Endangered Species Need Roadless Habitat

By Gary Wockner
May 30, 2005

I’d call it “hope.” Yes, that’s the sound of thousands of scientists and millions of wildlife advocates celebrating the apparent return from extinction of the ivory billed woodpecker.

Not seen for more than a half century in the United States, the ivory billed woodpecker made international news a few weeks ago with its back-from-the-dead performance. The cause of its return, though, has hardly made a blip in the newsreel, and it’s one word: “habitat.”

The woodpecker’s habitat is the bottomland forests and swamps of the lower Mississippi River. Prior to European settlement, these forests covered 50 million acres of what is now the Southern United States. Today, about 5 million acres of that habitat remains, and more is disappearing every day due to the relentless shrill of human development. The woodpecker—which hid from us for more than 50 years in these southern swamps—needs this roadless wild habitat to survive.

However, almost simultaneously with the announcement of the woodpecker’s return, came a very ironic and unfortunate announcement from President Bush that he is rescinding the federal “Roadless Rule” enacted in 2001 that protects nearly 60 million acres of roadless wildlife habitat throughout the U.S.

Apparently, the President doesn’t see the connection between roadless habitat and the preservation of endangered species. Issues here in Colorado should help drive this connection home.

For example, Colorado has about 4.4 million acres of roadless habitat that the President has now opened to exploitation and development. And, we have endangered species—just like the ivory billed woodpecker—that were previously thought extirpated from our state but may be depending on these roadless areas for survival.

First, lynx: Trapped to near extirpation in the lower 48 states, the lynx was mostly gone from Colorado by the 1950s. Prior to reintroduction in 1999, people still reported intermittent lynx sightings in the most remote and roadless parts of our state. With reintroduction, Colorado’s lynx population is increasing and its prognosis for recovery is good. But, the road building, logging, mining, and other commercial enterprises that President Bush may allow in our roadless areas could change this prognosis.

Second, wolves: Trapped and shot to near extirpation in the lower 48 states, wolves were completely exterminated from Colorado by 1945. Due to their reintroduction into Wyoming in 1994, wolves are now slowly migrating back into Colorado. Recent research in the Northern Rockies and in Wisconsin clearly confirms that wolf survival is enhanced by roadless habitat. A few weeks ago, Colorado adopted a plan to manage migrating wolves; more roads in wolf habitat may jeopardize the wolf’s return.

Third, wolverines: Again, this wild badger-like critter was trapped and shot to near extirpation in the lower 48 states. Remnant populations currently live in the Northern Rockies, and various sightings have occurred in Colorado over the past several years. Multiple unconfirmed sightings have occurred in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Park Service has requested a research project to confirm a wolverine presence there. Like lynx and wolves, wolverines thrive in remote roadless areas, and could be reintroduced into Colorado.

Finally, grizzly bears. The grizzly bear was thought extirpated in Colorado throughout the last half of the twentieth century, and then in a surprise, a grizzly was shot in 1979 in the San Juan Mountains. Over the last thirty years, many unconfirmed sightings of grizzlies have occurred throughout Colorado, including a sighting in the foothills southwest of Denver in 2004. Grizzlies—more than any other creature—need wild roadless habitat to survive. Research undertaken in the San Juan Mountains suggests that significant roadless habitat still exists that can, and should, support grizzly bears.

The connection between endangered species and roadless habitat is important and direct, and hits home for us in Colorado. Unfortunately, President Bush doesn’t see this, and so ignored the federal government’s responsibility. Instead, he’s turned that responsibility over to the states. Now, we Coloradoans will decide the future of our roadless areas—that job rests with Governor Owens and the Colorado Legislature.

Like the ivory billed woodpecker in the South, Colorado’s endangered species survive in roadless habitat throughout our state. And also similarly, lynx, wolves, wolverines, and grizzlies give millions of us hope—can we give it back to them?
Gary Wockner ( is a wildlife ecologist and writer in Fort Collins, CO.