Climate, Corridors, and the Continent's Crown

High Country in the Crown of the Continent, Montana. Photo by Bruce Andre.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Wilderness Magazine, our annual publication that features in-depth coverage and features about the day’s most pressing conservation issues. Become a member and receive a free copy!

By Douglas H. Chadwick

Cross-country skiing on spring snow, I’ll sometimes come upon an elk or deer carcass surrounded by footprints of grizzly, cougar, wolf, coyote, raven, bald eagle, marten, and maybe wolverine. The tangled tracks raise more questions than they answer: If winter’s hardships didn’t bring down the victim, which of these predators did? Which then took over? How often does a solitary hunter like the cougar lose its kill to wolves drawn by the sight of circling birds? Can even a large wolf pack fend off a grizzly following its nose to the prize? And why, when there’s still flesh on the bones, am I forgetting to check over my shoulder every so often?

In the part of the Rocky Mountains called the Crown of the Continent, wildness is more than a legacy. It is created anew, moment by moment, from the interweaving of powerful lives.

There are scarcely a dozen places on the globe where no plant or animal has gone extinct in the modern era. One is the Crown. Tall, rugged, and 16,000 square miles big, it stretches along the Continental Divide for 250 miles from the Blackfoot River drainage of Montana nearly to Banff National Park in Alberta. Most of this region is public land. At its core are five strictly protected areas, the northernmost being Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park. That park borders Montana’s million-acre Glacier National Park, 95 percent of which is managed as wilderness. Immediately to the south begins a 1.5-million-acre chain of three national forest wilderness areas: the Great Bear, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat, jointly known as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Two smaller federal wilderness areas, a tribal wilderness on the Flathead Reservation, Canadian provincial parks, and an assortment of other reserves bejewel the Crown as well.

A child looking through binoculars in the Crown of the Continent, Montana.The long list of resident carnivores includes the healthiest enclave of threatened lynx in the lower 48 states and a crucial share of the 300 to 500 wolverines surviving south of Canada today. Grizzlies in the Lower 48 have rebounded from lows of perhaps no more than 750 during the late 1970s to around 1,400, and more than half of them call the Crown home. At the same time, the region’s cold, clear headwaters form a stronghold for threatened bull trout and increasingly rare westslope cutthroat trout.

North America’s richest variety of megafauna is found in the 2,000-mile-long Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) sweep of the Continental Divide. The Crown’s trans-boundary location makes it a pivotal segment. For example, although traps and predator poisons completely eliminated wolverines from the Lower 48 early in the 20th century, the species was able to return to the northern U.S. Rockies during the 1960s by traveling south along the Crown. Two decades later, wolves, absent from the American West for 50 years, naturally re-colonized northwestern Montana via the same mountain corridor. Packs have since spread (both under their own power and through transplant programs sparked by the species’ reappearance) into at least half a dozen western states.

Such mobility is our best hope for saving wildlife as the climate changes. Without the opportunity to move away from habitats that have become too warm or too dry to places that still provide cooler temperatures, as well as food, shelter, and other necessities, most wildlife species will struggle to survive. Expanded wilderness areas and corridors facilitate these changes in species distributions and are part of the latest dividend paid by past efforts to protect wilderness.

It is also important to think big. “Most major U.S. environmental laws, including the Wilderness Act, were passed in the 1960s and ‘70s,” Bob Ekey, director of The Wilderness Society’s Northern Rockies office, reminded me. “Since then, everything biologists have learned about how ecosystems function tells us that we can’t protect wildlife values just by protecting national parks and wilderness. We have to work across all kinds of different lands on a very large scale.”

A world-class ensemble of reserves has been set aside in the West, mainly among the scenic peaks and plateaus. Though the boundaries may enclose enough grandeur to nourish the human spirit for generations, the rules of biology haven’t changed. The most diverse and productive habitats for wildlife in the Rockies tend to be on gentler slopes with deeper soils, which is to say at lower elevations. With human activities overwhelming the region’s largely unprotected foothills and valley bottoms and spreading up previously remote mountainsides, the existing preserves become more isolated from one another every year.

As opportunities to move freely across the landscape diminish, wildlife communities begin to collapse. Once the largest members that require the most room to roam become scarce, the natural balance is lost, and the variety of life at all levels inevitably starts to fade. Saving wildlands and saving the connections between them amount to one and the same challenge. With global warming added to the forces of change, the need for corridors is greater than ever. Animals especially need routes that enable them to reach cooler environments.

I used to study mountain goats in Glacier Park as a seasonal biologist. Over the past several years I served as unpaid help on a groundbreaking wolverine study there, led by Jeff Copeland of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. The place feels like a second home, yet something is awry in the neighborhood. Subalpine fir trees sprawl across meadows that were alpine tundra when I first rambled through. Downslope, larger and more frequent wildfires char vast swaths of the woodlands, while exploding insect and fungus populations turn other evergreen forests orange with dead needles. Pika colonies have disappeared from boulder fields toward the low-altitude end of their range. High in a hanging valley where I used to marvel at a glacier’s blue crevasses, all that remains is moraine rubble with a dirty pond at its base.

These aren’t just personal impressions. Exhaustive studies led by U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Dan Fagre have documented stunning changes. Over the past century, temperatures in upper elevations of the northern Rockies have risen three times as much as the global average. During that period, the park’s 150 glaciers have dwindled to fewer than 25—and those holdouts are expected to be history within the next 10 to 20 years.

Even as Wilderness Society field personnel continue to advocate for wilderness, they are now playing a leading role in developing common-sense projects in the surrounding landscape with partners such as ranchers, loggers, and rural town leaders. Controlling weeds and exotic plants that displace native vegetation is a concern that all share. So is dealing with poorly designed road culverts that block fish migration. In some places, removing roads altogether can help strengthen the integrity of the ecosystem. At other sites, selective timber-cutting may make the forest less vulnerable to wildfire and disease. The goal is to give wildlife and human communities alike the best chance to adapt and survive in a changing landscape. It can be tough acre-by-acre work, but it’s the kind that creates jobs and a boost for local economies.

“We talk in terms of habitat restoration and adaptive management,” said Anne Carlson, a Wilderness Society biologist based in Montana. “But I tend to think of it as making our ecosystems more climate-ready.”

Crown of the Continent, Montana.In August 2010 the U.S. Forest Service approved funding for a plan by conservationists, timber companies, ranchers, and rural organizations to restore 46,000 acres of forest land and 937 miles of streams in the southwestern portion of the Crown. “This is the wave of the future,” said Scott Brennan, The Wilderness Society’s forest program director for the Northern Rockies and co-chair of the group that wrote the proposal. “Among the many benefits is an improved chance for fish and wildlife to hang on as the climate changes.”

With support from a similar coalition, a moratorium on oil and gas development went into effect in 2006 on federal lands along the Rocky Mountain Front, where wildlife abounds next to the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall complex. Not long afterward, the Montana Legacy Project arranged the sale of 310,000 acres in the Crown from Plum Creek Timber Company to conservation land trusts. A major chunk of the newly protected area lies in the Swan Valley, which links the west side of the Bob Marshall complex to the eastern slopes of the Mission Mountains Wilderness.

The broad-landscape perspective is also part of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, launched by President Obama in April 2010. Its dual purpose is to shore up connections both between wildlands and between Americans and their outdoor heritage. To find out what citizens want, the Obama administration held listening sessions across the country this year, many of them in rural communities. Fittingly, officials chose to hold the first get-togethers in the Crown of the Continent. “If we do things right here,” said Ekey, “a century from now grizzlies, lynx, and wolves will still roam the Crown.”

Wildlife biologist Douglas H. Chadwick is the author of 11 books and hundreds of articles on natural history and is a founding board member of the conservation land trust Vital Ground. His latest book is The Wolverine Way, published by Patagonia Books.

High Country in the Crown of the Continent, Montana. Photo by Bruce Andre.
A child looking through binoculars in the Crown of the Continent, Montana.
Crown of the Continent, Montana.