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Keeping the Lights On: Understanding the connections that power conservation

Posted by: Peter Zahler, Vice President of Conservation Initiatives

“Connectivity: the state or extent of being connected or interconnected.”

An aerial view of the Cascade mountains offers breathtaking glimpses of forested habitat. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo
The definition of connectivity feels incredibly simple, yet there’s something strangely insightful in there. Small children immediately understand the idea—putting together puzzles, linking construction toys to make bigger toys, drawing lines to bring different images into contact with one another. That simple concept of connectivity extends into adulthood, as we begin to connect ideas to one another—which is when deep understanding and inspired solutions often occur.

Connectivity in its simplest form is what first really attracted me to the natural world. I was, and continue to be, spellbound by how the natural world is interconnected. Ecosystems immediately struck me as enormously complicated jigsaw puzzles that I desperately wanted to solve.

Some pieces, like the gray squirrel, could fit almost anywhere there are trees. Others, like the fig wasp, are entirely dependent on another single species—and thus there is only one species of wasp for each of the roughly 750 species of fig. Some jigsaw pieces seem jaw-droppingly random at first, and then they make perfect sense—such as the frogs in Myanmar that breed in the muddy puddles filling the footprints of Asian elephants. It’s a strange connection between the tiny and the huge, and it connects frogs across a forest landscape, one great pachyderm step at a time.

There is a frog species in Myanmar that breeds in the puddle-filled footprints of Asian elephants, like the one seen here. This relationship is a connection between tiny and huge species across a forest landscape. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Connectivity is also one of the principle concepts in ecology and conservation. Again, the idea is simple on the surface. Wildlife needs space to roam—to find food, shelter, and mates. Some natural areas are just too small on their own to maintain an entire population of a species for long.

However, if you can link up an area to other areas, you have greatly increased the overall available habitat for wildlife, and greatly increased the likelihood that the population of animals will be able to survive over the long term.

Unfortunately we live in a fractured world. Our culture feels split, our politics are deeply divided, and our wild lands have been fragmented by development. Our growing human population has built roads into previously untrammeled wilderness, erected towns where once there were only farms, and built sprawling cities where once lay sleepy, wooded towns. In many parts of the world, protected areas lie like tiny green jewels afloat in a great sea of humanity.

Connecting fragmented sections of habitat can increase the chances of survival for lots of species. Illustration courtesy of  U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Agroforestry Center
Linking those green jewels of habitat is critically important. Finding ways to bring animal populations back in touch with one another has become an overarching goal of conservation. Think of it as an electric circuit: if you keep the current running, in this case the movement of animals, you will light up our remaining wild lands with birds, foxes, bees, and deer—the whole rich panoply of biodiversity. Cut the current, and the lights may never shine again.

As our climate changes, connectivity becomes even more important as a concept and as a goal. Wildlife may find the landscape where they live no longer habitable—for example, plants may disappear from a site as an area receives less rain. If there is no way for an animal that depends on those plants to move to a new location, it too can disappear—and if it happens enough, in enough locations, the species can face extinction.

Moss-laden old-growth forests in the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges provide a home for many species that can only be found in our region. Photo: Jason Martin/Woodland Park Zoo
Here in the Pacific Northwest, connectivity is a growing focus of Woodland Park Zoo’s conservation efforts. We are working to understand the movement of wolverines and their connection to land use in the northern Cascades. This will help in determining corridors that can provide these wide-traveling carnivores—driven to extinction in our state during the last century, and only recently finding their way back from surviving populations in Canada—the ability to move across Washington’s mountains to find food, shelter, and each other.

Habitat connectivity is critically important for animals like black bears and other species that need room to roam. Photo courtesy of Seattle Urban Carnivore Project / Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University
In Seattle proper, we have launched a study on urban use of green spaces by wildlife species such as coyotes, bobcats, and raccoons. Little is known about these city-dwelling carnivores. As urban development expands, the potential to trap wildlife in tiny pockets and drive them to local extinction grows. Determining wildlife’s use of parks and green corridors can help us protect them and ensures that we can continue to live with nature, even in our most developed landscapes. Woodland Park Zoo believes that preserving and connecting our wild and green spaces is the key to keeping the Pacific Northwest a vibrant ecological community—one that can bring wildlife back from extinction, and that can ensure that people continue to connect with and enjoy the region’s extraordinary natural beauty.

Editor's note: You can link to Peter's next blog here, where he continues the conversation with some inspiration about reconnecting to a natural world that we've been separated from for too long.