Thirty Years Protecting the Yellowstone to Yukon Wildlife Corridor
BY CHRISTINE NICHOL
Jodi Hilty grew up horseback riding with her mother in the Rocky Mountain foothills near Boulder, Colorado. In that hilly margin of grassland to forest, and the rise of plains to foothills to mountains, she was awakened to the sweep of long distances, big skies and connected landscapes. She vividly recalls one day she discovered a mountain lion’s den, one of many lessons she would have in understanding that people, grazing animals and wild hunters all share the same habitat and call the same places home.
Since 2015, Dr. Hilty has been the president and chief scientist for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), an organization that celebrates 30 years of support for conservation initiatives, scientific research and public policy advocacy for a region that stretches from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Montana to the Peace River drainage in Alberta, and the Rockies and Interior Mountains of British Columbia then north to the Yukon Territory. It’s an area that is home to at least 75 Indigenous territories. Hilty’s own research in ecological corridors and large landscapes has contributed to building this network, and notable work she oversaw was the foundation for the 2009 expansion of Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories from 1,840 square miles to 11,600, and the establishment of the Path of the Pronghorn protected migration route in Wyoming, among other landscape-level conservation initiatives.
Y2Y was established in 1993 with a base in Canmore, Alberta, within Treaty 7 Territory to conserve the world’s most wild large mountain region. It was founded on the growing understanding that large carnivores require a matrix of connected wild lands and parks, and that islands of protected habitat alone could not support the necessary breeding interactions and food availability with minimal human conflict. Research at that time indicated keystone species traveled much greater distances than had previously been understood, and without connectivity those populations faced poorer outcomes for individuals, and weaker populations over time.
For millennia, people have traveled across mountain landscapes too, but the footpaths of our ancestors posed no barrier to the movement of hunting animals and prey. As we settled and evolved as a society in the Mountain West, rail lines and highways have dramatically increased our mobility but have had a devastating impact on the survival of big predators. Some animals like wolverines will avoid crossing roads at all costs, remaining locked in zones with limited opportunities, while others like grizzly bears will forage in open rail corridors but suffer fatal collisions with passing trains. People carry new species of plants and animals as they travel and settle, and these newcomers can become invasive or outcompete native residents. We harvest forests and dig great open mines; we set fences and sprawl outward from towns. Our activity fragments swaths of habitat, leaving a patchwork of natural islands. Even the big Rocky Mountain parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff and Jasper are not large enough on their own to protect viable populations of indicator species like grizzly bears, wolverines, gray wolves, mountain lions, lynx and fishers.
Y2Y is working to overcome this fragmentation in the Mountain West by funding ecosystem-based research and working to identify, protect and restore core habitat and corridors in a mix of public, private and conservation lands. On several projects, Y2Y has raised millions of dollars to support the purchase of properties from willing landowners, including along the Elk River in BC and at the confluence of the Yaak and Kootenai rivers in Montana, lands which are now held in trust by partner organizations for grizzly habitat conservation. The vision of landscape-level connectivity in part inspired the Montana Legacy Project, one of the largest mixed-use conservancy projects in the U.S. On a smaller scale, Y2Y works with private landowners too, to help them voluntarily protect land in key wildlife corridors. These parcels can facilitate passage of keystone species into areas where they have not been seen in decades.
Recent funded research projects include efforts to minimize conflict between ranchers and grizzly bears in the High Divide, support for a crowd sourced ungulate data collection project on southern B.C. highways, and cumulative effects research in Alberta’s Bow River Valley. Y2Y is also working with partners to press for more wildlife highway crossings. Overpasses, open span bridges and underpasses with protective fencing to guide wildlife have been shown to reduce wildlife impacts by 90 percent and dramatically improve safety for the traveling public. Y2Y now works with highway departments in both the U.S. and Canada to establish more effective crossing structures.
Internationally, Hilty led the writing of Guidelines for Conserving Connectivity through Ecological Networks, for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; this outreach means the Y2Y model of conserving ecological connectivity can be shared around the world, and Y2Y can learn from work in other landscapes. By supporting scientific research, Y2Y has the information and the credibility as an organization to shape policy and action, and today connectivity is a growing aspect of conservation planning.
Across the region, more than a quarter of the protected area is managed or co-managed by Indigenous peoples, totaling some 14 million acres of land. Y2Y works closely with tribal leadership to advance shared conservation visions— such as the Nez Percé Camas to Condors whole-systems restoration project—that weave traditional ecological knowledge with landscape-scale climate adaptation planning. And recently, Y2Y developed an Ethical Space series of educational materials to explore how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can collaborate to build sustainable communities in healthy landscapes.
While the direct impact of the work could be difficult to measure due to the vast size of the corridor and the variety of ways connectivity can be protected and measured, in 2021 a paper in Conservation Science and Practice measured more than 80 percent growth in protected areas through the 2,100 mile corridor and counted 116 wildlife highway-crossing structures. The rate of protected area growth in the Y2Y region was more than double the rate across North America, and with new Indigenous-led protected areas being recently announced, protected area growth is on track to continue.
A region called Crown of the Continent, which links wilderness and Glacier National Park in Montana to neighbouring Alberta and British Columbia parks and public lands, represents the world’s first international peace park; Hilty oversaw some of the science that supported this conservation alliance. This “Backbone of the World,” with its mix of forest, grassland and crowning glaciers, has been home to the ancestors of the Blackfeet, Ktunaxa, Kainaiwa, Salish and Kootenai peoples since long before the times of highways, parks and national boundaries. Despite the growing pressure of development in these lands, a core understanding of connected landscapes long since held by Indigenous people is re-emerging.
Robert Sanford is a resident of Canmore who has devoted his life to passionate advocacy for interconnected landscapes, with a focus on the critical role of water. Sanford is the Global Water Futures Chair in the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. He reflected on the path of Y2Y over 30 years, and commented on what he has witnessed of the organization’s work.
“It’s not enough just to be resilient; We need to not only protect what we have now, we need to anticipate what we need to have for the time to come,” he said. “We need to ensure the ecosystems that sustain us are intact as possible, in fact presilient,” he said, coining a new term that describes a kind of resilience that is anticipatory rather than responsive. He thinks Y2Y has uniquely managed to envision the needs of the future, and this foresight is unusual. As generations pass, we forget the landscape as it was, and give ourselves permission to degrade our environment incrementally over time. To protect large landscapes involves memory, and an effort to re-establish earlier conditions. He explained that Y2Y met such resistance when it was born in 1993 because the concept proposed different authorities over land use would have to cooperate to integrate protected areas. He believes it’s unlikely a project like Y2Y could emerge at all now, in a far more divisive social and political atmosphere. Y2Y laid down a social mindset of biodiversity and are leaders in anticipating change. “Over the long term, what they have done is extremely valuable for our idea of the West, and creating a culture commensurate with the extraordinary landscape in which we live,” Sanford said. “The intelligence and wisdom they demonstrate has become an example of a Western landscape ideal, and what we have saved may now have the capacity to save us.”
Hilty emphasized that Y2Y will work with anyone who shares the vision, not simply environmental groups. In the U.S., much of the key connectivity conservation work is carried out by non-government organizations like ranchers and land trusts. In both the U.S. and Canada, there is a growing assertion by Indigenous peoples to manage their lands according to their cultural values and deep tribal experience. Y2Y builds relationships and seeks ways to collaborate based on the underlying alignment of all people who live in and love the mountain landscape.
“We would like to be a model for the world, for how to maintain a functional landscape and live with these toothy animals like grizzly bears and wolverines, and to do it well,” Hilty said.
And the Y2Y large landscape ideal is spreading. The most well-studied road-wildlife crossing structures are in Banff National Park, a hub of international travel. This concept of safe wildlife passage across roads is becoming a model for the world. Hilty described projects in China to connect panda habitat, and in India to facilitate the movement of elephants. Near Los Angeles, work has started on the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing—the largest highway overpass project in the world—to prevent the extirpation of the local mountain lion population and benefit other wildlife.
In 1993, the vision of connecting and protecting habitat from Yellowstone to Yukon was big, like the landscape itself. Thirty years later, we’ve grown to understand the value of large connected spaces and their essential role in protecting biodiversity against the pressures of development and climate change. We are learning to engage in conservation at a scale that nature needs and in which we can all thrive.
Christine Nichol lives in Nelson, British Columbia, and raised her family there. She works as a project manager in the telecom sector, in partnership with remote Indigenous communities on the west coast of B.C. and the north near the border with the Yukon Territory. She is passionate about exploring mountains and rivers, aging and fitness optimization and suffers from relentless curiosity.