Wise Use Groups Want to Tame the Land. Conservationists Want to Turn it Over to Wildlife. Could They Ever Agree on an Ambitious Wildlife Corridor Called Y2Y?
Driving through the fertile basin of Montana's Paradise Valley, wildlife seems secondary to development and politics along the two-lane highway headed toward Yellowstone National Park. Signs to “Elect Carpenter Sheriff” vie with “property for sale” placards along the popular route which cuts a swathe through the backyards of the rich and famous. Blue metal silos stand sentinel on some lands, while on others, sturdy fences warn trespassers to keep away from shiny new homes.
Just beyond the road, the shimmering ribbon of the Yellowstone River and the stony mountain peaks that jut into Montana's wide, blue sky divert drivers from what is a preoccupation for many: scanning the hills for wildlife. “People think of Yellowstone itself as 'bear central,'” says the Sierra Club's Laurie Smith, “but it's the areas outside the Park that grizzlies like, because it's primary habitat and undisturbed national forest.”
But mile after mile of roads, fencing and sprawling rustic retreats don't leave the impression of “undisturbed” wilderness. In fact, environmental groups are so concerned with the voracious rate of development out West, blamed mainly on retirees, extractive industries and the wealthy elite building second homes, that 170 groups have teamed up to protect a broad band of mostly public land, from Wyoming up to Canada's Yukon Territory.
In a bold and seemingly impossible quest to unite 1,990 continuous miles of wilderness into a “wildlife corridor,” the coalition, known as the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), stresses that many of America's predators are running out of habitat as mining, clearcutting, road-building, and oil and gas development carve up the West, leaving only fragmented patches of land for wildlife to survive. The Y2Y goal is to create one vast and protected range.
Critics say the plan will never work, because the needs of grizzly bears and other threatened animals can't overcome resistance from the 2.5 million residents of the corridor, as well as the money-making interests of the extractive industries. While the plan would not forcibly relocate anyone, it would put restrictions on how property could be developed or used—a red flag to Wise Use groups in the mountainous West.
But the science is compelling. Says Bart Robinson, Y2Y coordinator, “Bears, wolves, cougars, lynx and wolverines need much larger areas than previously realized to stay healthy and alive. We're trying to connect the dots so animals can circulate from one habitat 'island' to another.” Conservation biologists say it's not just disappearing habitat that threatens ecosystems, but the fragmentation of existing wildlands, which makes mating, migrating and foraging unsuccessful for many species.
While environmentalists realize their plan may take a generation or longer to fulfill, they're eager to educate the public now because of the looming threat of new roads, mines and development. A year ago, the group announced a proposed habitat corridor in the Northern Rockies that would encompass Yellowstone National Park, the Salmon-Selway Bitterroot Ecosystem, the Selkirks, the Cabin-Yaak Ecosystem, and the Columbia and Mackenzie Mountains in Canada—500,000 square miles in all.
Black and white pictures of “Liver-eaten Johnson,” grizzled, toothless gold miners, and Yellowstone National Park's stoic founding fathers stare soberly from the walls of Cooke City, Montana's fire hall at diners eating breakfast there. As environmentalists, scientists and local wildlife agents discuss grizzly bear conservation strategies and fuel up on tar-black coffee, they catch a glimpse of photographs that show a town remarkably similar to present-day Cooke City: Historic images of oil rigs, timber operators and old mines reveal that the region's tainted environmental legacy has lasted well over a century. It's this legacy that's causing conflict: Environmentalists hope to curtail development on prime “corridor” lands, while miners, loggers and oil and gas companies still want to milk the natural resources in pristine wilderness.
While diners avidly discuss the threats to grizzly populations, Louisa Willcox, project coordinator for Bozeman, Montana-based Wild Forever says, “We're not just talking about grizzlies. In the Northern Rockies, grizzlies are the barometer of the entire ecosystem.” Willcox stresses that if road-building and development continue in large predators' habitats, the entire ecosystem, from songbirds to fish to rare plants, will be threatened.
In order to save the grizzly and other wildlife, Willcox says the scientific community is redefining the debate of protecting species. “It's all about connecting habitats, like Glacier National Park to Yellowstone and the Cabin-Yaak to the Selkirks. Yellowstone is much too isolated.” Environmentalists are also concerned over the proposed de-listing of the Yellowstone grizzly (which was first listed as threatened in 1975), since many biologists agree that populations still aren't healthy. Renowned bear biologist Dave Mattson says, “The current recovery plan for grizzlies is grossly inadequate for their protection.” According to Mattson and other grizzly biologists, linking habitat is also important because female cubs establish home ranges adjacent to their mothers.
Boom or Bust
Conservation groups say that development is happening much too quickly in the sparsely-populated West. Teton County, Idaho grew 37 percent from 1990 to 1995, according to the Wilderness Society. Ravalli County in southwest Montana is also being gobbled up. Ravalli's Bitterroot Valley Ecosystem happens to be the largest roadless area in the continental U.S. Trouble is, Ravalli County is also the fastest-growing region in the state, where road building and sprawl are threatening “the least-cost route for grizzlies to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem,” according to biologist Lance Craighead of the Craighead Environmental Research Institute.
The county's economy is also booming, driven largely by service industries—not resource extraction, where most conservationists like to lay blame. “The burgeoning housing market and an upcoming highway expansion threaten to erode the very amenities that make the Bitterroot attractive to people and safe for large carnivores,” write Ben Alexander and Ray Rasker in a study commissioned by the Wilderness Society.
County planner Mike Cavanaugh laments: “Just drive up and down the valley—everything's for sale.” With little zoning regulations, a stalemate seems a likely scenario in coming months between environmentalists and Wise Use residents, who hurl epithets at zoning restrictions. In the meantime, the county will continue to grow: county planners approved 111 new subdivisions and 588 lots in one year alone.
End of the Road?
But houses aren't the only issue: With houses come roads, and many new residents commute to Missoula, making transportation development a key issue. Highway 93, running the length of the Bitterroot Valley, brings commute
rs—1,470 vehicles per hour—along its two-lane blacktop. The traffic load is expected to increase by about 50 percent in the next two decades, and 93 may become a five-lane highway. While the “improvements” will likely lessen traffic accidents, they will also be devastating for wildlife in the area: Animals will have to cross 93 to reach the promised Northern Continental Divide. “The Bitterroot Valley is precisely the kind of corridor that will make or break the Y2Y vision,” write Rasker and Alexander.
“Roads and road management are the most fundamental problems facing the grizzly these days,” claims Willcox. “They have huge home ranges—900 square miles for males, and 300 to 350 square miles for females. They survive by moving from one food source to another, trying to store fat for the winter.”
“Canadian highways are also a real problem,” adds Brian Peck of the Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project. “We need better habitat protection in those areas. The U.S. and Canada finally panicked enough last year to have a joint study done on linkages and how predator populations were being cut off by roads.”
Making Room For Wildlife
The Noranda gold mine, planned for the edge of Yellowstone, would have destroyed a prime habitat corridor, but it was denied an operating permit after a public outcry. Willcox is not reassured. “For every Noranda that hasn't happened, one is waiting to get in,” she says. “And an increasing number of people are retiring to the area, and these 'modem cowboys' are spurring development at an incredible rate. It's doubling every 10 years in places like Jackson, Wyoming. The growth in the 20 counties around Yellowstone is phenomenal.”
Y2Y is all about stitching habitats together to lessen the effects of development on species. “The final pieces of the Y2Y vision are buffer zones that will ensure that protection for core areas doesn't simply 'fall-off' at the edges,” says Harvey Locke, previous national president of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “Contact with humans will happen gradually as a species moves out from the corridor's core. In inner buffer areas, a variety of low-intensity uses with restricted access, such as low-intensity oil and gas wells, livestock grazing, selective logging, roadless mining, hunting and fishing would be allowed.” In outlying areas, more intensive uses would follow, including motorized recreation, large-scale mining, oil and gas processing, and agriculture, he adds.
“Another intent is to have everyone on board,” Peck adds. “The concept is to get people used to the psychological idea that things go on across borders. For wildlife, the Canadian map just doesn't start and they fall off the map.”
But maps do tell the story, and are increasingly being used in local meetings to show residents what's happening to the land. “In 1800, bears stretched from the top of Canada well into Mexico, and from California to Oklahoma,” says Peck. “In one and a half human lifetimes, we took care of that. In just that period, bears were brought down to blotches on the map. And the Yellowstone bears are cut off from every other population that exists.”
According to one World Wildlife Fund study, 50,000 square miles of contiguous grizzly habitat are needed in the Rockies to buffer the animals against the effects of inbreeding, disease, food shortages and fires. That's nine times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Wolves also have large ranges: one wolf in 1993 was tracked roaming over 40,000 square miles in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana and Idaho, reiterating the importance of larger corridors for wildlife.
Conservation biologist Jim Butler of the University of Alberta says that some animals, like wolverines, have disappeared from some of the proposed areas altogether. Butler also highlights ski resorts and cattle ranching as major threats to species' recovery.
“Y2Y would help lynx populations immeasurably,” says the Biodiversity Legal Foundation's Jasper Carlton. “But even as we talk, areas within that corridor are being systematically destroyed.”
As with other environmental discussions, locals worry about lost jobs, restrictions on land use, and scaring away extractive industries. The Forest Alliance of British Columbia, a consortium of logging enterprises, notes that, between 1990 and 1993, 14,675 jobs were lost in the Pacific Northwest states, and one-third of lumber mills were closed—due in good part to endangered species litigation. During that time, there were 20 lawsuits filed on behalf of the spotted owl alone.
R.J. Smith, of the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute adds, “Most loggers I've talked to say that automation is not the cause of lost jobs, but environmental restrictions and politics.”
“What we see happening right now is job loss because of the environmental push to stop development,” agrees Danielle Smith (no relation to R.J.), director of the Canadian Property Rights Research Institute. “But I recognize that it's difficult to separate out how much of the industry slow-down has happened because of environmentalism and how much of job loss is due to technology, because they're happening at the same time.”
Resource extraction industries especially feel the loss. “Mining, oil and gas development, and lumber and wood products manufacturing collectively declined from seven percent of all personal income in 1970 to three percent in 1995,” write Rasker and Alexander. In Alberta's Y2Y region, “between 1986 and 1991, over 99 percent of new jobs were in industries not related to resource extraction or agriculture,” they found.
Some economies have hopes that tourism will bail them out: According to Tourism British Columbia, the tourism sector employed 220,000 in 1995, while the fastest-growing sectors of tourism lie within the Y2Y portion of the province. “And employment and personal income levels in wilderness counties grew faster than in resource extraction counties,” Rasker and Alexander discovered.
The Elk Valley in southeast British Columbia is dependent on coal mining, a single industry that often brings boom-and-bust cycles to residents. This region supplies much of the province's coal: In 1996, five mines there employed over 2,400 people, a sixth of the population. The mines also offered the highest wages in the region and contributed the lion's share of municipal taxes to these towns.
In 1995, the Elk Valley town of Fernie decided to do something about the unstable job situation—and the heavy dependence on mines. It created a development plan, hoping to expand tourism. The problem is, mining has had a steel-like grip on area towns for decades. When residents wanted to designate the Elk River as a Heritage site, the mines killed the proposal. Area outfitters and tourism businesses were hurt by the mining industry's short-sightedness.
Canmore, Alberta, outside Banff National Park, isn't dependent on mines. But it is being strangled by too much beauty: Between 1991 and 1996, it grew 47 percent. Dairy Queen Drive-Thrus, r
estaurants and motels are sprouting up—and posing difficulties for wildlife using the area as a migration route. “The explosive growth has stressed community ties, pushed housing prices out of reach for most Canadians, escalated taxes beyond the means of old-timers, and created new housing developments that threaten to fragment existing wildlife corridors,” write Alexander and Rasker.
Economic development doesn't necessarily equal prosperity. Sixteen percent of the population in Montana's Ravalli County is below the poverty line, despite intensive growth. The same pattern can be seen in other “booming” towns in proposed corridor regions, partly because of undiversified economies with heavy dependence on resource-extractive industries.
Danielle Smith believes this is more a U.S. problem. “I'm a little bit skeptical that we're overdeveloping in Canada, and that we're overexploiting our resources. If you look at our record, particularly in timber, we're harvesting less timber than is growing each year.”
The more successful and resilient towns have found that preserving key areas for wildlife helps them stay afloat by attracting tourism and diverse small businesses. Activists and researchers acknowledge that if Y2Y is to succeed, poverty and jobs are key issues that must be addressed for long-term conservation success.
According to the Forest Alliance, Y2Y would “affect 35 percent of British Columbia's total allowable timber harvest,” and 80,000 jobs. “With all that British Columbia has done to preserve wilderness and ensure that our forest practices are environmentally-sound and sustainable, it's amazing to me that U.S.-based environmentalists have the nerve to come up here and propose that half of our province be locked up in the so-called Y2Y corridor,” says Forest Alliance Chairman Jack Munro.
One of the key factors in growth in the northwest part of the country, as well as Alberta and British Columbia, is quality of life. Pristine environments continue to lure real estate developers, small businesses, tourism operations and retirees or second-homers. The environment is an asset that helps diversify the economy and insulate it from boom-and-bust cycles of the past, says the Wilderness Society.
Canmore, Alberta Mayor Bert Dyck says, “People come here for the environment—the mountains, the animals, the forest. In this area, our big business is tourism and parks. So we're comfortable with the concept of wildlife protection. We know that the maintenance of biodiversity for large animals like the grizzly requires mega-regions to be protected to some extent.”
But while Dyck says most townspeople have no problem with Y2Y, linkages won't come without cost. “It'll involve expensive projects,” he says. “Like underpasses along the TransCanada Highway. It's a very intensely-used road, especially for skiing in the winter and tourism in the summer, and it blocks game access for north-south travel. As development proceeds, we need to construct crossings.” Dyck says the town has taken to solving its own wildlife problems, to aid animals and still keep tourists rolling in: “We've pioneered two wildlife corridors for the movement of elk, deer and bears that have to come right through town.”
But for every proponent like Dyck, there's also a naysayer, like Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association. He believes private property owners will be hurt more than industry by Y2Y's restrictions. “The species conflict is largely political, and that's a real problem. If you have a house in the city, and a freeway is going through your house, you wouldn't think of allowing that freeway to go through without being compensated for the loss. But somehow, it would be okay to use the private property of a rancher.”
Cushman says a large part of the debate is going to involve compensating landowners for allowing wildlife access. Environmental groups say that they have reached out, adding that when town meetings are held to discuss Y2Y, local ranchers and landowners are invited, but few have shown much interest. That's a cop-out, says Cushman. “Unless environmentalists build a solid constituency that involves the landowners, they've got damn little chance of making this happen,” he says.
And there are many landowners, ranchers and industry groups that are unaware of Y2Y's intentions, says Cushman. “Our people don't often have time to go to meetings, because they're guys out on horseback, busting their chops to run their ranch all day, and generally working sun-up to sundown.”
CEI's Smith agrees. “Some people really aren't taking it seriously. Once people zero in on what this is about, that it's another massive layer of land-use control, they'll pay a lot more attention to it.” Smith says the recent battle over the passage of the Kempthorne endangered species bill is a main reason Y2Y hasn't made the rounds.
Not every encounter with a grizzly bear is the stuff of nature poetry. “Some ranchers on the front range of the Rockies in Montana have had very unpleasant run-ins with grizzly bears on their land,” says Smith. “And it was that part of the country where people defied the Endangered Species Act, and the 'shoot, shovel and shut-up syndrome' developed.”
The Y2Y Conspiracy Theory
“Y2Y is going to be a pretty hard sell to the folks that live out west,” says Ned Leonard, the manager of government affairs for the Western Fuels Association, an extractive industry trade group. “It sounds like an environmental elite trying to impose their will on an area they fly over and visit on occasion.” Danielle Smith complains that the coalition will end up lobbying for cancellation of lucrative oil and gas leases on public land—with no compensation. “There would be virtually no recourse for the resource companies impacted,” she says.
The conspiracy-mongering John Birch Society, which labeled Dwight Eisenhower a communist dupe and is even labeled “fringe” by Wise Use adherents, is calling the project an integral part of a global takeover. Three Forks, Montana's Leita Beardsley, a conspiracy true believer, says that Y2Y “is a powerful tool, gradually regulating out of existence logging, mining and many farms and businesses.” Steve White of Gallatin Gateway, Montana perceives the threat as “a very organized agenda put forth by international environmental groups with the support of the U.N.” He imagines waking up some morning and finding out that “some areas of Montana are off-limits to people and under international control.” Tim Stevens of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is amazed. “People believe this stuff, that Y2Y is a broader effort by the U.N. to take over the U.S. and world. It ties in nicely with their theories because of its scope.”
Indeed, Y2Y's dream won't be easily realized. It will probably be 2000 before a fully detailed Y2Y plan is made public, and a lengthy planning and public hearing stage lies ahead. Meanwhile, some habitat linkages have occurred. Last year, British Columbia announced that it would protect a huge wilderness area that adds a significant piece to the corridor puzzle—more than 2.
5 million acres in the Rocky Mountains known as Muskwa-Kechika.
But as Montanoan Steve White laments, “If the Y2Y folks, and others of a similar mindset get their way, we may find ourselves living in a world much different than we ever imagined.” Some folks say that could be a good thing.