Wild Planner is a collection of GIS-based tools designed to support land use decision making for wildlife conservation. The toolbox includes tools to assist conservationists, land use planners, developers, and other interested parties with designing landscapes that provide secure living habitat and/or allow movement habitat connectivity for wildlife.
Wild Planner is based on the precautionary principle and is based on the assumption that wildlife habitat and movement potential is maximized where disturbance or conflict with people is minimized. It identifies and eliminates areas suspected of compromising wildlife and their habitats and evaluates remaining areas for their potential to support desirable wildlife.
Wild Planner is not intended to replace consultation with wildlife professionals or on-site evaluations. Any conservation or development plans based on results from Wild Planner should be followed up with consultation with local professional wildlife authorities and on-site verification before implementing plans.
Background and Rationale
Rural development impacts wildlife and their habitats in multiple ways. The most direct impact is destruction of habitat within the footprint of infrastructure (e.g. houses and roads), or by blocking access to otherwise suitable habitat by building fences or other structures that impede wildlife movement. However, indirect impacts to wildlife are often more significant than direct loss of habitat due to construction. Wildlife species, and even individuals within species, react in different ways to human presence. Many animals avoid areas of high human activity resulting in an effective loss of habitat. Other animals may be attracted to human dwellings by succulent landscaping vegetation, the smell of food, or structures that provide shelter or nesting sites. Some individuals may discover that human developments provide a safe haven (e.g. from hunting) and seek refuge within these protection zones. When wildlife are attracted to human dwellings, property damage and concerns for human safety often follow while management (e.g. controlled hunting ) becomes difficult or impossible. Other wildlife species (both native and non-native) are well-adapted to living among humans and are attracted to developed areas where they increase in abundance, usually displacing many original native species in the area. Another, rather complex, outcome of human development is the creation of “population sinks”. A population sink is an area where a species finds apparently suitable habitat but animals die at a higher rate than they can reproduce. Therefore, the species’ continued presence in the habitat depends on a surplus of individuals being produced somewhere else and periodically immigrating into the sink habitat. Humans and their domestic pets may chronically disturb resident wildlife, directly prey on them or introduce diseases or toxins such that wildlife mortality rates increase and/or reproductive rates decrease resulting in a potential population source becoming a sink.
The response of wildlife to roads is equally complex. Roads form a major barrier to movement and source of mortality and disturbance for many species. Roads also allow humans to gain access to areas that would otherwise remain relatively undisturbed. Chronic disturbance and increased mortality as animals encounter humans may cause sensitive species to abandon areas that would otherwise provide high quality habitat if they were roadless. However, not all roads influence wildlife equally. Traffic volume and road surface often influence animal responses to roads. Unpaved roads with little traffic may actually become preferred travel routes for some animals while heavily trafficked, paved, four-lane highways may create nearly impenetrable barriers to movement and likely death for individuals that do attempt to cross.
Regardless of how wildlife responds to human development, the result is a zone of influence around developments where wildlife habitat, species communities, and behaviors are altered. As described above, the response is not always negative, and a positive response is not always good. The sizes of these zones of influence depend on a variety of factors such as type of habitat surrounding the development, sensitivity of the wildlife species present, and behavior and land stewardship of the residence. Zones of influence often extend beyond property lines and spill over to affect neighboring properties as well. The cumulative pattern of these zones influences landscape level habitat use and movement patterns for many species. In extreme cases, overlapping zones of influence can create barriers that impede regional movement of migrating or dispersing species.
The Wild Planner toolbox is based on the precautionary principle that acknowledges species specific responses to a particular development cannot be precisely predicted. But by considering general sensitivities of species to human disturbance and habitat needs, areas unlikely to be harmed by development can be identified and evaluated according to their ability to provide for wildlife needs. By controlling the pattern of the cumulative zone of influence on the landscape, planners and developers can design for future growth that maintains sufficient blocks of undisturbed habitat and movement corridors to allow the opportunity for wildlife to flourish. The intent is to provide a bridge that translates scientific information about species needs into a result that is useable and understandable by planners, developers, and other interested groups.
Ideally, rural development would be neutral with respect to wildlife. The goal should be to create developments that meld as seamlessly as possible with the surrounding landscape to allow residents to enjoy wildlife as they naturally live and move through the area without creating attractive havens that increase property damage complaints, raise issues of human safety, or upset the natural balance of species living in the area. This ideal is difficult to achieve, but at a minimum requires careful consideration for density and placement of structures on the landscape, and a commitment to follow best stewardship practices among a majority of residence. Wild Planner provides a first step toward assisting planners and developers with addressing density and placement issues.