Working Ranches + Wildlife Corridors

May 18, 2017
Executive director Brad Chalfant shares details on the Land Trust's role in developing funding sources for working lands conservation.

by Brad Chalfant

While the Land Trust has long focused on land conservation around streams and floodplains (no big surprise, given we inhabit an arid landscape), we've also always been concerned about the fragmentation of local ranches and commercial timberlands (remember Skyline Forest?).

Here in Central Oregon, large ranches and commercial timberlands have traditionally represented our economic base. However, the growth of other local industries, particularly recreation, has contributed to a rapid growth in the region's population and growing pressure to subdivide these working lands. When that occurs, we see an increase in the density of roads and traffic, fencing, lights, dogs, etc., all of which can complicate and disrupt the movement of native wildlife.

Antelope at Bella Ranch. Photo: Land Trust.
Antelope at Bella Ranch. Photo: Land Trust.
The protection of big game migration corridors is often viewed as simply addressing the need for public agencies to manage herds of mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk as they move from summer to winter range and back again. However, this isn't just a concern for hunters. In fact, the protection of wildlife migration corridors benefits a wide range of species, both addressing the need for seasonal movement, as well as for the genetic health of various wildlife species, minimizing the risk that a given population of wildlife becomes isolated and inbred. Allowing wildlife the freedom to move between population concentrations or types of habitat becomes even more important when we factor in climate change.

Consequently, the Land Trust has worked with data from various conservation partners (including the Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy and the American Bird Conservancy) to identify key migration corridors that are at risk of fragmentation. Land protection projects like Bella Ranch and Ranch at the Canyons, as well as our ongoing effort to conserve Skyline Forest and working ranches along the Upper Crooked River all reflect an effort to protect important migration corridors. By helping a rancher or timberland owner keep their land in production at a sustainable level, they can forgo additional development and maintain an economic return, while wildlife maintain, and hopefully enhance, their ability to move when they need to do so.

To date, our progress on working lands projects has been severely constrained by the limited availability of public funding. For that reason, the Land Trust has worked through the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts and a Governor's Working Group to develop a new Oregon funding source to underwrite working lands conservation easements. The proposed program is known as the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program and is currently under consideration by the Oregon legislature as House Bill 3249. Given the legislature's budgetary challenges, it’s unlikely we’ll see passage of the bill and full funding for the program. However, the collaborative conservation and agricultural alliance that produced the bill is pursuing a 2-step strategy. The first step involves building relationships in the legislature and enact legislation to authorize the program (without implementation funding) this session. Then in a subsequent legislative session, we’d return for full funding once the state's fiscal crisis has eased. As this is a long-term strategy, you can expect to hear more from the Land Trust about our continuing efforts to protect key wildlife migration corridors!