As human populations continue to grow, urban development fans in haphazard fashion ever outward from city and town centres, heedless of the habitat swallowed up and fragmented in the process. Perhaps the general idea behind national parks has always included the preservation of habitat within one watershed or mountain range. But due to the demands of private property and extractive industries, most national parks are hard-won silos protecting cultural or natural heritage from alteration—abutted by agricultural or industrialized land, highways, cities and towns. A newer model of conservation aims to expand ecological integrity across larger, connected sections of land, even spanning international borders.
Since 1993, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), has promoted this model. Y2Y is a US-Canada not-for-profit initiative, designed to connect and conserve habitat from Yellowstone National Park (in Wyoming, with smaller sections in Montana and Idaho) to Canada’s Yukon Territory. This is a vast and varied ecosystem spanning thousands of kilometres of mountains, meadows, foothills, plains, old-growth temperate inland forests, scrubland, wetlands, and innumerable lakes and rivers. At over 3,200km (2,000 miles) in length, the Y2Y region is, in spite of centuries of settlement and development, still mostly intact.
‘What we have in the Rocky Mountains is rare – an almost complete representation of all native large mammals that roamed the great hills before Europeans arrived. From the perspective of the great mountain ecosystems of the world, it’s the last of the last.’ – Dr Paul Paquet, Scientist with the World Wildlife Fund
Y2Y includes the Rocky Mountains and lesser ranges and is, as Dr Paul Paquet’s quote above suggests, a stronghold for big mammals including moose, elk, caribou, lynx, wolverine, wolf and bear. The Y2Y organization approaches conservation collaboratively, working with over 300 landowners, businesses, government agencies, conservation groups, donors, First Nations communities and scientists.
Dr Jodi Hilty, Y2Y’s President and Chief Scientist, is an ecologist who specializes in studying and maintaining wildlife corridors. ‘I love the idea of a connected landscape,’ said Hilty, ‘and Y2Y is one of the oldest and most well-known large landscape visions. It’s an old enough movement that they’ve been able to both qualitatively and quantitatively demonstrate that having a large vision and working across so many groups can have an impact. There’s a document [released on Y2Y’s 20th anniversary in 2013] called 20 Years of Progress that to me was the game-changer: they were able to show significant increase in protected areas, from 11 to 21 per cent. Today there are 105 crossing structures, overpasses and underpasses dedicated solely to wildlife. We have work to do in some places, but that’s really tangible progress towards this vision of “connect and protect” for the whole landscape, for both people and nature.’
With such an enormous working area, I asked Hilty how she decides what to focus on. ‘There are lots of groups working across the Y2Y region, and then there’s the organization that I oversee,’ she explained. ‘Within the organization, we focus on areas where there is an enormous need and opportunity to create protected areas, for example the Peace River Break area [in northeastern British Columbia].’ The Peace River Break is not only the narrowest part of the Yellowstone-to Yukon corridor, it is also the narrowest section of the Rocky Mountains. ‘For decades it has been British Columbia’s environmental sacrificial lamb,’ said Tim Burkhart, Y2Y’s Peace Region Coordinator. ‘While other parts of the province have seen development balanced with conservation, the Peace has rampant industrial development in the form of oil and gas, shale gas, coalbed methane and mining, wind farms and dams, which is changing this into a highly industrialized landscape.’
Hilty added: ‘The Peace River Break is only four per cent protected so it’s obvious that from our perspective we’ve got a lot of work to do in that region…we’ve been working with a variety of partners, including the Treaty 8 First Nations. One of the caribou populations has disappeared and most of the remaining populations are declining by 10–50 per cent a year. It’s a tough situation because of the cumulative impacts of human developments of different kinds across the landscape. Collectively we want to see that landscape rebalanced. It doesn’t mean no [resource] extraction. It just means there are places that we need to look at restoring and protecting so that there’s a chance that ecosystem can rebound over the long term.’ Grizzlies on the Border
Jodi Hilty pinpoints the mountainous Canada-US border section of the Y2Y region as a major focus for her work, since the landscape here is deeply fragmented. ‘There are places along the border where recent work on a number of different species has shown fragmentation from a genetics perspective – animals that were once a continuous population are now in subpopulations,’ Hilty said. One of those species is grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis, a subspecies of brown bear). Y2Y has relied on the work of wildlife biologist Dr Michael Proctor, who has studied grizzlies since the mid-1990s and focuses his research on the population on the southern Selkirk and Purcell Ranges, lately under pressure from new roads and agriculture.
Y2Y and Proctor zoned in on the Cabinet-Purcell Mountain Corridor, linking the Cabinet Mountains south of the international border to habitat to the north, tracking grizzlies with radio collars.
By monitoring grizzly movement, Y2Y can then allocate resources appropriately. ‘We just let the bears teach us where they’re crossing these highways,’ said Proctor. ‘And so far that’s been pretty successful.’ The author of many papers on these apex predators – North America’s second-largest land carnivore after the polar bear – Proctor has also drafted a map for Y2Y outlining the critical zones near the border where habitat is severely impacted. ‘Over the last ten years we’ve largely secured three of the really narrow bottleneck corridors between otherwise isolated populations of grizzly bear,’ said Hilty. ‘We worked with a variety of US and Canadian land trusts to purchase those pieces…and we are now working towards a restoration of those lands.’
I asked Hilty if a species such as grizzly bear would potentially exhibit more threatening behaviour due to climate change. Her answer points to the importance of connected landscapes. ‘When we have dry, hot years and berry crops fail or we have poor whitebark pine production, grizzly bears (being generalists and opportunists) will seek other food sources and that means they have to move across the landscape. So bears are going to lower elevation, often private land in valley bottoms, and that’s where we see an increase in potential conflicts if those communities don’t have strong coexistence practices.’
PROTECTING VULNERABLE ECOSYSTEMS
Is there one part of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon region, I asked Hilty, that is more vulnerable to climate change – or is the whole region equally vulnerable? ‘There’s a couple of ways that I would answer that,’ Hilty said. ‘One is to look back at history in places like the McKenzie Mountains and the Columbia Headwaters – past refugia during times of climate change – and say we might want to pay more attention to those places. The flip side of that is to look at what’s most imperiled: places with local stressors, meaning generally increased human activities, where a watershed has already been heavily impacted. These systems are a lot more vulnerable to climate change. And what we do is work at different scales. At the coarsest scale, if you look at the climate science, Y2Y is a response to climate change. Mountain systems can help during climate change by giving species the opportunity to adapt. They don’t have to move as far to find different micro-climates; they can go up in elevation and they can go to different slopes and aspects. And Y2Y is also a north-south chain for animals who might be moving more northerly.’
BUILDING RESILIENCE TO CLIMATE CHANGE
‘The higher you go in the alpine systems, the more vulnerable they are. It’s my hope that these systems are able to maintain their ecological function, whether that’s maintaining forests against fires and floods, or predator-prey dynamics, that all helped to shape what this place is. This doesn’t mean kicking people out, it just means human activities being sensitive to the fragility of the ecosystem and not impairing it in a permanent way.’
‘And at a coarser scale our work is about reducing stressors. We have a project on the border of British Columbia in the Idaho Panhandle to do restoration work on a wetland which is a known landscape-level corridor – last summer we saw a collared grizzly bear move right through that area. This is hugely important for local biodiversity and endemic animals. So we’re trying to address those areas that have been heavily human-impacted but in some cases can be restored to be a little bit more resilient to climate change. We also spend time trying to shift the global paradigm from just protected areas which are hugely important but aren’t going to be adequate to conserve global biodiversity. We have to start working on a connected landscape scale.’
Big-picture efforts such as the Y2Y aim to boost the biodiversity that our lives depend on, whether we’re aware of it or not. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘Biodiversity loss can have significant direct human health impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services affect livelihoods, income, local migration and, on occasion, may even cause political conflict.’ The WHO elaborates on further possible impacts to our health: ‘Biophysical diversity of microorganisms, flora and fauna provides extensive knowledge which carries important benefits for biological, health, and pharmacological sciences… Loss in biodiversity may limit discovery of potential treatments for many diseases and health problems.’ More immediate reasons to preserve global biodiversity can scarcely be imagined.
Hilty mentioned several large-scale habitat connectivity efforts inspired by Y2Y, including the Baja to Bering Marine Priority Conservation Area (B2B) which is an attempt to link the corridors and coastline from the tropical east Pacific off Mexico to the Arctic Ocean, and also Australia’s Great Eastern Ranges Initiative (GER) linking 3,600km (2,200 miles) of montane habitat from western Victoria through New South Wales to northern Queensland.
WHY CONNECTED LANDSCAPES MATTER
What if, I asked Hilty, you were talking to somebody who didn’t know anything about biodiversity and didn’t live in the region, who asked: ‘Why should I care about the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative?’
‘I would tell them that the Yellowstone to Yukon region is globally significant because it’s one of the most intact mountain systems in the world. We’re seeing millions of people every year coming from all over the world to see and enjoy this place. There are also practical reasons: this region is the headwaters for water that at least 15 million people use and it’s also the natural filtration and storage system for that water. Not to mention all the other kinds of natural services that we get just from having nature out there doing a job for free that would otherwise be really expensive to recreate using engineering.’
“We don’t win because we have billions of dollars. We win because we are able to mobilize the hearts of so many people who also care about this place.”
Hilty also pointed out the lifestyle benefits of the region. ‘We can look a little bit further south in the Rockies to Colorado and over the last number of years they’ve come to realize that nature is one of their highest values and they’re really focusing on conserving and restoring it. That’s also true around Yellowstone. And we’re seeing businesses saying they’re going to move their headquarters to somewhere in the Y2Y, and advertising jobs with the quality of life as a component explicitly written into those jobs. And I think we will see more of this as people realize the value of these spaces.’
Y2Y’s ULTIMATE GOAL
How does the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative deal with development pressures from deep-pocketed mining or oil and gas interests? ‘Extractive industries are one of the many human activities that happen across the region,’ Jodi Hilty said. ‘We’re really fortunate that many people across this community really do value nature. We don’t win because we have billions of dollars. We win because we are able to mobilize the hearts of so many people who also care about this place. And sometimes that’s even the companies themselves who voluntarily give up land or a concession because they know it’s the right thing to do. Not everyone does that, but there are a number of examples of companies that act in really great ways.’
What’s the end goal of Y2Y? ‘We need to have core areas protected, and connectivity zones between them,’ Hilty explained. ‘The level of use by humans across all of those different designations has to be appropriate for a conservation today and for future generations. I would hazard to say all or almost all of this area is still under treaty rights for different Indigenous communities to hunt, fish and gather resources. And it will always be a used landscape. I think the question is, “How do we manage the cumulative impact of all the different uses, whether it’s in parks, on private lands, or different kinds of designations, to ensure that the landscape can be a healthy, functional ecosystem for today and for future generations?”’
Human encroachment on wintering animals such as caribou – repeat helicopter flights over their habitat, for example – causes them to move more, use up their fat stores and may impede their ability to reproduce. ‘We have to be sensitive to the fact that some of these species are hanging on quite precariously and humans in that system can have both subtle and profound impacts,’ Hilty said. ‘Higher elevations are more vulnerable to climate change, because [species] are trying to eke out a living in an already resource-poor environment with limited growing seasons.’
Among others, one recent land conservation win inside the Y2Y region deserves a mention. What is now known as Darkwoods Conservation Area was, from 1967 until 2008, a 550-square kilometre (210-square mile) parcel of mountain wilderness in southeast British Columbia owned by Duke Carl Herzog von Württemberg of Germany. The Duke bought this thick slice of the Selkirk Range at the height of the Cold War as a refuge for his family in the event of a Soviet invasion of West Germany, and selectively logged the land – though never allowed clearcutting or hunting. In 2008, the Cold War over and the Duke now in his seventies, he was thinking about selling but wanted to keep the land he called Darkwoods (a nod to the Black Forest in his native land) intact and well-managed. He found a suitable buyer in the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the subsequent transaction became the largest private conservation land sale in Canadian history.
In 2018 the Canadian federal government and the British Columbia provincial government announced funds towards the purchase of 79 square kilometres (30 square miles) to add to Darkwoods, in the Next Creek watershed, a key habitat of inland temperate rainforest. ‘When they originally bought Darkwoods there was a sort of donut hole in the middle that wasn’t conserved,’ said Jodi Hilty. ‘So they were able to complete the protection of that area. There was a transboundary caribou population here, which was the last herd in the US. It has functionally gone extinct: their count is down to three females, so short of immaculate conception, this herd is doomed. And that was due to intense logging in that region. So Darkwoods is one of the few core areas that remains. And my hope is that it’s an anchor for landscape-level restoration in the future.’