Why wilderness matters for wildlife

A cormorant in Oregon's Steens Mountain Wilderness.

Credit: BLMOregon, flickr.

There is more to our 50-year-old national wilderness network than beautiful scenery—these protected areas allow wildlife to flourish in ways they could not elsewhere, enjoying the benefits of uniquely untouched and biologically diverse habitat.

Designated wilderness, the highest level of public lands protection as outlined in 1964’s Wilderness Act, is full of animal life. This ranges from large, iconic mammals, such as wolves, bears and moose, to the smaller and lesser-seen. This is no coincidence: rather, it is owed to the unmatched capacity of wilderness designation to preserve habitat as-is.

According to Wendy Loya, lead ecologist for the Alaska region at The Wilderness Society, wilderness designation “gives wildlife the guarantee that their entire habitat will be protected, from the microbes that make nutrients available for growth of plants that wildlife eat, to the predators that keep wildlife populations healthy.” Peter McKinley, a Maine-based climate adaptation ecologist with The Wilderness Society, adds that Wilderness locks out “the destructive force of resource extraction” like oil or gas drilling, and forestalls the potentially harmful development of roads and other infrastructure.

Wilderness “gives wildlife the guarantee that their entire habitat will be protected" and locks out “the destructive force of resource extraction."

One of the most important roles of wilderness and other public lands is providing swaths of land that link different animal populations, strengthening so-called “habitat connectivity.” This allows for a more diverse mix of genetic material. Over time, the resultant groups of animals will be stronger, healthier and more adaptable. McKinley explains, “novel genetic diversity is generally a good thing, as this is the material that natural selection needs to produce potential new adaptations.”

One vivid example of the importance of habitat connectivity is that of the wolves in Michigan’s Isle Royale, an island on Lake Superior that is almost entirely protected as designated wilderness. The wolf population there has suffered due to lack of genetic diversity, and it depends on periodic ice bridges to connect it with the mainland and bring other wolves in.

By insulating habitat from the undue interference of development, wilderness protection also helps preserve the biological diversity in an entire ecosystem. Loya offers the example of Yellowstone National Park, most of which is managed as wilderness despite lack of a formal designation. There, the natural food web has been kept largely intact, as bacteria in the soil process nutrients that support plants, which in turn feed the elk that serve as prey for wolves, bears and other predators. With this chain unbroken, the habitat remains strong. Simply put, due to its high level of protection from habitat fragmentation, McKinley says “wilderness is able to maintain or generate biological diversity in ways not possible by non-wilderness areas.” In turn, wildlife serves the landscape it inhabits, whether by pollination or preying on species that might otherwise do too much damage to resident plant life.

If you're lucky, you may catch a glimpse of some animals on your next foray into the wild. Here is a small sample of wildlife that depends on these special places:

Credit: flickr, Bureau of Land Management.

Bighorn sheep are among the iconic animals that call Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness home. The canyon that gives the protected area its name was cut into the Sonoran Desert by the Aravaipa Creek, which nurtures wooded riparian habitat and harbors seven species of native fish


Credit: flickr, Nikki Roach (USFWS Headquarters).

Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2014, California’s tiny Farallon Wilderness has rebounded from human incursion to become a haven for seabirds, sea lions and elephant and fur seals.


Credit: flickr, Bureau of Land Management.

Javelinas in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, a popular area for nature-lovers. Sometimes called peccaries, these herd animals roam desert, chaparral and oak-grasslands, feasting on cacti, fruit and insects.


Credit: flickr, USFWS Headquarters.

In Nebraska’s relatively small Fort Niobrara Wilderness, bull elk clash. The wilderness makes up about one-fifth of the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Though once virtually eliminated from the state, elk have made a comeback, and about 2,300 live there now, mostly in the northwest.


Credit: flickr, BLMOregon.

grasshopper rests in Hells Canyon Wilderness, which is split between Oregon and Idaho. While not typically thought of as wildlife worth watching, American insects are stunningly diverse and populous. In this country alone, there are about 91,000 described insect species and as many as 73,000 undescribed species.


Credit: flickr, Kristine Sowl (USFWS Alaska).

bristle-thighed curlew in Alaska’s Andreafsky Wilderness, a sprawling piece of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge totaling more than 1 million acres. Fewer than 10,000 of these birds are thought to remain, and their reliance on limited breeding ground in the western part of the state puts them at acute risk of development. 


Credit: flickr, Stacy Shelton/USFWS

An American alligator in the wilderness portion of Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. An estimated 200,000 alligators live throughout Georgia, but despite their fearsome appearance, they have rarely clashed with humans. Of the eight reported cases of alligator attacks in the state between 1980 and 2001, most happened because people stepped on alligators in hiding, startling them and compelling a defensive reaction.


Credit: flickr, BLMOregon.

rough-skinned newt in Oregon’s Table Rock Wilderness, a relatively small pocket of rocky terrain and woodland. Unfortunately, salamanders and other amphibians nationwide are in trouble—recent research has shown that they could disappear from half of their habitats in the next 20 years


Credit: flickr, Brandan W. Schulze (Forest Service Northern Region).

Montana’s Scapegoat Wilderness shares a border with the more famous Bob Marshall Wilderness to the north. Together with Great Bear Wilderness, they cover more than 1.5 million acres of beautiful wooded and mountainous land. Mule deer and other wildlife make the region popular among sportsmen.


Credit: flickr, Gila Forest.

A western tanager in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. The 558,014-acre protected area is a hot destination for hiking and camping. Wilderness areas across the Southwest are must-see attractions for birders. New Mexico alone contains about 500 different species of birdsmore than half those that exist in the U.S. at-large.


Credit: flickr, Ed Pivorun (USFWS Headquarters).

Shorebirds including oystercatchers and marbled godwits in the Cape Romain Wilderness Area, which encompasses part of the wildlife refuge of the same name. It is one of the few wilderness areas in the eastern U.S., and one of only seven in South Carolina.

Get some tips on photographing wildlife on its home turf.