by Douglas Chadwick
To the Blackfeet tribe, the Rocky Mountains were the Backbone of the World. The chain of peaks from Mexico to Alaska's northern rim remains the spine to which this continent's broad muscles attach. Its grandeur divides the waters and feeds them freshly ground sediments, shapes the weather east and west. And within its contours is stored the biggest, shaggiest collection of free-roaming creatures left in North America.
If any one animal embodies the power of such landscapes, it has to be the grizzly. Each time I come across one while hiking near my Montana home, the peaks not only take on a whole different level of wildness, I would swear they grow even taller by thousands of feet.
Like the crown of the continent, grizz can't be made ordinary, safe or convenient. That doesn't mean you can't exterminate them. By 1975, fewer than a thousand great silvertipped bears remained south of Canada, and the species was listed as threatened. Experts warned that America's best-known population, tied to Yellowstone National Park, had so few breeding-age females that it was on the verge of collapse. While that 2.2-million-acre reserve along the Backbone of the World may be chock full of geologic marvels, it is high, cold, marginal range for wildlife. Its bears always relied upon surrounding lands as well to survive. Yet when they went beyond the park for spring green-up and autumn berries, too many wound up shot, or discovered their habitat lost to new roads, clear-cuts and second homes.
The next-nearest grizz, roaming Montana's Glacier National Park/Bob Marshall Wilderness complex a couple of hundred miles north, also depended upon neighboring lands to get by. Canada's famed Banff National Park was losing bears, again because the tall, stony, snowbound reserve is ecologically incomplete. Still farther north along the Great Divide, Jasper National Park faced similar problems; the entire province of Alberta holds scarcely 700 grizzlies today.
It's basically the same story up and down the Rockies. Top-heavy with spectacular, relatively infertile alpine scenery, the reserves can't meet wildlife's year-round needs. Even if they could, most are too small and isolated to buffer populations from drought, wildfire, disease epidemics, climate shifts and the effects of inbreeding over time. Megafauna like grizzlies, cougars and bighorn sheep didn't arise in scraps of wildness; we can't expect scraps to sustain them.
Because the home range of a single grizzly can encompass 300 to 1,000 square miles and every type of habitat from the summits to the river bottoms, the Yellowstone crisis of the late 1970s forced land managers from a hodgepodge of state and federal agencies to sit down together for the first time and talk. They had to begin treating geography the way wildlife does: They had to ignore artificial boundaries. Efforts to protect the big bears expanded from the park to the 18-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.