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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yellowstone to Yukon

Air Date: Week of

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The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is an effort to preserve land connecting national parks and other protected wilderness areas so animals can migrate safely and stabilize their populations. Producer Jyl Hoyt reports.


CURWOOD: The U.S. State Department refused repeated requests from Living on Earth for an interview regarding the bio-weapons treaty.


CURWOOD: About eight years ago, conservation biologists got the idea to make a wildlife corridor to connect the western mountain national wilderness areas of the United States and Canada. Known as the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, conservationists have protected millions of acres since 1995. But, as Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho reports, there are still plenty of obstacles to completing the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative. Her story begins in northern Montana.


HOYT: Dozens of highways cross this mountainous place. Federal scientists say if builders would design roads with more bridges and tunnels for animals to cross, migrating species like the endangered grizzly bear could recover. A recent study by Canadian scientists found that no female grizzlies crossed the trans-Canada highway inside Banff National Park, and only one male grizzly bear did. That worries U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kate Kendall.

KENDALL: This has huge implications for bears being able to use the habitat in a way that's best for them, and find the resources they need. But it also has implications as far as genetic diversity, maintaining that genetic flow within a population.

HOYT: Grizzly bear numbers are down. But the human population in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming grew by 14 percent the past 10 years, increasing the need for more roads and new homes. Sub-divisions now border protected places like Glacier National Park. Sierra Club activist Brian Peck goes to local zoning meetings to speak against developments. He succeeded in helping to protect several small areas in his neighborhood, but says he can only do so much by himself.

Photo: Karsten Heuer(Photo: Karsten Heuer)

PECK: It's going to take thousands of people, and it isn't going to be just up to, quote, "environmentalists."

HOYT: Environmental activists admit it's getting harder to keep wildlife migration corridors intact with the latest boom in energy development.


HOYT: There are more than 51 thousand oil and gas wells in the Yellowstone to Yukon area, each averaging four miles of seismic lines and two miles of access roads. Here in Pinedale, Wyoming, 80 miles south of Yellowstone, billions of cubic feet of natural gas have already been pumped out, and 900 new wells were just approved. Questar engineer Ron Hogan drives along a bumpy road. He says this field is a great place for getting gas because there's so much in a single place.

HOGAN: A large quantity of gas in a single place, so that we can concentrate all of our efforts. You know, we don't have to spend a lot of money moving rigs to scattered places. They're all pretty well encapsulated right here.

HOYT: It's not only cheaper for the company. It means fewer roads need to be built. But this new gas field is located next to prime wildlife habitat. One hundred thousand deer, elk, antelope and moose migrate through a nearby canyon each winter. Hogan says Questar is grouping five wells into one drill pad to reduce the ground disturbance and protect migrating animals. It's an expensive procedure, but he predicts with the new equipment the Bureau of Land Management will let his company drill throughout the winter.

HOGAN: We'd have an opportunity to study and to see whether or not we have that kind of a major impact or a minor impact on the deer.

HOYT: Activists are already convinced that resource extraction and sub-division growth have hurt wildlife dramatically. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Montana-based environmental group, just filed suit against the federal government, opposing new seismic explorations in the Pinedale area. They fear the new explorations will lead to even more natural gas development.


HOYT: Four hundred miles to the northwest, activists are focusing their attention on protecting the mammal that inspires the most emotion: the grizzly bear. At the top of Logan Pass, in Glacier National Park, Brian Peck points across an alpine meadow where a silver-tipped grizzly bear, his coat glistening in the afternoon sun, ambles out from a canyon.

PECK: The bear's just moving across, and probably looking for ground squirrels and getting ready to dig up some glacier lilies.

HOYT: Grizzly bears once ranged from the Mississippi River to the west coast. But few people see grizzlies anymore. Brian Peck, a former park ranger, is now with the Great Bear Foundation.

PECK: The bears have lost 99 percent of their numbers, 98 percent of their habitat. They've got nowhere else to go. We've kind of backed them to the wall.

HOYT: Grizzly bears used to run freely throughout the vast series of mountains that runs from the Yukon to Yellowstone National Park. But this once intact eco-system has been chopped up into lots of different towns, counties, states, provinces, and countries. Steve Thompson of the National Parks Conservation Association says the only way to preserve wildlife populations in this enormous ecosystem is to think big.

THOMPSON: The key concept behind the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative is that there's a landscape that is larger than our traditional administrative boundaries, our international borders, or the lines on the map. The lines on the map almost always do not define where the eagles soar, where the elk roam, or where the grizzly bears move.

HOYT: Thompson and other Yellowstone to Yukon activists have had increasing success the past few years. The Alberta government recently announced the creation of a wild land park in the province's Bow Corridor. And wildlife migration corridors have been protected in the Yukon.

For Living On Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.



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