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Yellowstone to Yukon.

Huge conservation initiative aims to maintain biological connectivity in the wild heart of North America

AT SIX O'CLOCK on a May morning, Yellowstone's Lamar Valley is blissfully quiet. Soda Butte Creek meanders through this wide, flat basin with the rhythmic beat of a metronome set slow. Through our spotting scopes we can see camouflaged elk browsing the high, rounded ridges on the far side of the valley. Big, dark bison crop new-growth grass in the mute light of dawn, and keen eyes spot sandhill cranes standing stock-still along the bank, hunting. Only a meadowlark dares to break the stillness with a song.

Gathered around me are more than two dozen watchers, bundled thick against the cool morning air for the chance to see a grizzly bear or wolf. These people are part of an annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of accessible American wilderness - the Lamar Valley, in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. They journey here, hundreds of them, from all over Canada and the United States to answer a deep-seated desire to connect with wildness. To most, it has become an obsession.

"We've been comin' here, oh, 15 odd years now," says 74-year-old retired rancher Les Smith, pointing to his wife, Clare. "We've watched [some of Yellowstone's] bears since they was cubs."

Yellowstone holds a special place in the annals of conservation. Founded in 1872, it is the world's first and most famous modem national park, designated to protect a natural history found nowhere else in the world. Over time it has become the southern namesake of an exciting new conservation initiative that ranges north into Canada, the last link in a chain of protected areas and wilderness landscapes that runs up the spine of the Rocky Mountains to the Yukon Territory.

This region has been identified by an unlikely array of organizations and individuals - scientists, hunters, recreationists and other conservation-minded individuals, gathered together as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) - as a unique landscape ripe with opportunity. And it is. Defined by a range of biogeoclimatic similarities, this region is one of the last in the world where significant numbers of human beings can coexist with a fully functioning mountain ecosystem.

"We have an opportunity here to ensure that human and natural communities can continue to coexist in this phenomenal landscape," says Jim Pissot, Yellowstone to Yukon executive director, from his office in Canmore, Alberta. "Compared to where we were 150 years ago, we've come along, long way. We just need to fine tune our efforts."

Back in the Lamar Valley, a shout breaks the still morning air. One of the watchers has spotted wolves. Four members of the Druid pack trot west along Soda Butte Creek before huddling around a dark shape 500 metres from our vantage point. They have settled on a bison carcass.

A few minutes later another shout announces the arrival of a grizzly sow and her three yearling cubs, lumbering eastward toward the wolves. The wildlife biologists among us banter back and forth, concluding that the sow, concerned for the safety of her cubs, will forego this opportunity to fight over much-needed meat. As an organic whole, a healthy wolf pack sits firmly atop the food chain here. Wolves, they tell us, have been known to attack, even kill, grizzly bears.

This is a relatively new experience for Yellowstone grizzly bears. Between 1935, when wolves were eliminated from the US outside of Alaska, and 1996, when wildlife biologists reintroduced 14 wolves into a national park overrun by elk, bears didn't have to deal with these canine competitors. The grizzlies just helped themselves to the weak bison and elk that had died during the long, cold winter.

Now the park's 400 or so grizzlies have to compete with some 170 wolves for these gifts of winter. Of course, grizzlies now have the opportunity to cash in on wolf kills, and some biologists believe the wolf kills usurped by grizzly bears more than compensate for the loss of winter-killed meat. Besides, they argue, such is the nature of things.

At first it seems the biologists are right about the mother bear's caution. The sow, her cubs in tow, passes within 15 metres of the carcass, and it doesn't appear she will stop. She doesn't look at the wolves, but the lone black wolf, his head hung low, watches her with a vigilance reserved for the wise or the fearful. Then the bear whirls around and charges the carcass. The cubs follow her like train cars behind a locomotive. The wolves scatter like leaves. A few swats of her giant paws and the carcass is hers, at least for now.

When it comes to drama, Yellowstone National Park has it all over William Shakespeare. There are animals everywhere, and each of them is playing its own part in a play larger and infinitely more complex than anything the Bard ever wrote for the stage.


Despite its apparent fecundity, Yellowstone still suffers unseen problems. As odd as it sounds, the biggest issue is that it is too much like a tropical island. Harvard scientist and Pulitzer-prize winning author E.O. Wilson, who co-wrote the ground-breaking book The Theory of Island Biogeography, studied islands in the South Pacific. He, among others, uncovered a relationship between species and area: the smaller the island, and the further it was from the mainland, the fewer species he found in existence there and the higher the extinction rate.

The explanation is relatively simple - all other things being equal, the smaller the island, the fewer the number of individuals it will support. This means the likelihood is far greater that a disease or natural disturbance (like fire) will wipe out an entire population. Island populations, given their geography, are also isolated. The further from another population source (another island, say, or the mainland) the less likely the island will be repopulated by a given species once it has disappeared.

Brian Peck, a naturalist and grizzly bear conservationist who works in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, explains how this relates to terrestrial environments. Yellowstone National Park is home to one of the last remaining populations of grizzly bears and grey wolves in the lower 48 states. At just shy of 900,000 hectares, it is big by protected area standards. But like all protected areas in the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone is an island of protection in a sea of industrial and residential development, one most biologists concede is not big enough to support stable populations of grizzly bears and wolves over the long term. Even Jasper National Park, at over one million hectares the biggest of the Rocky Mountain parks - is too small.

As individuals, wide-ranging carnivores require large home ranges to eat and breed and disperse; as populations, they need landscapes much bigger than Yellowstone or Jasper to protect them from disease, fire, and the lethal tendencies of modem humans.

The plight of the grizzly bear is a perfect example of how this island drama has played out in the past, says Peck. Before Europeans arrived on the North American continent 450 years ago, as many as 100,000 grizzly bears roamed from Alaska to southern Mexico, and as far east as the Great Plains. Then our European forebears hunted them to near extinction. By the time of the Great Depression, grizzlies still thrived in the Canadian West, but less than 2000 survived on a few small islands of habitat in the continental United States. Sixty years later, only Yellowstone and a few remote areas along the Canadian border, including Montana's Glacier National Park/Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, remain the last chance for the 1000 or so grizzly bears living in the continental US.

Even in far southwestern Alberta, where grizzlies are more numerous, a teardrop of grizzly bear habitat is threatening to become the latest island in what is fast becoming an archipelago of grizzly bear habitat. Roads, urban development, and resource extraction in the Crowsnest Pass area threaten to cut off an island of bear habitat - dominated by the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness area - from the larger resevoir of bears to the north.

"You have a long, thin peninsula of bear habitat coming down from the north into the US," Mike Gibeau, principal researcher for the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project and the grizzly bear specialist for Banff National Park, told National Geographic magazine. "In Alberta it starts to narrow 200 miles north of the border. The next place you'll see grizzlies go on the brink is near the US line."

Most bear biologists agree that the continued existence of grizzlies on these islands of habitat is precarious at best. Continued development inside protected areas and industrial-scale activities-including urban sprawl, road-building, off-highway vehicle use, and unsustainable methods of timber harvesting, farming, ranching and mining - on their borders prevents individuals from dispersing, limits the diversity in the gene pool, and kills enough animals every year to make population stability impossible.

The same is true for other species and protected areas in both Canada and the United States. Wolverines, mountain caribou, lynx, bull trout and sandhill cranes face declining numbers or outright extirpation in many parts of the Rocky Mountains. The question remains: how to reverse this trend?

Island biogeography has pointed to the need to adopt bioregional, or landscape-based, approaches to protecting biological diversity. Conservation biologists and advocates recognize that ecological processes operate on a very large scale, much larger than our parks and protected areas can accommodate. But the political and economic realities of the [] century West mean that protecting enough land outright to satisfy the habitat needs of all these creatures is unlikely. There is a need, therefore, to manage the entire landbase in a way that will allow both human economies and natural systems to flourish.

To this end, conservation biologists have devised models that would allow these species to survive over the long term in landscapes that are becoming increasingly populated. Important habitat would be maintained, either by protecting it outright or by using a suite of tools - conservations easements on private land, for instance, or management plans that respect the needs of wildlife on public land - to ensure that working and multiple-use landscapes are also wildlife-friendly. Ecologically intact corridors would allow wide-ranging mammals to move safely from place to place. Buffer zones would allow for ecologically responsible economic activity - logging, ranching, tourism - to continue without endangering the lives of animals that wander outside core areas and corridors.

Such a model, if properly applied on the ground, would enable people and predators to coexist throughout the Yellowstone to Yukon ecoregion.


It was not far away, at least in continental terms, that Harvey Locke began to dream the Yellowstone to Yukon dream. Two thousand kilometres north of Yellowstone, by a campfire above Keilly Creek in one the most remote parts of BC's Northern Rocky Mountains, Locke conceived of a matrix of wilderness areas that would allow grizzly bears, caribou and other wide-ranging species to survive in the wild heart of North America forever. He told some like-minded people of his dream and discovered they had a similar one of their own.

"The bottom line is that our protected areas simply aren't big enough," says Locke, an environmental lawyer and long-time conservationist from Alberta who now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. "If we want to maintain biological diversity and ensure the long-term survival of grizzly bears and wild salmon in the Rocky Mountains, we've got to change the way we manage this landscape."

A few years later, in 1997, many of these dreamers, including scientists and other interested citizens from Canada and the US, convened in Waterton Lakes National Park to breathe some life into the Yellowstone to Yukon concept. Now, with over 150 supporting organizations, eight full-time employees, and a budget exceeding one million dollars, Y2Y and its network members are working hand-in-hand to define and design a network of protected areas in the Yellowstone to Yukon ecoregion.

The idea isn't unique. Before and since, conservationists have proposed similar initiatives for other parts of North America: the Yukon Wildlands Project, the central coast of British Columbia, the Nova Scotia Wildlands Vision, southwest Colorado's Wild San Juans Network, and the Sky Islands Wildlands Network for southwestern Arizona and New Mexico and northern Mexico. Perhaps the most recognizable one to central and eastern Canadians is the Algonquin to Adirondack Conservation Initiative, an attempt to maintain ecological connectivity between Ontario's Algonquin Park and Adirondack Park in northern New York State.

But none is as big and as bold as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which spans two Canadian territories, two Canadian provinces, five US states, and the traditional territories of 31 indigenous peoples, roughly 1.2 million square kilometres of mountains, valleys and foothills between west-central Wyoming and the Yukon's Mackenzie Mountains. It ranges from 200 kilometres wide at its midriff east of Prince George to 800 kilometres wide in the north, where it bulges out to encompass portions of the Yukon and Northwest territories, and in the south, where it takes in parts of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

It is conservation on a scale most North Americans have never considered, and the necessary adjustments to current protected areas systems will require substantial attitudinal, social and policy changes. But as Locke says, "science has shown us that it's the only way to maintain biological diversity over the long term."

Like most tenable place-based conservation initiatives of the new millennium, Yellowstone to Yukon is steeped in the principles of conservation biology. The first step is to synthesize all the research being conducted in the Yellowstone to Yukon ecoregion study area to begin to understand what kind of habitat the region's indigenous plants and animals need to persist. Then it should be possible to map out what additional lands need to be protected outright, and where other approaches to respecting wildlife needs should be applied. The challenge will be to design and designate a socially and politically acceptable habitat network that will ensure wildlife survival over the long term.

Looking at the habitat needs of the grizzly bear is not enough. Y2Y's scientific model will also take into account the needs of avian species that use the region for migration and breeding, as well as the integrity of watersheds integral to the survival of everything from spawning salmon to long-toed salamanders. And, of course, there are the other terrestrial carnivores, the wolves and cougars and marten and lynx and fisher that help to regulate the health of a very complex ecosystem like a loose-knit government - from the top down. (Wolves, for instance, keep the number of deer and moose at a reasonable level, so they don't over-browse the understory, kill the trees, and starve during the winter. And when a harsh winter causes prey populations to dwindle, so too do the number of wolves.)

Many communities that rely on timber and coal to fuel their economies are suspicious of initiatives like Yellowstone to Yukon, fearing that this new wave of conservation will put them out of business. Hinton, Alberta, Mayor Ross Risvold, for instance, expressed concern about how Yellowstone to Yukon would affect the local economy and the bank accounts of his constituents. And he is not alone.

"If science is moving toward a concept of connectivity, then we should go there," said jack Munro, chair of the Forestry Alliance of British Columbia, in a Prince George Free Press article about Y2Y. "But we should be up front about what it's going to cost us."

Yellowstone to Yukon's Pissot maintains that we may be "years away" from an accurate analysis of how effectual, landscape-based conservation will benefit the economies of the two provinces, two territories, and five states that make up the region, and he is quick to suggest that economy and ecology are mutually inclusive. In fact, he sees Y2Y as an opportunity to improve on both accounts.

"We have maintained all along that we are very aware, and very concerned, about the needs of the people that reside in the region," says Pissot. "But history has shown us over and over again that the boom-and-bust nature of resource-based economies is not always the best way to meet the needs of natural or human communities. We're simply inviting people to join us to find a better way."

Pissot says the First Nations and ranchers and loggers and hunters in the Yellowstone to Yukon region need to be part of the process by which the network is identified, defined, designated and managed. "We need not only their buy-in but their support to make this vision an on-the-ground reality. Without it, we're just going through the motions."

Back in the Lamar Valley, the performance continues. The wolves have hunkered down in the long grass to watch the grizzlies tear bright red flesh from white bones. Far to the east, another black wolf moves briskly toward the scene. He crosses the creek and sends a handful of elk skittering through the grass. All we can do is watch, amazed.

When he is within 100 feet of the carcass, his packmates rise from their stillness and hurry to join him. The bears don't seem to notice. For more than a minute the wolves worry together, touching noses and communicating, somehow, in an unspoken language beyond our understanding. And then they wheel toward the carcass, scattering the bears like leaves.

They have won back the carcass, at least for now.

Jeff Gailus [less than][greater than] is a writer and conservationist living in Canmore, Alberta, on the eastern edge of Banff National Park. For more information see [less than][greater than].


LUNE DES INITIATIVES de conservation les plus interessantes flies au monde, la Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative accomplit une course contre la montre afin de preserver la biodiversite dans les Rocheuses, au nord de Yellowstone. Toutefois, tout le monde dans cette region n'a pas adhere la vision du projet qui definit et designe un reseau de secleurs proteges qui permettraient aux humains de coexister avec toute une gamme d'animaux sauvages, incluant les loups et les ours.
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Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
Previous Article:Greening the Grid.

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