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Do national parks protect biodiversity? New research finds flaws

A bison and a calf trot down a road at Yellowstone National Park on Aug. 6, 2018. National parks have long been celebrated as conservation success stories across the United States, but a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports on Wednesday indicates there are some flaws that come with their establishment.

A bison and a calf trot down a road at Yellowstone National Park on Aug. 6, 2018. National parks have long been celebrated as conservation success stories across the United States, but a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports on Wednesday indicates there are some flaws that come with their establishment. (Chuck Wing, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — National parks have long been celebrated as conservation success stories across the United States, but a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports on Wednesday indicates there are some flaws that come with their establishment.

A study led by the Natural History Museum of Utah shows that while national parks are viewed as the backbone of conservation, they may just be another example of man's interference with nature, compromising how plant and animal species thrive, and even survive, from generation to generation.

The risks to plants and animals: The authors point out that habitat loss and fragmentation are the top threats to species in lands adjacent to park boundaries, especially in western North America where those lands or reserves have become increasingly "spatially and functionally isolated in a matrix of human-altered habitats."

The research goes on to say those altered environments are problematic because few parks and related reserves are large enough to preserve intact animal and plant communities.

Novel research: The study, featuring lead author William Newmark, research curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, "hypothetically" linked Yellowstone and Glacier national parks by identifying and eliminating barriers to movement. Similarly, it made that hypothetical linkage between Mount Rainier and North Cascades. Researchers found that the proposed corridor network would increase the long-term persistence time of mammal species by a factor of 4.3 relative to the persistence time of species in fragmented, individual parks. Additionally, the corridors would not only enlarge populations, but also allow species to shift their geographic ranges more readily in response to climate change.

Bridges, highways and housing: Research emphasized there are all manner of impediments to ecological connectivity.

As more has been learned about migration corridors and the need to also protect at-risk species, transportation systems have embraced the installation of wildlife crossings, but at times these highways still disrupt the viability of some animal and plant species. Researchers say it is key to study the populations, their movement and the effectiveness of the wildlife crossings when it comes to the promotion or preservation of "ecological" corridors.

Housing is altogether another matter due to human population growth that has taken root in areas adjacent to national parks or reserves. In the area of the northern Rockies and Cascades, the research shows housing growth rates on land adjacent to the parks are among the highest in the region.

What to do? While it has been documented that ecological corridors enhance population persistence of species, most of these studies have been small-scale experiments. There are few assessments of the value of ecological linkages at large spatial scales, the report said.

Newmark said enhancing regional connectivity among western North America national parks could serve as an important "template" for landscape-scale conservation in the 21st century.

The report notes there will be amplified conservation efforts that seek to achieve regional, ecological connectivity.

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.

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