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Connecting corridors from Y2Y: inspired hikers are promoting the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, a proposed buffer zone that would permit the movement of wildlife across vast spaces while coexisting with man.

Right from the start, Josh Burnim felt he wasn't wanted. The twenty nine year-old student was in the wildest part of Idaho--in the Rocky Mountains--and the animals he met seemed intent on either bullying him out of their territory or eating him altogether. This became clear on the fifth leg of Burnim's hike, when he and a friend inadvertently sat in a lush meadow filled with juicy shoots, towards which a black bear was lumbering. That the men were finishing dinner was significant, as was the fag that the hungry animal was the largest black bear they'd ever seen--and that it was running downhill right at them.

Meeting a bear wasn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, this was bear country, and one of Burnim's purposes out here was to encounter wildlife. He was in the middle of a live-month trek through the Western Cordillera, promoting Y2Y, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a Canadian-based network of 160 organizations in North America. The group, which includes the U.S. Humane Society, the Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Fund Canada, wants to create a continent-long, buffer zone for bear, wolf, caribou, and other large mammals.

According to the network, which opened its head office in 1997 in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, "The Rocky Mountains are home to the largest collection of land-dwelling carnivores in the world." These mountains are also the birthplace of national park systems in both Canada and the United States. Y2Y wants to ensure that those carnivores can migrate through 468,000 square miles, an area that encompasses towns and cities. This means that the carnivores have to migrate around the humans.

Burnim had been inspired by another hiker, Canadian wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer, who trekked the entire Y2Y in 1998 and 1999--a 2,127-mile hike. Heuer's long and danger-filled trek generated a lot of media coverage. He and Burnim have been championing this message: While towns grow and industries extract resources, animals have rights as well, to thrive in a wilderness that's not being destroyed. The point of Y2Y is to help humans coexist with other, larger mammals, which need vast areas, not just isolated parks, in which to roam.

Of course, coexisting with a black bear two hundred yards away is not part of the plan. It's terrifying. Burnim was a graduate student in environmental studies at the University of Montana, so he knew that killing the beast was not an option. He didn't even carry a gun.

Burnim's goal was to hike a portion of Y2Y, west of where Heuer hiked. "I wanted to put Idaho on the map in the Yellowstone to Yukon region," says Burnim, who had moved to the state in 1996. The young man also wanted to observe and collect data about the viability of wildlife movement through the region--and he wanted to connect to the landscape at such a deep level that he would be inspired for a lifetime of conservation work.

On the first leg of his journey, from Redfish to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Burnim met no bears, but he did see bear tracks. He set out with a friend to follow a route that an elusive creature, such as a wolverine, might travel. Burnim wanted to see what barriers wolverines and other mammals would meet as they wandered through the Y2Y region. The wolverine is a shy species, so it moves where there are no humans. Burnim pieced together his own path, as wild as possible. He couldn't avoid humans though. He found that roads were the key barriers confining animals within a small territory. Deer and elk get hit on highways as they try to dash across. Grizzly bears find garbage dumps. Cougars wander into backyards. The end result is usually the same: the animal gets killed.

Burnim was a brave soul during this first leg, which took place in early May 2001. The straps on both snowshoes broke, but he fixed them. Then they broke again. He realized that the seventy pounds on his back would soon take its toll on his body. "I had a real rough time in my first section of the Sawtooth Mountains," he says. "The snow was worse than we thought. It was sugary snow. It was deep. Even with our snowshoes on we were sinking into it up to our thighs. There wan three days of that." Then his left leg began going numb, because of the weight of his pack--and the fact that the waist belt was too tight, restricting blood flow to his leg. He quickly lightened his load--ditching some food, a shovel, the snowshoes, and every book except one, his Forest Service plant identification book.

Continuing on, he saw black bear tracks in the woods, as well as those of grouse, a bird that's very difficult to see. Unaware that he was walking towards the grouse, Burnim was unnerved when the bird suddenly exploded like gunshot out of the bosh ten feet in front of him.

On the second leg of his journey, along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in an inflatable kayak, he felt great. He was with five friends on a wild ride--his first major river run. Burnim fell into cold water a number of times, but the spectacular canyons around him made up for the soakings. "You feel so small compared to the mountains on either side of you," he says. He had peak moments and even survived The River of No Return Wilderness, so called because, years ago, not many folks survived these rough rapids when floating along in their canoes. Survival became easier after a group of people dynamited the rapids some eighty years ago, smoothing out future rides.

"Not to sound too philosophical or anything, part of the reason I was out there was to feel what it was like to see the wilderness before it's overdeveloped," Burnim says. "For five months, I wanted to hear the rivers rushing, to see the land and the mountains change as I moved forward. A lot of it was about understanding time and space at a viscera level, to walk it, to see it with your eyes--and to hear it, day after day, to learn subtle things, not only with the mind, but with the feelings."

His eight-hundred-mile Sawtooth to Selkirk hike drew attention to the fragmented wild lands and the need for wildlife-connecting corridors in southern British Columbia, Idaho, and Montana. Journalists interviewed him and he conducted fifty-two slide shows. He explained how large mammals get pressured by the largest mammal of all--humans with their industrial development, suburban sprawl, and outdated management plans.

"The range of many wildlife species--particularly the wide-ranging carnivores--continues to dwindle, and the natural systems that support those species continue to be degraded," reports Y2Y's website. "Wildlife habitat is lost or fragmented, and wildlife populations that were once abundant and widespread are split into smaller populations, isolated on 'islands' of wilderness that rise front a sea of development. If the islands are too small and far apart, the populations eventually weaken and disappear."

The Y2Y network wants to build bridges between these islands of green space, so that elk don't wander onto highways and cougars don't end up stalking people in suburbs. Y2Y calls for governments and private conservation organizations to buy land from willing sellers, or to use incentives to encourage wildlife-friendly management on private lands. It won't take much over the long term. During his hike along the spine of the Rockies just five years ago, Karsten Heuer walked for twelve hundred miles and bumped into only eight highways, three railroads, and fifty-five fences on private property.

By the fifth leg of Burnim's journey, from Selway to Lochsa, he was seeing what Heuer witnessed: simple solutions, such as overpasses and underpasses at roads and highways to prevent animals from becoming road kill. The passes aren't ideal, but they at least give bears, deer, and other migrating animals a chance to avoid humans and their machines.

During this stretch of his journey, Burnim's encounters with animals were both touching and terrifying. As he and a friend hiked through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, for example, a thunderstorm hit. After a couple of days of rain, the sun finally broke through the clouds. AS the two rested in a meadow, Burnim decided to dry his soaked belongings. As he wearily pulled out his wet tent, a half-pound ground squirrel stood on its hind legs and peeped loudly at him, then ducked into a hole, only to pop out of another hole to peep some more. It went on like this for about fifteen minutes, with the feisty rodent basically telling Burnim to leave its territory. So the men left.

"If we open our hearts to wildlife, then animal populations will continue to live alongside sustainable communities," Burnim says. "Wildlife, especially large mammals, need connected areas of habitat to find food, establish territories, and raise their young. The areas I traveled through offer some of the best and most remote wildlife habitat left."

Y2Y's Jeff Gailus, the network's Canadian outreach coordinator, points to another region, the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area (MKMA), as a good example of how to do things right. This is one of Y2Y's success stories. MKMA is sixteen million acres of wilderness in the northeast corner of British Columbia. It's a matrix of protected areas and special zones that allows sustainable resource management. MKMA is a legislated plan that came about after governments, communities, corporations, and Y2Y board members haggled for years about how to manage the area.

Burnim wishes a similar deal could be negotiated for the rest of the Y2Y region. During the fifth leg of his journey, he saw more than squirrels: two moose, a red-tailed hawk, a herd of eighteen elk, and groups of mule deer and white-tailed deer, which harassed the men for food. "They were looking for salt in our sweat and urine," Burnim explains. Deer Can't easily get salt its the wilderness so they lick urine spots and eat sweaty clothes hanging around. "I tried to chase cite down to scare it away. So it wouldn't Feel comfortable around people--and I was amazed. I sprinted and, with three bounds, it was about a hundred yards away, across the field. I knew they were fast, but that, gave me all appreciation for how fast."

Soon after, as the sun set, Burnim and his friend saw the black bear lumbering at them down a grassy slope. They'd just finished dinner and were sitting with their bowls, watching the world darken near a ridge. The four-hundred-pound black bear didn't see them. He was aiming for a meadow of succulent shoots, but Burnim was seared. The two men stood up and clapped to get the animal's attention. Burnim grabbed his ski poles, which he uses as walking sticks, and thrust them into the air as high as he could, trying to seem big and menacing. The bear looked his way. It glared at him for some time, grunting, then it thrashed around in the bush, slashing aspen trees, and suddenly ran away, sideways, keeping its eyes on the human intruders.

Burnim reached Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park near Nelson, British Columbia, on October 7, 2001, exactly five months after he began hiking in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. He crossed only eight highways and forty roads encountering about a hundred other hikers in seven national forests, He saw evidence of illegal, damaging off-road vehicle use, as well as other examples of humans threatening wildlife. He also heard a pack of wolves howling one afternoon in the Wild Clearwater area and he saw bear, moose, elk, deer, osprey, eagles, hawks, rattlesnakes, as well as cougar and grizzly bear tracks that were fresh enough to worry him. But it's the ground squirrels he respects the most.

Alex Gillis is a Toronto-based freelance writer and a previous contributor to Americas. For more information on Y2Y, see Karsten Heuer's book Walking the Big Wild, newly published in paperback.
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Author:Gillis, Alex
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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