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.
As these animals responded, showing signs of recovery, officials realized that they had an ideal umbrella species on their hands. Keep grizzly country healthy, and you've got the elk, mink, swans and trout covered, along with the rarest rodent and most obscure wetland sedge. Not to mention nature-related tourism and recreation.
The evidence from modern studies of genetics and biological diversity only keeps strengthening the message: If you want to save nature, go big – big and connected – or go home. Think like a grizzly. In hopes of linking the isolated Greater Yellowstone population to other bear enclaves, U.S. environmentalists mapped out potential wildland corridors all the way north to the Canadian line. However, grizzlies (along with wolves, wolverines, mountain caribou, lynx and a host of other four-legged hikers) don't pay any more attention to international boundaries than to local ones. I've followed silvertips going and coming from Idaho and Montana into British Columbia and Alberta. Not one so much as paused at a customs station.
In the mid-1990s, a Canadian-led coalition finally got the scale right with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Y2Y, which addresses the Backbone of the World from central Wyoming to the northern Mackenzie Mountains in the Yukon Territory. This segment is nearly 2,000 miles long, half a million square miles big, and includes what may be the continent's most spectacular collection of protected acreage - 11 national parks plus dozens of state and provincial parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and ecological reserves. Looking for ways to keep them all vital by linking one to another was the logical and necessary next step.
Though critics were quick to label Y2Y the biggest greenie land grab of all time, it is anything but a call for some sort of superpark. The goal is to guarantee the special quality of life in the Rockies over the long run for human and wildlife communities alike. Some additional reserves may be called for. But better planning of economic developments on the public lands that cover most of the region will do the job, too. So can simple fixes, such as more underpasses to keep busy highways from becoming barriers to migrating animals.
Habitats are most fragmented and in need of connection on the U.S. side of the border, where nearly 40 percent of the Y2Y area lies. That, ironically, is where the initiative has made the least headway. In Canada, where there is more wild acreage to go around, the Y2Y concept has helped establish Muskwa-Kechika, an 11-million-acre special conservation area in northern British Columbia; a 5-million-acre area adjoining it on the south; Kakwa Provincial Park, tied to Alberta's Willmore Wilderness north of Jasper Park; and extensions of Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories. In the U.S., biologists have mapped out the most important acreage to keep healthy, and public land trusts have acquired key habitats here and there. For officials in government resource agencies, however, Y2Y remains more like a New Year's resolution: great intentions that no one quite has the will to put into practice. Not yet.
I recently trekked for two weeks in Muskwa-Kechika through windy passes and glacier-fed rivers, easing by grizz, caribou, moose, wolves and Stone's sheep for 120 miles. And this was just going west to east across Y2Y. I dream of one day hiking north to south until you could no longer tell from the look in my eye whether I was still tame or not. Even if I never do that hike, it would make my wandering feet lighter to know that grizzlies will always be out there, making the mountains taller, roaming the Backbone of the World to their wild hearts' content.