Scientists Say Great Migrations Need Protection

Caribou Migration Photo

Image: Getty Images

Picture the scene: Millions of passenger pigeons crossing North America in packs over a mile wide, taking several days to finally pass over an area. (Not to mention the left-behind destruction of all that poop!). Or maybe, multitudes of stampeding buffalo crossing the wide open plains of Middle America. Hard to imagine these scenes today with all of our interstate highways and byways criss-crossing everywhere, but researchers on a recently published article in PLoS Biology report that these migrations are not only important but that they should be protected.David Wilcove of Princeton University and lead author of the article reports, "Its when [the animals] are abundant that they are able to play their ecological role so well. It's also what makes migration so inspiring. It's not seeing a dozen cranes on the Platte River in Nebraska. It's seeing half a million."

Other animal migrations that are important, both ecologically and to behold, include salmon, which deliver nutrients as they swim upriver to spawn and die, but only carry 6 to 7 percent as much nitrogen and phosphorous as they used to. Songbird migrations are also important as they help to keep down bug populations that would otherwise annihilate crops.

The key, the article says, is to be proactive and protect migrations now while they are common instead of when they are on their last legs. (No pun intended). It's a new way of looking at conservation. Diminished migrations, while not necessarily signaling extinction, do mean that it might just take one drought or bad winter and suddenly the species is in trouble.

Another option for protection is to identify bottlenecks in migratory routes. Oftentimes these can be only a few miles wide and therefore its easy for human development to close them off and offer no alternative routes. For songbirds, whose routes are not so easily pinpointed, its important to provide pockets of habitat for resting all the way from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds.

According to Wilcove, if we can develop healthy migratory routes, that will mean we are also using resources, both land and water, sustainably and therefore are not just protecting these species but also going a long way to protect the planet as a whole.
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