An Interview with Dr. Jodi Hilty


Welcome back to Corridor Conversations, and the next interview in our series on women working in connectivity conservation.

Today, Harshad Sambamurthy speaks with Dr. Jodi Hilty, President and Chief Scientist of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation (Y2Y) Initiative.

Dr. Jodi Hilty (Credit: Y2Y)

How has your journey in conservation been thus far? What drew you to this field?

For me, it has been incredibly rewarding to work in this field. When I started studying ecological corridors in 1996, some leaders in conservation biology questioned whether corridors were really necessary. Today, connectivity is prominent in four different places in the global biodiversity framework created in December 2022 at COP15. So exciting to be part of that shift! Also, it is promising to see conservation advancing globally as well as across the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) region, where protected areas increased by more than 80% and where there were zero structures to help wildlife get over and under roads safely in 1993 to now 117 such structures across the region. We have so much more conservation to do, but such progress is incredibly heartening.

Have you faced challenges as a woman working in conservation? What are some of the stereotypes you have had to fight against/ negotiate?

Certainly, I have faced challenges as a woman, especially in the first couple of decades in my career when I was frequently one of the only, if not the only, woman in the room. I feel lucky that most of the people I worked closely with supported me. In one case, a person with seniority told me to watch that I wasn’t too ‘aggressive’, which I could only privately laugh at given that this person often raised their voice aggressively and acted unprofessionally. In another case, someone told me that my salary should not be the same level as the person previously in a position I was taking, both because it was too big of a salary leap and because I was ‘too young’ and I shouldn’t move up too fast. That too was ironic because a new CEO arrived at that organisation who was almost my age, clearly making significantly more money.

What are some valuable lessons you’ve learnt that could benefit early-career women conservationists?

Three recommendations:

  1. Learn to negotiate – I have now hired many early-career professionals. My observation is that males were much more inclined to negotiate for what they wanted during and after hiring; be it salary, office spaces, special opportunities, or other priorities. Everyone can benefit from practice and learning how to engage in professional negotiations for themselves and their staff much earlier in their career.
  2. Be comfortable being seen – Where other big personalities dominate rooms, I have witnessed early-career women who try to blend into the background. However, remember that we all have something to contribute and making space for your ideas as well as ideas of others is important.
  3. Work with people who support you and you support – The number one contributor to job satisfaction is whether one enjoys working for their supervisor, followed by whether one feels they have a good team. This requires nurturing, attention, and caring about relationships. Occasionally it may require leaving a seemingly good job for another job if the environment can’t be a positive space.

In the landscapes you have worked in, what are some of the similarities (or differences) you have observed in how communities perceive wildlife, and the shared spaces they call home?

I have had the good fortune in living and working in a variety of places around the world. In highly urbanised areas like New York City, I found that, generally, people appreciate green spaces and the idea of wildlife, but many would be averse to hunting. This is in contrast to rural communities in Montana, where hunting for food is normalised and very much a part of the culture; and therefore a different way of relating with nature. In recreation-focused communities like Canmore in Canada, nature is often viewed more as a place to hike, ski and more. In many rural communities of Zambia, and among Indigenous communities in the Yellowstone to Yukon region, humans and culture are often viewed as being strongly interlinked with nature; where humans are part of nature. That is to say, that perceptions of nature may be highly dependent on where one grows up and the communities within which one is raised.

The Yellowstone-Yukon region (Credit: Y2Y)

Many a time, media coverage focuses on large mammals traversing fragmented habitat. How can we highlight the importance of connectivity for smaller species?

Bigger, charismatic animals can often help to tell a story. Once a community or key audience begins to understand the importance of connectivity for wildlife, it may be time to talk about the connectivity for smaller species be it frogs, mycorrhizal fungi in the ground that connect trees, or other species. Storytelling is a much more powerful tool than science facts. Those of us in the science community would do well to practice our storytelling and pair up with communications experts to help us tell our stories in ways that best resonate with key audiences and ultimately obtain needed support for key conservation actions.

Linear infrastructure can often lead to instances of roadkill. What are some of the mitigation measures you have used/ studied/ seen in the field and feel to be effective, and think could be used in other landscapes?

At this time, the most effective tools we have for addressing linear infrastructure, such as roads or rail lines, is using under- and overpasses for wildlife to move across them. These structures generally need associated fencing to direct wildlife off of roads and to the structures themselves.

One of the world’s most studied crossing systems is in Banff National Park in Canada which has 38 underpasses and 6 overpasses across an 82-kilometre section of the Trans-Canada Highway, which divides the park. We know from the cumulative research that it took time for wildlife to find, and increasingly use these structures. They are also highly effective, eliminating 96% of collisions with hooved animals. Research also shows that males and females of the same species may have different needs. Female grizzly bears with cubs, for instance, use overpasses, whereas males will use under- or overpasses, so overpasses are vital for demographic connectivity in the long term.

We are already seeing these structures used around the world: from India with elephants and tigers, and in China, where the Chinese buried a road to re-create landscape connectivity for pandas. Europe, Australia and South America are also advancing various types of over- and underpasses for their wildlife. It is truly awesome to see these proliferate around the world. Perhaps success is when such structures are normalised and thus required for any busy highway.

One of the six overpasses in Banff (Credit: H. Locke)

What are the foreseeable challenges in maintaining habitat connectivity in countries in South and South-East Asia? Realistically speaking, can they be maintained in the long-term, or is the arm of socio-economic development bound to cut through this longevity?

I am no expert in Asia conservation, so I will just offer some high-level thoughts. The Belt and Road Initiative and other insidious and continual road building especially across largely intact swathes of nature not just in Asia but throughout the world are huge challenges because each country must decide where those roads will go and how much to allocate to mitigating these linear developments for nature. Like any infrastructure, wildlife under- and overpasses and associated fencing does require ongoing maintenance, and over the longer-term, even replacement. Whether such maintenance is achieved will depend on the values of those in charge because there is always competition for scarce dollars. Countries like Bhutan and Costa Rica have prioritised connectivity conservation and protected areas because their economies are dependent on nature. For such structures to be installed—not to mention maintained—requires that the society where these will be installed values nature and understands the importance of connectivity. This means citizens will support and even demand that their government will continue to prioritise them not just in the short-term but over time.

What were some of the challenges you faced when helping establish the Yellowstone – Yukon initiative? What role do the various local and indigenous communities play, both for establishment and maintenance of this massive landscape?

In 1993, when the idea of the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) vision was created—of connecting and protecting an area from south of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to the Arctic circle in the Yukon for people and nature to thrive—many were attracted by the ambitious and audacious idea, but others felt it was absurd. A popular TV show in the early 2000s, The West Wing, presented it as a ‘crackpot’ idea. Others wondered whether such a big vision would make a difference since conservation action has to happen at a much more localized scale. Now that we are 30 years into realizing that vision, we have been able to prove that the vision is something that so many people and groups have rallied around, and the result is concrete and tangible conservation such as new protected area creation happening in the Y2Y region at double the rate of protected area creation across North America.

The Y2Y region criss-crosses at least 75 Indigenous Territories, and Y2Y recognises the importance and value of Indigenous knowledge acquired by Indigenous Peoples over the course of their long relationship with the landscape and seek to respect and uphold Indigenous rights. Today, about a quarter of protected areas are managed or co-managed by Indigenous Peoples. In the Canadian portion of Y2Y, about 14 million acres of new protected areas have already been agreed upon in the last few years by Indigenous, regional and federal governments, all of which will be designated on-the-ground soon. Many other Indigenous governments are advancing visions of new Indigenous-led protected and conserved areas, and Canada is committed to advancing new Indigenous protected and conserved areas. In the United States, Indigenous People are also increasingly putting forward ambitious conservation visions such as the Nez Perce vision of a Camas to Condors climate change corridor initiative or the transboundary Blackfoot Confederacy Iinnii Initiative, which is focused on conservation of traditional lands, Blackfeet culture, and restoration of buffalo. That is to say, that Indigenous Peoples are critical in both the establishment of, and long-term care, for protected areas across the Y2Y region, and it is a way for them to realise their rights across their territories.

A Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park (Credit: Y2Y)

How can we map large mammal connectivity in a future that is surely to have more humans, and therefore more human-wildlife interactions? Is that a disaster waiting to happen or a global case-study in co-existence?

I wish that I had the crystal ball to anticipate the future. Given that such a crystal ball doesn’t exist, it is important that we understand and prioritise connectivity conservation between protected areas. We know that isolated protected areas generally cannot maintain all the species and processes required to sustain a healthy, functioning system and that connectivity can help, and that climate change means that many species will need to move across time and space make connectivity all the more essential. Lots of global connectivity mapping has been and continues to be done, from Saura et al.’s efforts to model the level of protected area connectivity globally or Kauffman et al.’s ongoing effort to map ungulate migrations.

Such mapping helps us understanding where the critical places are, but must be followed by a second step: ensuring that these places are conserved for connectivity over the long-term. The IUCN Guidelines on Ecological Network and Connectivity provides strong guidance on how to get to enduring connectivity conservation. Many countries and regions around the world have already developed formal programs (e.g. Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Europe’s Natura 2000, Kenya, Tanzania, etc.), and the new globally agreed upon Biodiversity Framework prioritises connectivity, which is both a mandate for the world and a recognition by global society of its importance. Our job then is to get it done in the Y2Y region, in India and around the world so that we are able to conserve nature at the scale that it needs to be conserved!