Wildlife Action Plan Coordinator
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
When Chris Burkett joined the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in 2007, the agency was trying to figure out exactly how to implement the recommendations outlined in its Wildlife Action Plan, completed in 2005. Connecting the dots between priorities and actions turned out to be more challenging than expected. “We were having trouble using the document to identify the places that needed the most attention,” he said. “It just wasn’t built to do that.”
So when the time came to start preparing for the mandatory ten-year update of the plan, Burkett and his colleagues knew they needed to update more than just data. They needed to make their action plan actionable.
“We wanted it to have much more of a habitat focus so it would help us and our partners identify high quality areas, as well as places where we can do work to restore and reconnect additional habitat to support our priority species,” he explained.
Thinking beyond borders
Given that few of Virginia’s priority species are confined to Virginia alone, he said, “We realized that in order to be successful, we needed to have a vision that went beyond our borders, like so many of the species we care about.”
Virginia wasn’t alone. At about the same time, the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) was kicking off a collaborative initiative that would unite partners in 13 states to identify the best opportunities in the region to achieve shared conservation goals, laying the groundwork for strategic action to benefit species throughout their distributions. When Burkett got wind of the project that was to become Nature’s Network, he eagerly volunteered to be Virginia’s representative.
“I didn’t necessarily have the technical expertise, but as a prospective end user of the product, I was very interested in being involved.”
Solving the habitat puzzle
As Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan coordinator, Burkett is responsible for making sure the eponymous document fulfills its underlying purpose: Keeping species from becoming endangered.
It’s a straightforward enough goal, but making it happen is anything but simple. The biggest threat to fish and wildlife in Virginia is the loss or degradation of habitat. “That means our capacity to support these species hinges upon our ability to find places for them to live,” he explained.
While the clear first step to finding homes for species is to pinpoint where the best habitat lies, that doesn’t go far enough. “Just about every square inch of the Mid-Atlantic region has been mined, plowed, paved, sprayed, built upon, or used in some way or another over the last 400 years. There isn’t a lot of wilderness left.”
Lacking enough high quality habitat to meet the needs of all species into the future, the goal becomes sort of a puzzle: “Out of the patchwork of land use and habitat in our region, how do we piece together a conservation network that will maintain our natural heritage, and provide benefits to people as well?”
More than looking for pristine areas, that means looking for areas with potential.
Unique roles in supporting regional biodiversity
By integrating data on at-risk species from every state’s wildlife action plan, Nature’s Network gives Virginians a sense of the unique role the lands and waters in their state play in supporting species on a regional scale. The design outlines a network of terrestrial, wetland, and aquatic core areas and connectors encompassing intact habitat, important and rare features, and corridors to enable movement across the landscape. That enables Virginia to consider what lies beyond its borders to better determine what constitutes the highest quality habitat within them. “That regional perspective opens new doors for collaboration to benefit these species,” Burkett said.
What’s more, Nature’s Network provides critical insight on how to complete the habitat puzzle by identifying areas that can be restored. “No other tool has taken on the issue of restoration in such a robust way,” he said. Listing the possibilities it offers, he noted, “We might find places around existing core areas that we can restore to provide buffers, or to link areas of high quality habitat together. We might even be able to restore habitat to create new core areas that don’t exist yet. It is an exciting tool, and it is represents a huge opportunity for us.”
More users, more value
As the network of people using Nature’s Network grows, the value of this resource will grow as well. “As these tools become widely available, more people will have the opportunity to see what has been prioritized and to understand why,” said Burkett. Just like in the rest of the Northeast, most land-use decisions in Virginia occur at the local level, meaning widespread engagement and access to the best available information is critical to ensure meaningful decisions are being made at every level.
“When we began to update our Wildlife Action Plan, we wanted to make sure it would be approachable to a local planning body, so we started reaching out to county and regional level planners,” said Burkett. “Most of them had never considered what kind of wildlife data would be available to them for developing recreation and green infrastructure plans, so we built the plan to also accommodate their needs.”
Regional data adds value by expanding upon the wildlife priorities outlined in the Wildlife Action Plan. “Nature’s Network will enhance the information we can share with folks working at the local level, and show them how their area links to other parts of the state, and region.”