Wild Connections: It's About Relationships
The climate is rapidly changing, and ecosystems—here in our home and around the world—are shifting in response. Half of all animals on earth are already on the move due to climate change. Animals need the same things we need—food, water, security, and good-looking other animals they aren’t related to. But their suitable habitats are shifting poleward and elevationally upward at an alarming rate.
Our Wild Connections program exists because we understand, here at Greater Hells Canyon Council and in the conservation community more broadly, that islands of good habitat, even big ones, are not enough to shepherd species into the uncertain future—not with the rate of change we’re seeing. To prevent extinctions, we need to protect movement.
The goal of Wild Connections is to strengthen ecological connectivity in the Greater Hells Canyon Region, with a particular focus on the watershed of the lower Grande Ronde river, between the Wenaha Tucannon Wilderness and Hells Canyon. Ecological connectivity is the ease with which creatures (besides humans) move through the landscape.
Resilient waterways (connectivity corridors) and robust collaborations (bridging jurisdictions and ideologies) are key to enhancing connectivity here. Our Wild Connections program emphasizes strong relationships: between people, between people and the land, and between different parts of the landscape.
Map by Imus Geographics
Connecting Place to Place: Resilient Waterways
In the Greater Hells Canyon Region, you can follow water 8,000 feet down, from springs in the Wallowas to the depths of Hells Canyon, over just a few dozen miles. In a steep landscape like this, perennial waterways—streams and rivers, the canyons they’ve carved, and their rich riparian zones—are the most important corridors for nearly all wildlife. This is true throughout the interior West, and the steeper (or drier) the landscape, the truer it is. Regional land and wildlife managers confirm that healthy waterways are ecological highways. This means that enhancing the functionality and quality of our riparian systems is one of the most important things we can do for connectivity (and climate adaptation) in our home landscape.
For strong connections (and climate resilience more broadly), we need complex, dynamic riparian systems that recover quickly from disturbance, store their own water, and support the widest possible array of species. Some species—you could call them umbrella species for connectivity—have outsized impacts on the quality of riparian systems. Beavers are one. Another one is salmon.
In the Northeast Oregon Beaver Survey project, we’re working with agency and nonprofit partners—and citizen scientists!—to improve our knowledge of beavers’ habits and distribution in our landscape. Beavers store water, slow floods and fires, and create habitat for literally thousands of other species at all scales from butterflies to moose to salmon to ducks. While beavers aren’t endangered, their recovery from near-extirpation in our region has been slow and uneven.
The Northeast Oregon Beaver Survey is already helping regional land and water managers locate and study this important animal and determine its habits and needs here—with the goal of eventually welcoming more beavers back to this corner of the Beaver State, as a partner extraordinaire in habitat connectivity and restoration. We welcome your participation in the survey!
Photo by Mike Hansen, Wildlife Biologist and Beaver Survey Partner
We’re also collaborating with a broad coalition of allies across the Northwest in a great concerted push to restore the lower Snake River by breaching its four dams. This is the single best thing we can do to recover salmon and steelhead, whose runs returning to spawn in Northeast Oregon’s 1000+ miles of Snake River tributaries once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, feeding people and animals and serving as an iconic cornerstone of our region’s cultures, ecologies and economies. Ecological connectivity is essentially a question of corridors vs. barriers, and for salmon, there’s no more dramatic barrier than a dam. A dam is a wall in the river, and salmon have to cross eight such walls (and their attendant predator-infested hot slackwater reservoirs) twice over the course of their amazing life cycle. Salmon and steelhead require robust connectivity in the entire river network through which they travel, and they also contribute mightily to the quality of those connections, by pulling great pulses of nutrients annually from the ocean back into headwaters. The push to restore the lower Snake (while ensuring a just transition for communities who currently depend on the snake river dams) is therefore one of the most important ecological connectivity efforts happening in our bioregion today. GHCC is proud to be a partner in this effort.
Connecting People to People: Collaborating for Climate Resilience
Wild Connections is necessarily a collaborative program. We understand that all ecological problems are human problems too—that humans and ecosystems rely on and respond to one another, and that working effectively and in good faith across differences is essential to achieving our conservation goals for the long haul.
The Greater Hells Canyon Region, our home, is a complex juncture of ecoregions, joining the Blue Mountains, the Columbia Plateau, the Great Basin and the Rocky Mountains. Species’ ability to move freely within and through our region underpins their ability to adapt to great changes at a continental scale. That’s a humbling responsibility for our region to shoulder, but it ought to inspire us, too. We can be a climate adaptation hub.
But humans have altered and fragmented these lands and waterways dramatically. We draw lines on maps, extract resources, and build roads and fences and subdivisions. Different parcels of land and different communities operate under different socioeconomic (and cultural) circumstances, paradigms, and priorities, and the resulting patchwork produces barriers to species movement. Connectivity conservation in this landscape must attend to these differences in order to address these barriers—and this is an important and complex challenge. Enhancing, restoring, and protecting connectivity across jurisdictions means listening, learning, collaborating, storytelling, and growing a strategy for connectivity that takes all our communities’ needs into account.
We’ve engaged in deep listening and learning as we’ve built the Wild Connections program, and that foundational work has led us into several exciting collaborations. We are working closely with allies locally and across the Northwest on behalf of salmon, bees, and beavers, to support connectivity at all scales from the meadow to the macro-watershed.
Additionally, we are collaborating with a diverse group of partners, including Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Eastern Oregon Legacy Lands, and the Nez Perce Tribe’s climate adaptation and wildlife teams, to develop a climate adaptation strategy that equitably and responsively attends to the needs of both human and wild communities in our region. The goals of the cross-cultural Blues to Bitterroots Coalition are to enhance ecological connectivity, increase the pace and scale of culturally relevant conservation in our shared home, deepen and broaden our restoration economy (with an emphasis on Tribal stewardship), and develop a resilience vision that honors healthy relationships between people and the land, and, especially, honors the time-tested Indigenous relationship with the land as a model of resilience.
The Blues to Bitterroots Coalition marked a major milestone on October 12, 2021 when the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee adopted a resolution affirming its support and involvement in the coalition and our work to "implement climate-smart solutions designed to build and maintain ecological integrity within the [Nez Perce] tribal homeland." This storymap, published in 2021, provides a more detailed exploration of this work.
Blues to Bitterroots Partners peruse the map in Joseph Canyon. Photo by Christina deVillier for GHCC
Those of us who are interested in helping our wild neighbors adapt to great changes must put time and effort now into strengthening relationships with our human neighbors. Our ability to work and learn well together, the strength and multiplicity of our interconnections, and the stories we tell about our home—our shared values—will prevent extinctions—and support our own adaptation, too.
The Right Work for a Time of Change
In a context of great upheavals, it’s no longer possible (if it ever was) to draw a line around a place, prohibit certain activities, and assume salvation is assured. Certainly, large, intact ecosystems store carbon, filter water, buffer extreme weather, and serve as arks of biodiversity and co-evolved relationships. Land protection is crucial. But without robust connections between these wild places—and without the human collaborations that can achieve conservation success across jurisdictional and ideological boundaries—protected places are stranded islands, and ecosystems increasingly function like a human community on a low island watching the sea level rise—except what’s rising is not water, but heat.
We’re already seeing effects of climate change and biodiversity loss in the Greater Hells Canyon Region. These challenges are bigger than dams, more dire than clearcuts, more permanent than lines on a map. One organization’s work in one region can’t arrest these global trends, but we are doing our part, alongside our communities, to make sure that the spectacular place we call home—with its steep canyons and free-flowing creeks, its intact forests and grasslands, its salamanders, its prairie falcons, its land-dependent and land-loving people—is not only a treasure house of what we’ve managed to keep, but also a resilient refuge for an uncertain future.