New Model of Landscape Connectivity Shows Where Roads, Energy Corridors Impact Wildlife Movement

Conservation scientists have developed a novel approach to identify and prioritize places that are important for maintaining landscape connectivity for wildlife that is sensitive to human activity and land development. Land-use planners, policy-makers and imperiled species could all reap the benefits of their work.

The new landscape modeling technique provides the first comprehensive, national-scale map showing the ease (or difficulty) with which wildlife can move across landscapes with varying degrees of human-built infrastructure such as roads, energy corridors and other forms of development.

The model is the subject of a paper, “Connecting Natural Landscapes Using a Landscape Permeability Model to Prioritize Conservation Activities in the United States,” in the journal Conservation Letters. The authors are David Theobald from Colorado State University, Kenyon Fields and Michael Soulé from Wildlands Network and Sarah Reed from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

This analysis provides a way to prioritize where to focus efforts to help wildlife move in response to the effects of climate change, helping federal land management agencies as well as local land use planners make decisions on where to locate new development. It also helps coordinate efforts among adjacent land owners to stitch together otherwise piecemeal planning efforts that often occur independently without recognition of broader-scale connectivity needs.

“We think this analysis provides an important new tool to help land planners and conservationists find solutions to maintaining the connectivity of natural landscapes to reduce fragmentation of natural ecosystems and the decline in biodiversity that results,” said lead author, David Theobald, research scientist in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at CSU.

Co-author Michael Soulé, known world-wide for his pioneering work on habitat connectivity, noted that “our approach yields maps capable of prioritizing places essential for restoring ecological flows across the U.S. and informing conservation initiatives at regional, national and continental scales.” The new mapping tool depicts landscape connectivity as a circulatory system with arteries ranging in thickness, tracing the priority ecological pathways most likely to be followed by wildlife.

Their research found that the highest-value wildlife connectivity routes intersected proposed energy corridors in the Western U.S. at nearly 500 locations and intersected 733 moderate to heavily used highways. The publication of this model is well-timed to aid the Western Governors’ Association’s Wildlife Corridors Initiative, a collaborative effort among 17 states to identify and conserve crucial wildlife habitat and corridors across the West. This information has also been used by the National Park Service to inform renewable energy planning around Joshua Tree National Park and other protected areas in the Mojave Desert.

“This work provides a tangible touchstone for how we can address climate change by maintaining, or even restoring, places that are critical to enable species to adapt to changes in habitat and environmental condition,” Theobald said.

The full article is available online at

The research was supported by funding from NASA Earth Systems Science and by the Society for Conservation Biology’s Smith Conservation Research Fellowship program.

The Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology is in the Warner College of Natural Resources at CSU.