By altering and fragmenting the intact landscapes that wild species depend on for their survival, oil and gas development and other forms of industrial activity become a serious threat to species protection and biodiversity, according to a new study in the journal Science.
Underlying the research is the understanding that wild animals—whether wolves, antelopes, elephants, or pocket mice—need to roam freely, and that freedom is a key factor in the survival of individual species and the long-term health of ecosystems.
Contributing to “a new and growing field called ‘movement ecology,’” the New York Times reports, the global study of 57 species of mammals used GPS collars to track 803 individual animals. It “found that vagility—the ability of an organism to move—declines in areas with human footprints by as much as half to two-thirds the distance than in places where there is little or no human activity.”
The discovery is troubling, said lead author Marlee Tucker, a biologist at Frankfurt’s Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, because animals need to move, both to find adequate forage for themselves, and “because in moving they carry out important ecological functions like transporting nutrients and seeds between different areas.”
The 114 researchers who participated in the migration study made good use of Movebank, a global bank of research into animal movement that, combined with global data on climate, vegetation, and topography, has deepened understanding of species’ vagility. “There has been exponential growth in data on wildlife movement as technology has evolved,” the Times notes, “opening new windows into the secret lives of animals.”
Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, a director of Movebank who also participated in the study, called the work “an example of open data and data sharing that allows you to answer new questions and give data a second life.” It shows that protection of “critical corridors” of movement, especially of migratory species, is lacking.
One species on scientists’ radar is the white-bottomed pronghorn antelope, which for millennia has lived out the year following a 200-mile migration loop from the mountains of Grand Teton National Park to warmer climes in winter, and back. “While there have been efforts to protect the journey, such as highway overpasses and antelope-friendly fences, some new barriers are looming,” the Times notes.
“Most immediate is the prospect of 3,500 new gas wells planned on federal land at the southern end of the pronghorn’s migratory path,” a product of the Trump administration’s push to accelerate fossil development on public lands. “And then there’s the nearby Jonah Natural Gas Field, which is already intensively developed.”
“The challenge is understanding how many holes you can punch in the landscape before a migration is lost,” said University of Wyoming wildlife biologist Matthew Kauffman.
In response, even U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is (in his own way) acknowledging the need to protect critical wildlife corridors. “We all know that animals go where animals want to go, and more often than not that’s dependent upon natural features like watersheds,” he said, rather than whether the land is publicly or privately owned. The Times says an order Zinke recently signed on migratory routes envisions “working with ranchers to modify their fences, working with states to collaborate on sage brush restoration, or working with scientists to better understand migration routes.”