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Connecting Landscapes and People - Notes from the Northeastern Transportation & Wildlife Conference 

Watch for Wildlife's Kristin Elton shares her experiences at this year's Northeastern Transportation & Wildlife Conference

For the longest time, you wouldn’t have expected transportation professionals and wildlife managers to be working together on a project, let alone collaborating with a shared sense of enthusiasm and responsibility. Transportation planners and engineers worried exclusively about “moving people over roads, and water under them”; while wildlife professionals lamented at the decreasing amount of habitat and focused their work on protecting designated areas. Rarely did the two come together.

However, times are changing.

With the dawn of the field of road ecology in the 1980s, engineers, conservationists, and planners have increasingly begun working together to benefit the interests of both transportation and wildlife. Perhaps no better sign of this shift in approach is the dedication of entire conferences to these issues, of which this year’s Northeastern Transportation and Wildlife Conference was a fantastic example. Earlier this month, policy-makers, researchers, and practitioners from across the Northeastern States and Eastern Canada gathered at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus for the 2018 installment of this biennial conference. And Watch for Wildlife was happy to showcase our work at this exciting event.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation- Highway Division (MassDOT) and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) co-hosted the conference, planning an excellent array schedule of podium talks, workshops, presentations, and even a full afternoon field trip (after all, you need to give the biologists some outside-time or they get antsy). While the two organizations were a great team on the hospitality front, perhaps their greater contribution was the inspiration they provided to their fellow practitioners in the form of their Linking Landscapes for Massachusetts Wildlife partnership.

One of the main purposes of any conference is to share research and best practices, and MassDOT and MassWildlife have seemingly established a gold standard for interagency road ecology initiatives. Including everything from enthusiastic collaborative planning, to science-based decision-making, to having a formalized, joint funding agreement - this program is working to reduce the impacts of roads on wildlife as a collective force. From the time the project was described as the winner of the Local Achievement Award, a consistent echo of “how can we do that?” reverberated throughout the conference venue.

While certainly a highlight, Linking Landscapes wasn’t the only element at this conference to captivate. One could only be impressed by the excellence of research presented, particularly around habitat connectivity modeling; and the caliber of insight and ingenuity demonstrated by participants in the NEG/ECP Ecological Connectivity workshop left us galvanized and optimistic.

However, as with any gathering of the minds, one of the most important things was what was learned. The exchange of knowledge is why people come together at conferences, and NETWC did not disappoint.

Visiting the first amphibian crossing structures in North America (circa 1987) during the field trip demonstrated what can be achieved by a group of people determined to make change, and Patricia A. White’s rousing acceptance speech for her Lifetime Achievement Award was responsible for more than a few teary eyes in the room. You can watch it here, it's really amazing: https://www.wevideo.com/view/1199511751)

Overall, the 3 days spent in Amherst representing the Watch For Wildlife program were a rewarding experience filled with learning, reflection, and making connections. With a shared goal of helping wildlife move across a multijurisdictional landscape, it is this last point regarding the connectivity of people that seems the most apropos. These connections will be what furthers the success of road ecology initiatives in the region, and we hope to continue learning of these successes and sharing our own at Northeastern Transportation and Wildlife Conference 2020.

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