore, the biodiversity in the eastern part of the country. In addition to the east coast corridor, the group is looking to continue this route from the east, along the northern tier of Canada into Alaska, before heading back south into California, and then into Mexico and Central America. Success would mean that it would be possible to travel virtually the entire North American continent without leaving a wildlands area.
Davis did acknowledge potential problems with this notion, both on the micro and macro levels. There are sometimes barriers that are difficult and expensive to surmount. A good example is Route 209, which imposes itself between Minnewaska State Park Preserve on the east side and the Catskill Forest Preserve on the west.
On a larger scale, international borders will continue to be a problem, especially in those areas, such as along the southern border of the US, where border fencing has been, or is being, installed.
“The hope is that we can protect enough connected habitats that the full range of biodiversity can thrive,” Davis said.
Bringing back biodiversity would also have a positive effect on areas of human habitation.
“When there are no predators in the area, the deer get lazy,” Davis said, adding that an environment with predators means that deer are on guard and don’t stay in one place for very long. The alternative is that areas of the forest become so overgrazed that many species of wildflowers, for example, will disappear from the forest floor.
“It can really have a major impact on the plant life in an area,” Davis said.
Cara Lee, director of the Shawangunk Ridge Program for the Nature Conservancy, said that although there are more and more lands being protected in our area, its fragmentary nature continues to present challenges.
“We don’t want to be an island in a sea of development,” Lee said during her introduction of Davis. “That’s not good for biodiversity.”
For more information about the Wildlands Network, and Davis’s journey, please visit twp.org. There you can see interactive maps with details of John’s progress and read his personal blog updates.