The West’s identity has been shaped by the presence of vast, bountiful public lands that are home to some of America’s most iconic species such as elk, mule deer, pronghorn and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Between Colorado and New Mexico, we have over 50 million acres of public lands — a rich estate critical to our outdoors heritage, to supporting the North American Model of Wildlife Management and to local economies.

Brien Webster

The Rio Grande National Forest that stretches through southern Colorado to the northern New Mexico region into the Carson and Sante Fe National Forests holds important value for hunters and anglers, due in large part to a level of habitat connectivity that is rarely seen in the West.

This connectivity is critical to healthy wildlife populations and ensures access to important stopovers that provide the food, water and shelter critters need to survive another year and raise their young.

Katie DeLorenzo

The exceptional connectivity of this region is due in large part to the protections provided by our public lands and the highly functional range of habitats contained within our wilderness areas. 

These expanses of public land are critically important to wildlife. The West is changing. More people are living and spending time in this region than ever before. Subdivisions, roads, trails and energy fields are being built every day.

We are losing habitat daily, and it is vital that we work with the Forest Service to ensure our public lands and the wildlife that depend on them have the habitat they need to support healthy populations now and into the future.

This means establishing a management direction that has wildlife’s interest in mind and that recognizes the importance of better protecting the unfragmented landscapes and habitat connectivity that wildlife utilize and depend on every day. 

The U.S. Forest Service is currently in the midst of developing forest management plans for Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest and New Mexico’s Carson and Santa Fe national forests.

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Together, these forests span nearly 5 million acres and, along with private land, tribal land and other public lands, form one of the most intact landscapes in the country broadly.

Called the Upper Rio Grande region, it provides critical habitat connectivity and encompasses migration routes of key species like elk, bighorn sheep and mule deer as well as important habitat for the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout. 

The USFS is now seeking public input for these plans, which may dictate forest management for the next 20 years. Right now, we have an incredible opportunity to ensure that these three forests work together to protect wildlife corridors and habitats across the Upper Rio Grande region. 

Unfortunately, current plans for the Rio Grande National Forest in particular do not include additional protections for critical areas that are essential to preserve these wildlife corridors.

Public landowners from all walks must come together in support of the habitat strongholds that sustain our wildlife and Western heritage.

Connectivity now and in the future depends on our own collective ability to reach across boundaries and collaborate to benefit our revered native species.

We commend USFS land managers for the job they’ve done thus far in maintaining one of America’s most connected and healthy ecosystems. We encourage them to implement plans that make corridors, habitat improvement and infrastructure improvements like wildlife friendly fencing, top-tier priorities.

We also urge Coloradans who enjoy our majestic outdoors to attend public meetings and provide thoughtful comments throughout the forest planning process. 

The 60-day objection period for the Rio Grande National Forest and the 90-day comment period for the Carson and Santa Fe national forests have already begun.

Although the clock is ticking, we still have time to ensure coordination between these three forests. It’s our responsibility to speak up for our wildlife corridors and to speak up for our forests.

Brien Webster is Colorado and Wyoming Chapter Coordinator of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Katie Delorenzo is Southwest Chapter Coordinator.

Special to The Colorado Sun