Legislation has been proposed in Virginia and at the federal level that could help forge those links. A bonus, even if you don’t give a rip about wild species: Wildlife corridors can bring immediate reductions in costly wildlife-auto collisions.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) has introduced a bill with three Republican co-sponsors that encourages wildlife corridors on federal public lands, albeit slowly. The Senate companion bill was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
At the state level, Del. David L. Bulova and Sen. David W. Marsden (both D-Fairfax) have put forward a modest start: bills that get the Department of Transportation to plan for and prioritize corridors. They merit unqualified bipartisan support — but to meet the scale of the emergency, Virginia should commit itself to move further and faster.
The crash data alone compels: Virginia is a “high-risk state” for wildlife collisions, according to the most recent compilation by State Farm. A 2016 VDOT study tallied more than 61,000 deer-vehicle collisions in a single year, with damages averaging more than $533 million per year. They account for 1 in 6 car insurance claims.
But in an experiment along Interstate 64 west of Charlottesville, fencing to create safe corridors reduced deer-vehicle collisions by about 95 percent in two years. That success could be widely and cheaply replicated.
Linking the state’s remaining severely fragmented natural areas does far more than that, however. Our isolated populations of bears, brook trout, fox squirrels and wood turtles — plus dozens of disappearing plant and insect species — won’t be able to feed, breed, migrate and adapt unless they can move freely. The flip: Several recent studies have documented that natural landscapes can recover lost species and ecological stability rapidly when they are interconnected.
The General Assembly will consider a praiseworthy corridor bill, but — unlike a draft that was circulating at the Capitol a year ago — it includes zero funding and no timetables for action. It’s too timid a start, the kind of hunkered-down, go-slow incrementalism that convenes a committee to draft a plan to go look for a garden hose when the roof is on fire. But it’s all we have unless the proposed legislation is amped up.
Even the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, preoccupied far more with hook-and-bullet fun than ecology, has tallied more than 500 vertebrate species that are at risk of extinction, many already at “extremely high risk.” They include 8 percent of Virginia’s mammal species, a quarter of our reptiles and amphibians, 11 percent of birds and 21 percent of freshwater fish. Climate disruption will in effect shift our temperatures south by hundreds of miles over this century, pushing ever harder on wild species populations to migrate for survival.
State researchers have already mapped and prioritized Virginia’s disappearing natural areas and where they can be reconnected. But moving from Point A to Point B takes more than a map. It requires voters who are unwilling to allow the continuing genocide of wild species. Our current legislative pace casts Virginians in the role of bystanders at an epic biological train wreck.
New Hampshire legislators, by contrast, passed strong wildlife corridor legislation, approved by a Republican-majority legislature. That initiative was made even stronger with a bill signed into law by a Republican governor last summer. “We’re seeing some of your birds from Virginia that have never been up here,” that bill’s sponsor, New Hampshire state Sen. David Watters (D), told me, “and the larger fauna, as well, are on the move.”
His wildlife corridor bills were bipartisan, Watters said: “There are no Democratic and Republican deer, or turtles, or whatever.” New Mexico and California have also approved legislation that protects wildlife corridors — and they back the effort with funding and deadlines.
Corridor advocates specify that a state-level action plan for wildlife corridors should include:
• Reliable scientific data (we already have that);
• Required corridor protection measures across highway, agriculture, forestry, fish and game and conservation agencies;
• Funding for infrastructure — fences, culverts, bridges — and land acquisition, and tax incentives for private landowners;
• Funding for research, implementation and administrative costs, to ensure that an action plan is more than just a slogan.
Virginia will have achieved about one and a half of four of those items, if the proposed wildlife corridor legislation passes. It shows that the new legislative majority has yet to find its voice on this core environmental issue. Maybe sometime soon? It’s late.