The future of large landscape conservation begins with Indigenous communities

In the Yellowstone to Yukon region, Indigenous peoples manage more than a quarter of protected lands.

In the early 1990s, the founders of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative envisioned a network of protected habitats along the spine of the Rockies — one that would allow wolves, grizzly bears, golden eagles, and other wide-ranging species to breed, feed, and succeed. Y2Y was an audacious idea, to say the least, and it attracted plenty of attention, including from skeptics who believed it was unachievable.

During its early years, Y2Y was a loose coalition of groups interested in ecological connectivity, and it had few if any full-time staff. Efforts focused on identifying the pieces of habitat most important to wildlife migration and survival. But while conservation science could pinpoint the places that wildlife needed, protecting those places required forming relationships and building trust with and among the human communities of the Rockies — and that, in turn, required many years of meeting with and listening to local people. As the initiative’s first executive director observed, “People, from Yellowstone to Yukon, are the key to our success.”


Today, after a quarter-century of work across five American states, two Canadian provinces, two Canadian territories and at least 75 Indigenous territories, the area protected for conservation within the Y2Y corridor has increased by 80%, even as the growth of protected areas declined or remained constant elsewhere in North America. This is due almost entirely to a groundswell of support that includes, crucially, Indigenous peoples and their governments.

In 2002, the Y2Y Initiative hosted Indigenous peoples from throughout the region, seeking to identify and explore our common ground. Importantly, Peter Wesley (Nakoda First Nation) and Levi Holt (Nez Perce) decided to join the Y2Y board and council. In later years, Dick Baldes (Eastern Shoshone Tribe), Pat Smith (Assiniboine Tribe) and Joe Lougheed (Métis) signed on as well.

By 2003, the initiative was supporting Indigenous-led conservation proposals in Canada’s Northwest Territories. A decade later, these efforts culminated in the 1.17 million-acre Nahanni National Park Reserve, co-managed by Parks Canada and Dehcho First Nation, and the 1.19 million-acre Nááts’įhch’oh National Park Reserve, co-managed by Parks Canada and Sahtú First Nations.

In recent years, the support of Indigenous communities in Canada has resulted in signed conservation agreements between federal, regional and First Nations governments on approximately 14 million acres of co-managed protected areas. These agreements include the Peel watershed land-use plan in Yukon Territory; a partnership to conserve caribou habitat in British Columbia’s Peace River region; and Qat’muk, the home of Grizzly Bear Spirit, in the Upper Columbia River area of British Columbia. The Y2Y Initiative was able to assist these efforts — and support Indigenous leadership in conservation — by helping with grant-making, political strategizing, communications, organizing and more.

New community-led proposals are also underway in northern Canada: The Kaska First Nation in British Columbia and the Yukon has three proposals in progress, including Dene K’éh Kusān — “always will be there” in the Dene language. This Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, or IPCA, would protect 4 million acres of ancestral homelands in northern British Columbia, southeast Yukon and the southwestern corner of the Northwest Territories. Just this summer, the Gitanyow First Nation declared an Indigenous Protected Area of more than 420,000 acres, in part to protect important salmon runs in central British Columbia.

Young women from Great Falls and Browning, Montana, pass around the heart of the buffalo that was harvested during a ceremony on the Blackfeet Reservation in October 2018.
Louise Johns

In the U.S., there is a long history of tribal engagement in land and wildlife conservation, and Y2Y has worked to support such efforts in the Northern Rockies. The Nez Perce people, who in the mid-1990s exercised their treaty rights by reintroducing wolves into central Idaho, are leading the Camas to Condors Project, which works at the landscape level to protect wildlife from the worst effects of climate change. The Blackfoot Confederacy is advancing the Iinnii Initiative, an effort to restore free-roaming bison on Blackfoot lands on both sides of the international border.

These accomplishments reflect years of research and negotiations by governments and communities seeking to connect landscapes and people. Close to 18% of the Yellowstone to Yukon region is now protected from development, and more than a quarter of those lands are managed or co-managed by Indigenous communities, not including the 14 million acres of self-declared IPCAs in progress.

As we look ahead to our next quarter-century, we believe that large landscape conservation is more important than ever, given the escalating effects of climate change, habitat destruction and other human-caused harms. But Y2Y has learned that wildlife habitats cannot be reconnected in a meaningful and lasting way unless human communities of all kinds are also reconnected — linked to one another, as well as to their landscapes. By listening to and actively supporting community members and leaders, we can support all forms of life into the future, from Yellowstone to Yukon and beyond.   

Bison on the Blackfeet Reservation are moved to winter pasture. The Blackfoot Confederacy is advancing the Iinnii Initiative, an effort to restore free-roaming bison on Blackfoot lands on both sides of the international border.
Louise Johns

Jodi Hilty is president and chief scientist at Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and Kelly Zenkewich is the organization’s senior communications and digital engagement manager.

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