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Moving On

It’s fun to win awards, of course, but beyond that they do serve an important purpose. A few days ago I found out that with Emeline Ostlund and Joe Riis, I won the Stanford Knight-Risser Award for Western Environmental Journalism. The three of us contributed the main components of a suite of articles on the Path of the Pronghorn for High Country News. We also won a National Association of Science Writers Science and Society Award for these features. Emeline and Joe get (and deserve) higher billing than I do on this roster. They spent about two years each, separately and together, actually trekking the Path of the Pronghorn—a 6,000 year old migration route over about 100 miles in Wyoming—with the animals. Joe’s photos are so amazing partly because Emeline was able to cue him about where they would be crossing rivers, fording streams and so forth. He used a motion-activated camera trap to capture the beasts in media res. They don’t know they are being photographed; they don’t see some Homo sapiens with a piece of machinery stuck to his face and wonder what the heck. They are just in their own lives and he gets that – check out his work at (You may notice my book cover uses the same photo HCN uses for this issue—well, it’s a good one.)

My piece is “Protecting wildlife corridors is more theory than practice,”about the lack of political will (surprise surprise) to actually do what’s right by nature. For several decades we have had thoroughly vetted widespread ecological knowledge that for nature to persist, it has to be able to move. Plants and animals need to be able to get where they are going, to fulfill ancient migration imperatives like that of the pronghorn, and to mix with others of their kind so they don’t inbreed and die off. Climate change is prompting biodiversity to pick up stakes and move on. Habitat disruption caused by human settlements and gas and oil and all that are also interrupting animal movements – that’s part of the pronghorn story. Since human development proceeds apace, we need to legislate corridor protection so that important linkages for wildlife are preserved as we add more McMansions, shopping malls, and oil wells to the scene.

The difficulty in getting political consensus has of course to do with the perception that protecting any part of nature will titrate someone’s potential profit-making. Blah blah blah – why don’t these people worry about losing their entire net worth the next time a big weather disaster strikes and there is no biodiversity left to mitigate the damages or help the landscape recover.

Researching this topic led me into the historic face-off between the western states and the federal government. One reason it’s hard to legislate protection for wildlife is that both levels of government 1)want to do the rule-making themselves; 2) passionately desire that the other entity does not get to do it. This enmity is residue from the homesteading tradition of the west, the betrayal of state’s interests by the federal government, real and imagined, especially when the railroads scorched and burned the territory. I write more about this in my book, The Spine of the Continent, but the subject deserves a book or at least a long article in itself. In many ways we are still homesteading in the West.

One of the great dimensions of the pronghorn story is that enforceable protection has in fact been achieved for this stretch of land. That’s an inspiring tale of scientists, bureaucrats, grass-roots activists, regular people, even oil and gas executives, holding hands across their private Idahos (or Wyomings as the case may be) and doing the right thing. It’s a model for how we can get more biodiversity movement protected. Winning an award puts a spotlight on a subject, and this one deserves the attention.

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