Crucial Areas Planning System (CAPS): Identifying Critical Areas and Fish and Wildlife Corridors in Montana

Jessi Kershner
Posted on: 2/11/2013 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is conducting a Crucial Areas Assessment, which includes identifying and ranking core areas important for wildlife as well as key wildlife connectivity areas. One of the main products of this effort is the Crucial Areas Planning System (CAPS), a mapping service aimed at helping county planners, developers, non-governmental organizations, and others make smarter development and conservation decisions. The CAPS is intended to help balance human and environmental needs under future conditions such as increasing human development pressures and likely climate change impacts.


In 2008, Montana FWP began conducting a Crucial Areas Assessment, which evaluates the wildlife and recreational resources of Montana with the intent of identifying crucial areas and fish and wildlife corridors. One of the main products of this effort is a web-based CAPS, which maps crucial habitat as well as key wildlife connectivity areas in Montana. The aim of the CAPS mapping project is to consider fish, wildlife, and recreational resources earlier on when planning for areas suitable for future development or conservation. Preserving core wildlife habitat and connectivity areas will be critical under changing climate conditions and increasing human development pressures.


Project objectives for the CAPS include:

  • Creating GIS-layer maps showing important species and habitat information, including key wildlife connectivity areas;
  • Assessing risks to fish, wildlife, and habitats;
  • Creating management guidelines for residential, energy and transportation development and projects; and
  • Developing partnerships with county planners, government, industry, and non-governmental organizations to implement strategies.

Montana FWP has begun identifying and ranking core areas that are important for wildlife. To begin addressing the connectivity piece of the CAPS, Montana FWP created a Connectivity Working Group (CWG) that included experts from state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and universities. The CWG was tasked with developing a list of focal vertebrate species that would encompass the connectivity needs of almost all species in Montana. A Connectivity Mapping meeting was held during which experts assembled a list of species based on conservation status, socioeconomic value, and risk due to loss of habitat connectivity. Over 200 species were initially considered; this list was narrowed down to approximately 70 focal species and the results were used to inform the development of statewide connectivity layers.

Project objectives for the Connectivity Assessment, funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, include:

  • Developing GIS layers that identify wildlife corridors for selected focal species;
  • Ranking corridors;
  • Developing management recommendations for proposed activities in corridor areas;
  • Documenting methods, data quality, and assumptions and recommend improvements; and
  • Integrating connectivity layers in CAPS.

Scientists at the Craighead Institute are developing connectivity layers for the freshwater, terrestrial, and avian species identified by the CWG. In addition, they are developing fine-scale mapping tools to inform local development planning. One tool takes the biological inputs from a particular species and translates that into appropriate building densities; for example, if a community wants to ensure elk remain in the area in the future, building densities should be no more than one house per 20 acres. Another tool looks at different configurations of development (e.g., residential subdivision developments) to identify which configuration has the least impact on wildlife.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The CAPS project will provide an easy-to-use and understandable way to inform development planning; it will help to conserve land, protect ecosystem services, and inform developers early on as to where to expect issues and/or increased costs. In addition, the Craighead Institute plans to develop fine-scale tools for every county in the state and hold workshops for county planning and non-governmental organizations to show how to use the software for land use planning decisions.


Kershner, J. (2012). Crucial Areas Planning System (CAPS): Identifying Critical Areas and Fish and Wildlife Corridors in Montana [Case study on a project of the Craighead Institute]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated November 2011)

Project Contact

Lance Craighead
Executive Director
[email protected]

Affiliated Organizations

The Craighead Institute (formerly Craighead Environmental Research Institute) is an applied science and research organization with a long history of designing and managing innovative research projects in support of conservation in the Northern Rockies and around the world. Our mission is to maintain healthy populations of native plants, wildlife and people as part of sustainable, functioning ecosystems. The Craighead Institute has been in operation for 50 years and was founded in 1964 by renowned grizzly bear researcher Dr. Frank Craighead.

Scientific Foundations