Ben Weiss

WASHINGTON (CN) — Federal efforts to maintain safe migration corridors for wildlife have been successful, but the government can do even more to keep animals out of harm’s way, a group of conservation experts told members of Congress Tuesday.

Increased human development and the effects of climate change pose threats to wild animals that engage in seasonal migration or otherwise encounter people. Wildlife may encounter human-made obstacles — fences, highways, dams and other infrastructure — that can impede their movement.

Traffic poses a particular danger to wildlife and humans alike. Cars kill millions of animals each year, and more than 150 Americans are killed annually in crashes involving wildlife.

Some well-known wild animals have fallen victim to car accidents. P-22, a mountain lion living in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park was euthanized in 2022 after the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service discovered the famed animal with injuries consistent with a vehicle strike.

During a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, California Senator Alex Padilla cited the late mountain lion as he described the need for greater attention to safe wildlife movement, pointing out that P-22’s celebrity inspired the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, a planned animal crossing over one of Los Angeles’s busiest highways.

“Stories like this happen every single day across America,” Padilla said of P-22’s untimely death. “Whether for daily or seasonal migration, or being pushed away by a climate in crisis, wildlife face barriers to migration that threaten their lives.”

Washington has taken some action in recent years to protect wildlife migration pathways. The Interior Department in 2018 issued a directive aimed at fostering collaboration on the issue between the federal government and a cadre of western states including California, Wyoming and Montana. The agency, under then-Interior Secretary and current Representative Ryan Zinke, said at the time that its order “recognizes state authority to conserve and … respects private property rights.”

That Trump-era effort has been helpful in boosting western states’ conservation efforts, a panel of experts invited to testify Tuesday told lawmakers.

“It was really designed well,” said Richard King, chief game warden for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It was designed with input from states and other agencies and entities, and it’s provided us an opportunity to maximize the great work Wyoming has been doing for a long time.”

Interior’s directive provided Wyoming with funds to reconfigure hundreds of miles of fencing to ease wildlife passage and migration, and has helped the state deal with invasive species, King said.

Madeleine West, director of conservation policy group the Center for Public Lands, said that her organization has urged the Biden administration to continue support for the Interior Department’s migration corridors program and several other initiatives granting states money for wildlife research and data collection.

These federal programs, largely geared towards western states, have garnered broad support, West said, observing that they “offer a model for how the federal government can support state and tribal-led wildlife corridor conservation efforts more broadly across the country.”

Charlton Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, lauded Congress’ 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which he said provided $350 million annually to the Golden State’s wildlife crossing pilot program.

Wide support for these conservation efforts, however, has strained their funding, West noted. “Demand for each of these programs is high, with requests far exceeding available funding levels,” she said.

Part of the problem, West observed, is that Congress authorizes funding for wildlife corridor programs as discretionary spending — putting them at risk for budget cuts during Washington’s annual spending battle. Federal funds for these efforts are also transferred from one program to another, making them “unreliable and inconsistent,” she added.

“Dedicated and consistent federal funding would be very valuable,” West said. “With additional funding, more benefits could be happening.”

The witnesses also urged lawmakers to continue including private property owners in discussions about protecting wildlife migration routes.

The participation of private landowners is particularly important in a state like Wyoming, said King, because roughly half of the state’s land is privately owned. “Our partnership with private landowners is absolutely critical,” he said.

“I’ve been told some of the best wildlife habitat and corridor habitat in this country is on private land,” West said, “because private landowners have done so much proactive, voluntary conservation work on their own.”

The threats posed by human development and other factors to safe wildlife migration are challenging, Bonham said, but fixable.

“We just need to take these kinds of lessons to heart,” said Bonham. “We need to allocate the time and energy, secure the funding, harness our people power … so the angler can know salmon in the river, the hunter can know bighorn sheep, and people can know more mountain lions wandering under the Hollywood sign in California.”