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Y2Y: A vast concept gets a hearing

 

WATERTON, Canada - The irony wasn't lost on anyone attending the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) conference in Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park Oct. 2-5.

As some 300 environmentalists, wildlife biologists, federal, state and provincial employees and Native North Americans met, mountain goats scavenged for garbage in the heart of town and three grizzly bears munched on kinnikinnick berries not 10 miles away.

For the grassroots organizers working to expand wildlands, the presence of large carnivores was a reminder of the purpose of Y2Y: to create North America's longest wildlife corridor.

The challenge lies in the fact that people and wildlife like the same environment. If the 1,800-mile-long Y2Y initiative is to ever be completed, people will have to sort out how to co-exist with wildlife.

The Y2Y conference was the first public meeting of a coalition of over 100 environmental groups that was conceived on an international scale three years ago by Harvey Locke, past-president of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association.

The idea was planted in 1988 when Locke learned that a wolf, radio-collared by University of Montana biologist Diane Boyd, had traveled from the Flathead River Valley in Montana up to mile 0 on the Alaska highway, a distance of almost 500 miles.

Based on island biology research by E.O. Wilson and Robert McArthur, other biological work by Reed Noss, former editor of Conservation Biology, and many others, Y2Y is founded on the principle that small islands of protected wilderness aren't enough to save species.

At the conference, Noss said that without connecting the protected areas that already exist, and without establishing buffer zones, ecosystems are thrown out of balance and wide-ranging carnivores can't survive.

Wildlife biologist Bruce McLellan, a grizzly bear research biologist in Montana's Flathead Valley, said that national parks like Yellowstone and even the four connected Canadian mountain parks of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho aren't big enough to ensure long-term genetic diversity.

An international panel of grizzly bear researchers discussed the grizzly bears' "mortality sink" just outside Waterton National Park in the unprotected Castle Crown region of the Canadian Rockies. The area, which is within 20 miles of the U.S. border, would be protected by the Y2Y corridor.

During the last year, 12 grizzlies were relocated from the area due to trouble with livestock, and two died during relocation, a number that biologists said was unsustainable for the population. The loss of even one female is too much for an area the size of Waterton, the scientists said.

Wolf researcher Boyd said she's seen the same conflicts involving wolves. Every wolf that has dispersed north from Montana into Canada has reportedly been killed on a highway or shot, she said.

While some Canadian groups point to the lack of a Canadian endangered species act as a major factor, Y2Y directors see the loss of wild lands as a bigger threat. Losses relate to the usual suspects: uncontrolled mining, ranching, logging and rural sprawl.

Large carnivores, especially grizzly bears, are the focus of Y2Y because scientists believe that they are the best indicator of a healthy ecosystem. In the absence of a complete understanding of how much reserve is enough, scientists think that if the grizzly bear can survive in Y2Y, then other species should be able to survive as well.

Turf wars

One of the biggest challenges to Y2Y has come from the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which did not attend the conference. Brian Peck, a director of Y2Y, says the alliance views Y2Y as overlapping what the Northern Rockies Environmental Protection Act (NREPA) would do if passed by Congress.

NREPA, a bill that would protect 20 million acres as wilderness, is presently before Congress with approximately 50 co-sponsors and support from over 700 organizations, businesses and individuals. A campaign is under way to move NREPA to the next step, a congressional hearing.

Steve Kelly of the Friends of the Wild Swan in Montana and a former board member of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, says he fears that Y2Y will take the steam out of NREPA and further split people and funding.

"The pie isn't getting any bigger and I don't see anyone digging new ground," says Kelly. "We already have a plan and are working towards implementing it."

NREPA, proposed a decade ago, would do much of what Y2Y is proposing in the United States. National park and preserve study areas would work in concert to protect the bioregion that stretches through parts of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. In Canada, Kelly says, alliance members are working within the constraints of the Canadian political system to try to set up a bioregion connected to NREPA.

Whether these mutual visions ever join together will likely depend on the grassroots organizations that are part of the alliance and Y2Y. Several activists said that the Waterton get-together had helped defuse the notion that Y2Y would be an international steamroller that crushes local initiatives.

A coordinator, Bart Robinson, has been hired to keep Y2Y's over-100 grassroots organizations connected. He says he will share information among participating groups through the Internet.

On Oct. 8, at a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., a step toward creating the Y2Y corridor was taken with the announcement of a 10.8 million-acre reserve - five times the size of Yellowstone - near the northern border of British Columbia. The Muskwa-Kechika Wilderness contains an estimated 27,000 moose, 15,000 elk, 9,000 Stone's sheep, 5,000 mountain goats, 3,500 caribou, 1,000 wolves, 500 grizzly bears and 500 black bears.

It also acts as a significant model of industry and environmental cooperation: Two Calgary-based oil companies turned over 11,500 acres of land to the reserve.

The writer freelances from Calgary, Alberta, in Canada.

You can ...

* Contact Bart Robinson, coordinator of Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, 710 9th St., Studio B, Canmore, Alberta, Canada T1W 2V7 (403/609-2666) or e-mail to [email protected]

* A Y2Y Web site is also under construction at http://www.rockies.ca/y2y