Among reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s biggest hits was his 1981 anthem, ‘Give the People What They Want.’ The appeal was to policy makers, on behalf of the Jamaican people, for human essentials of food, shelter, clean air, and “no pollution.”

Social and environmental movements have always encouraged leaders to represent the will and best interests of the citizens. Sometimes, consensus isn’t apparent, and policy makers must truly lead from the front. However, even when good science and overwhelming public opinion coincide, it doesn’t necessarily correlate to good decision-making.

It’s long been recognized that both rural and urban residents of Idaho care deeply about native wildlife species in their state and the lands that support them. Clean air, clean water, wildlife, and public lands are essentials that 83% of Idahoans ranked as important when deciding whether or not to support an elected official, according to a recent poll by Colorado College. By a three to one margin, we think the Endangered Species Act is more of a good thing than bad and that a bigger emphasis should be placed on conserving wildlife migration routes than prioritizing economic gains from public lands. And this came from the highest percentage of self-described “conservative” respondents (51% ) of all eight intermountain west states polled.

Idahoans know that our state wouldn’t be the same without the wildlife that live here. Recently, there are anecdotal, yet encouraging signs that wildlife conservation in Idaho is beginning to enjoy more of a linkage between strong public sentiment and emerging public policy.

Grizzly Bear

Wildlife Corridors and Crossings

Habitat fragmentation is one of the most pressing conservation concerns of our time. Many of Idaho’s wildlife species use migration as a life-history strategy to locate adequate food resources and seek out environmental conditions that support rearing of their offspring. Some species like deer, elk, and pronghorn travel long distances to meet those needs. Others, such as Sage-grouse and amphibians, might only move over the next hill. The ability to safely travel between adjacent subpopulations also allows animals like wolverines to maintain genetic diversity. 

Climate change can exacerbate the challenges of disconnected swaths of critical habitat. Animals are more resilient to landscape-level effects of a warming planet if they’re able to access secure habitat, especially as an adaptive response to environmental stressors.

America’s four million miles of vehicle roadways also represent formidable challenges for animals that require linkage corridors between areas of important habitat. Ecologists have concluded that roads with 10,000 vehicles or more per day represent impenetrable barriers to wildlife. Ben Goldfarb’s Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet tells the story of thousands of mule deer being cut off from terminal winter range, with hundreds perishing in a single season after I-84 opened for Idaho motorists in 1969. Interstate freeways, like I-90 in north Idaho, prevent comings and goings of grizzly bears between federal recovery zones. Alternatively, road labyrinths on remote Forest Service lands discourage elk from obtaining high-quality nutrition at critical times of the year. 

Thankfully, many western states are recognizing the consequences of road systems for wildlife by incorporating crossing features into new highway infrastructure design and retrofitting existing roads. The Forest Service is beginning to decommission and close logging roads, returning natural slope angles to the ground with excavators and then installing woody structure and revegetating habitat. Biologists have shown black bears are nine times more likely to forage in areas adjacent to decommissioned roads than active ones.

Construction of the Cervidae Wildlife Overpass on Hwy 21 near Lucky Peak Reservoir. (Courtesy KTVB)

These ambitious efforts are even getting national media attention—likely because so many Americans care about wildlife. ICL highlighted a first-ever Idaho project at Cervidae Peak on State Highway 21 last fall. The overpass was seeing use from mule deer and elk immediately after its completion. It’s made a heavily used highway far safer for motorists and wildlife. Wildlife-vehicle collisions are expected to decline by 80% or more. Idaho residents seem eager for more highly successful projects like this.

An astounding 89% of Idahoans support efforts to build migration route crossings, ranking second in the west, and even outflanking Wyoming, which has already enacted the comprehensive and visionary Wyoming Migration Initiative. But Idaho’s strong support for “critter crossings” hasn’t yet translated to widespread action by state agencies. 

With help from federal infrastructure funding, projects are popping up with increasing regularity and accommodations for wildlife are being adopted in statewide action planning documents. But Idaho remains as one of only two western states that doesn’t have statutes or executive actions that recognize the significance of migration corridors or habitat connectivity. This needs to change. Residents have said as much. Animal migrations don’t conform to state line boundaries. State agencies like Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Idaho Transportation Department, and Idaho Department of Lands need to work together to identify new sources of wildlife-friendly infrastructure funding and best represent the will of Idaho residents. 

There are over a dozen federal programs available for states to obtain infrastructure funding. But this huge cash infusion won’t last forever. Idaho must act quickly to pursue this funding while it’s available and keep politics out of addressing the long list of wildlife-vehicle collision priority areas across the state. As key stakeholders, Idaho’s nonprofit conservation community, representing thousands of wildlife enthusiasts, could also be helpful in making this process more fruitful. Idaho would be wise to look at collaboration models like the Colorado Wildlife and Transportation Alliance and other contemporary infrastructure planning efforts in Washington, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Nevada that involve a diversity of partners. Idahoans of all shapes and sizes have said this is important work and want it to happen.

House Bill 592

Idahoans also want elected leaders to adopt policies that recognize better ways to share large landscapes with native carnivores like wolves and grizzlies. The last time approaches were being considered to restore bears in the Bitterroot, 62% of residents in the eight counties adjacent to that bear recovery zone supported the effort. 

There are, however, real impacts to ranching families that come with having native predators on the land. That’s why, last July, ICL advocated for the state of Idaho to start contributing compensation funds for livestock depredations. 

It’s no secret that state legislators have a particular distaste for native predators. This has led to philosophical opposition to the common practice in other western states of dedicating state funds to help offset producer’s losses from isolated wolf or grizzly depredation events. As a result, Idaho’s sheep and cattle producers have also been missing out on significant federal matching depredation funds which also help pay for nonlethal methods to reduce large carnivore/livestock conflicts. This policy has unfairly penalized Idaho producers and allowed resentment of carnivores to unnecessarily fester.

However, with the passage of House Bill 592 during the 2024 legislative session, there’s a glimmer of hope that ideologies are changing. The bill commits $225,000 in new funding for livestock depredation losses and for nonlethal tools that help avoid and minimize large carnivore conflict. ICL appreciates the support IDFG voiced for the bill. While much more work needs to happen in Idaho to learn from the successful “4 C’s Framework” (collaboration, pre-conflict strategies, appropriate control mechanisms, and compensation) being adopted in other western states, Idahoans should celebrate HB 592 as incremental progress.

McCall Wildlife Feeding Ordinance

Idahoans also care deeply about how humans and wildlife interact in our urban environments. Last year, ICL helped the city of McCall develop language to enact an ordinance prohibiting the feeding of wildlife. City officials knew, based on public comments and scientific research, if they didn’t address the problem of town deer, human/wildlife conflicts would escalate quickly. City council members noted McCall’s “commitment to safeguarding its natural heritage and fostering harmony between its community and the surrounding wildlife,” after passing the initiative unanimously last fall.

City representatives applauded McCall residents “for their active participation and their willingness to engage further in our relationship with wildlife” in McCall. Communications manager for the city of McCall, Erin Greaves, indicated that magazine ads, newspapers, signage, and even fridge magnets for short-term rental properties were all part of an outreach plan to educate residents and visitors alike about the new ordinance. Next comes a local business decal program and possibly signage on regional transit buses. She’s even been invited to speak about the process at the Association of Idaho Cities and the Public Relations Society conferences later this summer.

Idahoans have shown that they want to live with wildlife. They’ve repeatedly said this by supporting local, state, and federal conservation efforts to find solutions that mitigate impacts to native species from all manner of human activities. They want to support creative problem-solving that promotes natural wildlife behavior and minimizes risk to humans and their livelihoods. Whether it’s infrastructure and road projects, carnivore conflicts or urban interface issues, elected leaders would be wise to engage with the public on ways to have more of these successes in Idaho. It’s time to “Give the People What They Want.”

Help Idaho’s wildlife today by letting elected leaders know that you want to live with wildlife. An astounding 89% of Idahoans support efforts to build migration route crossings—but our decision makers need to hear it directly from you. Take action for wildlife today and tell Governor Brad Little to make sure state agencies look for ways to make highways safe for people and wildlife alike, and to account for this in infrastructure spending budgets!