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October 25, 2014
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The Dividends of Thinking BIG

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is transforming the way the world thinks about ecology and commerce

The Grand Teton National Park pronghorn herd of about four hundred animals has the longest migration route of any mammal in the Lower 48 states. Round-trip, the trek between their summer home in Grand Teton and their winter grazing grounds near Pinedale, Wyoming, is about 150 miles.

The Grand Teton National Park pronghorn herd of about four hundred animals has the longest migration route of any mammal in the Lower 48 states. Round-trip, the trek between their summer home in Grand Teton and their winter grazing grounds near Pinedale, Wyoming, is about 150 miles.

The setting sounds remarkably familiar: A valley with chiseled iconic peaks rising above; a national park gateway community central to the conservation identity of a country; an outpost where horses once trailed cowboys into the mountains; a booming modern tourism economy; a vacation-home mecca for some of the world’s social elite; a landscape that draws grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions into close quarters with other animals—and people.

Here on a quiet Sunday afternoon in June 2005, Isabelle Dube set off on a jog with friends down a popular hiking trail. Dube, running behind, was wearing headphones, contentedly listening to music on her iPod. Investigators say she likely never saw the grizzly that charged out of the forest and killed her until it was too late. Four winters earlier, just after New Year’s Day, Frances Frost was enjoying a solo cross-country ski on a different trail near the local national park. Investigators say she also had little time to react in fending off the cougar that fatally mauled her.

These events didn’t happen in Jackson Hole but rather, in the outskirts of Banff and Canmore, Alberta. A pair of interconnected towns in the Canadian Rockies, Banff and Canmore possess an uncannily similar pedigree to Jackson Hole. Ecologists and conservationists say Jackson Hole and Banff-Canmore are like biological twins separated at birth. And now, a grand conservation idea is reuniting them.

Conceived twenty years ago, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) is a linear corridor tracing the Northern Rockies from Wyoming’s Red Desert to the Canadian Sub-Arctic. Some 2,000 miles long and up to five hundred miles wide, it knits together a mosaic of public and private land including national parks, federal and provincial forests, and reserves. In total, it covers 502,000 square miles, making its southern anchor, the massive greater Yellowstone ecosystem, seem small. The Y2Y corridor contains more large mammals and a greater diversity of large mammals than anywhere else south of Alaska.

“By scale, it is one of the last truly wild and healthy bioregions left on Earth,” says lawyer Harvey Locke, Y2Y’s founder and a prominent conservationist. “We know it’s wild because it still has all of its major wildlife components that were there 10,000 years ago.” He ticks off a few: elk, moose, white-tailed and mule deer, black bears, pronghorn, bison, mountain goats, bighorn sheep (two different kinds), woodland caribou, wolverine, lynx, bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, river otters, beaver, hundreds of species of breeding birds, and, of course, lions, wolves, and grizzlies.


Locke says Y2Y is akin to a human body: its wildlife corridors, clean rivers, and airsheds are the arteries and lungs; public lands and open space the muscle mass and vital organs; and private farms and ranchlands the tendons and joints. Just as with humans, circulation is Y2Y’s lifeblood; if flow is constricted or clogged, the outcome is the equivalent of a heart attack. A patient might survive a few minor coronary episodes, but if nothing changes, the body dies. If wildlife doesn’t have secure, healthy habitat, it too dies.

In 1987, the journal Nature published the findings of a survey U.S.-based ecologist William Newmark conducted as part of his doctoral dissertation. Newmark’s research showed that national parks, even the bigger ones in the West like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, are not large enough to keep migratory mammals alive. Newmark found that Yosemite and Mount Rainier had lost more than one-fourth of the species originally found there. Smaller parks fared worse, losing as many as 35 to 40 percent of their native species.

Back in 1993, Locke and a host of noted conservation biologists began assembling the conceptual map of Y2Y. The group saw that “pinch points” between habitats had developed and were constricting and/or eliminating traditional wildlife migration routes. Lynx, wolverine, and woodland caribou were relegated to tiny pocket populations and in danger of localized extinction. The future of grizzlies was still uncertain. Wolves were already extinct in most of the Lower 48.

Locke also drew inspiration from two figures that many, at first, might consider unlikely: artists Charles M. Russell and Carl Rungius. A German immigrant, Rungius came West at the end of the nineteenth century. He lived on a ranch at the foot of the Wind River Range in Sublette County, Wyoming, and made numerous painting excursions north to Jackson Hole. Later, he moved to Banff, where he gained renown as a painter of animals in the Canadian Rockies.

 “If you look at Rungius’ portfolio, his choice of subject matter reads like a field guide for Y2Y,” Locke says. “Equally as important, his backdrops provide us with an opportunity for visual comparison between then and now.” Locke notes the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson holds the largest collection of major Rungius oil paintings in the United States and, this summer (2012), is showcasing a selection of Rungius’ drawings. “Russell, too, was drawn to wildness on both sides of the border,” Locke says.

“What captured my attention about Y2Y?” asks Steve Duerr, former director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, leader of The Murie Center, a Moose-based nonprofit that engages people to understand and commit to the enduring value of conserving wildlife and wild places, and a Y2Y supporter. “I remember the first presentation Harvey [Locke] gave when I was invited to speak in Banff, and he featured a satellite photograph from space. The Y2Y [corridor] at night was a black space surrounded by a sea of bright lights. It made sense. Y2Y isn’t being crammed down anyone’s throat. It’s a one-hundred-year vision, and slowly, communities are waking up to its value.”


Duerr sees Y2Y evolving over time. It won’t be quick fixes that ensure corridors remain viable, but citizens becoming more aware and educated about what it takes to keep large landscapes healthy and working with elected officials on regulations that accommodate growth, but not at the expense of natural processes.

The upshot of the hair-raising tales mentioned at the outset of our story is this: Far from igniting a paroxysm of fear and antipredator sentiment, the unfortunate deaths in Banff-Canmore had the opposite effect. Citizens and policy makers in those communities redoubled their efforts to devise better ways of achieving human-wildlife coexistence. Today, with grizzlies, lobos, and cougars roaming Jackson’s back doorstep in greater numbers, Jim Pissot, a Canadian-American conservationist who formerly oversaw Y2Y, says there’s a lot that each community—and country—can learn from one another in their shared custodial stewardship of the Y2Y corridor.

People in Banff-Canmore have been willing to accept some restrictions on their lives in order to have wildlife: residents are under strict orders with how they manage trash, there’s a ban on outdoor bird feeders, and a push for all hikers to carry bear spray. At the same time, Jackson Hole is a model to Banff-Canmore for using nature tourism as a sustainable engine for commerce. And Canadian conservationists envy the U.S.’s stronger federal laws protecting species and habitat on federal land and the greater public scrutiny of major natural resource extraction projects. Recently, Parks Canada, the government agency responsible for managing the country’s national parks, reserves, and historic sites, announced that it was reintroducing plains bison to Banff National Park. This is the result of efforts by Y2Y and its allies and has been well received across Canada. Locke says part of the impetus came from the presence of bison in Jackson Hole.

“Banff-Canmore may be more progressive in its attitude toward conflict resolution than any other outdoor-oriented community in North America,” Pissot says. “Part of it is that these towns have a long, unbroken history of living side by side with large carnivores. Another less auspicious fact is that they don’t have a choice. Without vigilance, these animals would be gone.” The Canadian communities have decided this isn’t an option. After Banff-Canmore, Pissot says he would rank Jackson Hole second for being mindful about its environment.

The issue of human-wildlife coexistence is especially topical in Jackson Hole as elected officials grapple with the details of a revised land-use management plan for Teton County and the town of Jackson. It’s not a new issue, though: One hundred years ago, the federal government created the National Elk Refuge because settlement destroyed winter habitat crucial to wapitis’ survival. Today, ecologists are worried about the impacts of sprawl on the survival of pronghorn antelope in Grand Teton National Park. The pronghorn rely upon an ancient migration route from this valley to winter range close to one hundred miles south (see Path of the Pronghorn sidebar). Traffic is taking its toll on moose (and other species). Last winter, on a single mile-long stretch of Teton Village Road, cars killed six moose.


There’s one more visceral reality on everyone’s mind: Cougars, wolves, and grizzlies are now more abundant than at any time in memory. (The latter two are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.) In recent years, all three of these species have wandered into Jackson neighborhoods, and have subsequently been removed. In 2011, two hikers were killed in different encounters with grizzlies in Yellowstone. The irony is that these fearsome animals don’t repel tourists. “Rare things hold tremendous value in a global world, and Y2Y demonstrates time and again that if you protect special places, people will come to experience them,” Duerr says.

There are vibrant illustrations of this. Several years during the last half decade in Grand Teton National Park, a grizzly bear mother and her grown daughter have each borne several cubs and then spent significant time close to park roads. As word of their visual access spread, they became an Internet sensation. Blogs followed them. Facebook pages were created for the moms. They were also a sensation in person. “Our Wildlife Brigade staff had their hands full and then some managing people and cars at bear jams,” wrote GTNP spokesperson Jackie Skaggs in an email. Crowds of people came to Wyoming because seeing these bruins was—and is—considered “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“I’ve traveled the world and what we have here is beyond special. It is unique,” says Jackson Hole-based nature photographer Tom Mangelsen. In 1999, when a mother cougar denned and gave birth to kittens in a cave close to a road on the National Elk Refuge, more than 15,000 visitors—professionals as well as the merely curious—showed up with cameras.

“At first blush, Y2Y is a conservation initiative, but from the perspective of our tourist economy, I view it as an opportunity,” says Tim O’Donoghue, Duerr’s successor at the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, which is a Y2Y supporter. “[The chamber is] very much a triple bottom line organization. Sustainability is built on a three-legged stool: economics, environment, and human-social capital.”

A recent economic study showed that in 2010 alone, Grand Teton National Park contributed $424 million to the greater Jackson economy and Yellowstone another $334 million. Nearly one of every three of the 22,350 jobs in all of Teton County has a direct tourism component. Factor in the services these visitors avail themselves of—and the money they spend elsewhere in the state as they travel to these parks—and the economic engine that runs on the mystique of wildness generates more gross commerce than the annual net worth of commodity agricultural products statewide.   


The chamber, O’Donoghue says, is working on the idea of a novel collaboration with the National Geographic Society. The goal is to have a Society geotourism program highlighting Y2Y and distinctive towns in the corridor. “So far, the Society is really interested in it,” O’Donoghue says. “We’ll see how it develops.” It would not only give smaller towns in the corridor greater visibility, but also an added shot of commerce. “Responsible tourism is additive to community values and the value of the land, not destructive to them,” O’Donoghue says.

Today, Y2Y boasts relationships with more than 120 different government, tribal, business, conservation, hunting/fishing, and outdoor recreation entities. President Obama has mentioned Y2Y when talking about his America’s Great Outdoors Initiative and the economic value of nature. Y2Y and Path of the Pronghorn have gained attention around the world.

“Like Yellowstone once was, we’re the new vanguard,” Locke says. “It isn’t just a theory. We’re actually implementing strategies for protecting connectivity.” Berger adds, “Y2Y brings to the world all sorts of great visions about big landscapes and what’s necessary to keep things working. No matter where I go, Y2Y is the holy grail for a new generation of thinking by conservation biologists.”

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