The northern lights shine in Tombstone Range Provincial Park, Yukon Territory. Canada. (Photo courtesy of Florian Schulz)
By Ruffin Prevost
CODY — The bear went over the mountain — as many kids learn from the popular song — to see what he could see. But the wolf went over the mountain and just kept on going, covering 40,000 square miles in two years.
Pluie, a well-traveled adult, female gray wolf tracked in 1991 by Canadian wildlife officials, was the inspiration for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Conceived in 1993 and formally established in 1997, the joint U.S.-Canada nonprofit group works with local landowners, agencies and organizations across the Northern Rockies to preserve and connect wildlife corridors that are crucial to the migration of key species like grizzly bears, elk and golden eagles.
“You can’t isolate nature from the rest of nature and expect her to survive,” said Harvey Locke, a conservationist and former attorney who founded Yellowstone to Yukon.
“The golden eagles that winter in Wyoming spend their summers in the Canadian Rockies,” Locke said during a 2011 presentation at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. His talk also promoted Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam, a photography exhibition then on display at the BBHC.
Scientific understanding of the importance of wildlife corridors has been growing over the last 20 years, as new technologies and tracking techniques have allowed biologists to follow groups and individual animals over vast distances, Locke said, who was born in Canada and lives in Boulder, Colo. A more detailed picture of how animals move across the landscape has emerged, along with a stronger appreciation for the importance of key migration corridors.
“The big, wild, core protected areas are fundamentally successful,” he said, citing Yellowstone National Park and its recovering populations of grizzly bears and gray wolves as a good example of conservation success.
But to maintain a diverse and healthy large mammal population, wildlife must be free to travel, rather than remain isolated in protected “islands” like Yellowstone or other highly managed areas, Locke said.
“One hundred-plus years ago, this fabulous system of big reserves was put in place. But as great as it is, we’ve learned it isn’t quite sufficient,” he said.
“Yellowstone is very, very vulnerable because it’s become an island.”
Radio tracking data shows that animals like Pluie the wolf cover huge stretches of territory, but often encounter difficult bottlenecks to navigate in their migration patterns, as new roads, housing and other development continue fracturing wild places.
Locke became a full-time conservationist in 1999, and he travels and lectures in support of preserving the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor, the largest remaining intact mountain ecosystem in the world.
Yellowstone to Yukon partners with land conservation trusts like The Nature Conservancy and other groups across the region to reach voluntary agreements with landowners to protect key wildlife travel corridors.
The idea is to keep the landscape “permeable” to animals, Locke said. Though the 2,000-mile corridor is staggering in its size and scope, protecting just tiny tract can prove critical to specific groups of key species. Yellowstone to Yukon is working to protect parcels as small as 80 acres, for instance, in a key grizzly bear migration corridor in southern Canada, just north of Montana.
The ongoing effort of land deals in the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor has resulted in the largest collaboration of land trusts in world, he said.
Their efforts focus on large-scale projects like expanding the boundaries of Nahanni National Park Reserve in Canada’s Northwest Territories to pushing for construction of wildlife overpasses and underpasses spanning highways in places like Banff National Park in Canada.
Locke said construction of a wildlife overpass is progressing now near Pinedale for use by pronghorn antelope as part of their twice-yearly migration from their summer home in Grand Teton National Park to winter range in the Red Desert.
The well-documented migration route of 125 miles or more through the Gros Ventre Mountains is among the longest in North America, and archaeological evidence suggests that the animals have followed the same trails for more than 6,000 years.
Some critics have questioned the cost, necessity and effectiveness of wildlife overpasses, but Locke said that Canadian wildlife officials have closely tracked the use of such structures.
There is a “learning curve” involved for animals to use the crossing, and it may sometimes take up to five years before a particular species or population begins using an overpass or underpass, he said. But over the last 15 years, Canadian wildlife officials have documented more than 200,000 individual wildlife crossings in Banff National Park.
People who live in the Yellowstone to Yukon region instinctively understand how animals travel north and south throughout the region, Locke said. Human cultural patterns have followed the same route for centuries.
“People have known for a long time that this is one big landscape,” he said.
Locke cited the work of German-born artist Carl Rungius, who spent decades in the Western U.S. and Canada painting big game. First arriving in Wyoming in 1895, Rungius fell in love with the landscape and wildlife, and immigrated to America, where he traveled and painted literally from Yellowstone to Yukon.
Not all of the ideas Locke backs as part of Yellowstone to Yukon have met with universal approval, including among some locals living around Yellowstone, though none raised concerns during his discussion.
“The basic idea is that we want everything that belongs here to continue living here, and if it’s missing, to put it back,” he said in an interview before his presentation.
In Yellowstone, that has included the reintroduction of gray wolves in 1995, a move that has proven biologically successful, but that remains politically unpopular with many local residents.
Some remain skeptical of conservation efforts that seek to expand or broaden protected habitat areas for wolves, grizzly bears, bison and other species, fearing growing pressure for further land use restrictions or limits to development on private lands.
Though Banff National Park has healthy wolf and bear populations, it is not home to any wild bison, so Yellowstone to Yukon is working to reintroduce the animals there, Locke said.
Management of Yellowstone bison herds has been the source of ongoing controversy in recent years, as the animals wander across the park’s northern boundaries in winter and move toward private lands. Ranchers in the region fear the bison could transmit brucellosis to their cattle.
Brucellosis can cause miscarriages in animals, and livestock producers in other states often demand negative test results before accepting cattle raised around Yellowstone. Rare cases of infected cattle can lead to expensive testing, and sometimes the elimination of entire herds, costing the industry millions of dollars.
Some wildlife advocates question the National Park Service policy of managing bison movements outside Yellowstone’s northern boundaries, and point out that elk can also carry brucellosis, but are not restricted the same way.
But the bison issue is viewed differently in Banff, Locke said, because “Parks Canada has herds of disease-free bison, and there are no ranchers that abut Banff.”
Locke said the idea of reintroducing bison to Banff “has a lot of social acceptance” in the local area, and Canadian park officials are moving forward with the idea.
Large mammal populations across North America have shrunken drastically over the last century, making it important to protect or restore populations wherever possible, Locke said.
“The world is a scaled system,” he said. “There is no part of the world that’s isolated from any other.”