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For the week of March 14 through 20, 2001

Activists promote ‘Yellowstone-to-Yukon’ idea

Plan would connect isolated ecosystems

Express Staff Writer

Creating wildlife travel corridors to link parks and wilderness areas in the northern Rockies may be required to ensure the survival of large carnivores such as grizzly bears and wolves, an environmental activist said Friday in Ketchum.

Speaking at the Environmental Resource Center on behalf of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Harvey Locke, a Canadian now living in Boston, made his comments during a slide presentation on the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Sponsored by U.S. and Canadian national and regional environmental groups, the initiative seeks to accommodate the needs of wide-ranging animals in an almost 2,000-mile-long "ecoregion" from northwest Wyoming to just south of the Arctic Circle.

Parks and wilderness areas have been established with an eye toward scenery and recreation, Locke said, not natural processes.

"We’re learning things about the scale of nature’s needs that we just didn’t understand. In isolation, these boxes we make on the landscape just can’t hold their ecological integrity over time."

Since the 1920s, Locke said, 21 isolated populations of grizzly bears throughout the American Rockies have disappeared.

"The animals can’t recolonize the areas if they have vacated because they are not connected."

Locke said animals need freedom of movement to maintain the health of each population, to stimulate genetic diversity and to protect the ecosystems in which they live.

"In the absence of large carnivores, ecosystems degrade," he said.

Of particular importance, he said, is an area in Canada just north of Glacier National Park that is experiencing increased development.

"It’s the lifeline to survival of many of your forest carnivores in the U.S. It’s what keeps your grizzly bears connected to the big gene pool to the north."

Another precarious area is that connecting Yellowstone to Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park to the north, and to Idaho’s Salmon-Selway ecosystem to the west. The creation of buffer zones and wildlife corridors there is proposed by the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The act would designate over 4 million acres of roadless land in the corridors as new wilderness areas and about 2.5 million acres as special corridor management areas. In the latter, development would be limited but not prohibited.

Locke said former President Bill Clinton’s roadless initiative, which prohibits additional road building on 117 million acres of national forest land in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, goes a long way toward achieving those goals.

"This is a really important thing to hang on to," he said.

However, public lands do not create continuous links among Yellowstone, the central Idaho wilderness areas and Glacier. To create such corridors, easements on private land would need to be purchased or obtained through donation.

Kaz Thea, local representative for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said in an interview that such purchases could be funded by part of the $12 billion contained in the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The money has been accumulated from offshore gas and oil drilling royalties, and is disbursed by Congress.

"It’s a huge pot of money that has never been used for its stated purpose," Thea said.

In response to a question Friday, Locke called environmentalists and ranchers "natural allies." He said cattle ranches have helped keep private land undeveloped and permeable to wildlife movement.

Locke said the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is a long-range plan whose details will need to be worked out with residents of all the areas involved. Different areas will need different levels and means of protection, he said.

Formed in Missoula in 1988, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies opened its Ketchum office in December. Thea said the group’s long-range mission here is to promote passage of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. In the meantime, she said, the group will help try to piece together conservation easements to create wildlife corridors.


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