Study identifies wildest corridors between key protected areas in U.S.

Apr 29, 2016

A map from the study illustrates the "wildest" and least-developed corridors (in blue) between national parks and other protected areas. 

In a paper published in PLOS ONE, “Identifying Corridors among Large Protected Areas in the United States,” scientists from The Wilderness Society and other organizations identify the wildest corridors between large protected areas in the contiguous U.S.

Development of natural areas in the United States, coupled with expected changes in climate, have increased the importance of migration corridors that connect protected natural areas. Large, connected wild lands reduce the isolation of animal and plant populations and allow for migration and movement that can help preserve populations of wild species and enhance genetic and ecosystem diversity. 

"Our analysis identifies the most natural or wildest linkages between large protected areas across the lower 48 states," says lead author Travis Belote, research ecologist with The Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Montana. "We don't focus on habitat needs of any particular species, but rather believe that the most number of species will have the best chance to move around using the wildest linkages between protected areas."

"Our hope is to move from an aspirational vision of connected protected lands to actual conservation priorities that allow animals and plants to find the best natural linkages between national parks and wilderness areas."

"The wildest linkages between protected areas likely serve as our best bet for allowing all of nature's diversity to shuffle around as the climate changes. We hope that all species will benefit from these natural corridors. From squirrels to wolverines to plants that depend on animals for dispersal, limiting development along the wildest linkages may give the greatest number of critters the best chance to move. Some species may need these corridors this week, and others may benefit over many generations."

Protected areas such as designated wilderness and national parks form the foundation of conservation strategies to sustain all of nature's biological diversity. Conservation scientists increasingly warn that protected areas unconnected to a network may serve only as temporary isolated ecosystems, vulnerable to environmental change and at greater risk of experiencing local species extinctions.

Many lands owned and managed by federal agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, are currently undergoing land-use planning.  Identifying migration corridors that connect protected areas can inform decisions about additional land protection or mitigating the impacts of resource extraction, motorized recreation, and other activities. This may help the public and land managers prioritize which land units should receive elevated levels of protection.

The study ranks Inventoried Roadless Areas and Wilderness Study Areas that should be prioritized for additional protection and suggests priorities for maintaining a connected network of protected areas.

Concentrations of highly connected but unprotected land exist in southeastern Oregon, the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, western Maine, and the “Idaho High Divide” country between the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park. 

Some lands, even those with low levels of protection, possess high value as corridors and should be considered for inclusion in a national network of large protected areas. Although federal agencies dominate the total land area evaluated in this study, many non-federal agency and private lands -- like private forest conservation easements in Maine -- possess high-connectivity importance.

Authors of the study include R. Travis Belote, Matthew S. Dietz, Brad H. McRae, David M. Theobald, Meredith L. McClure, G. Hugh Irwin, Peter S. McKinley, Josh A. Gage and Gregory H. Aplet.

Link to study:

The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.


Travis Belote, Ph.D., Research Ecologist, The Wilderness Society Northern Rockies Regional Office, 503 W. Mendenhall, Bozeman, MT 59715,, cell: 406-581-3808.

Michael Reinemer, Deputy Communications Director, Wildlands, The Wilderness Society, 1615 M Street, NW,Washington, DC  20036; 202-429-3949;  cell 703-966-9574