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Beyond Yellowstone: When Conservationists Play Offense

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This blog is part of an ongoing series made possible through the State of the Rockies Project, which is reporting on large landscape conservation efforts in the Rocky Mountain region.

The first night there are colors. We start backpacking late, tramping off-trail through a dense lodgepole pine forest and reach a clearing at sunset. Wildflowers -- blooming in a density and diversity unlike anything I've ever seen -- crowd the top of a hill overlooking the Teton Range. Clouds burst in swirls of orange and red in front of the mountains, which rise like a crazily cut piece of cardboard pasted dark against the brilliant sky. It's a nice introduction to Wyoming.

The second night there are bears. A wilderness valley sprawls before us as we cook our mac n' cheese over a campfire. In the three hours before dark, our bear count reaches five. A lumbering black bear crosses the meadow and climbs a ridge, knocking a few rocks towards our camp in the process. Half an hour later, a lighter colored black bear descends the same route but in the opposite direction, as if on an established path from mountains to creek. We soon see the outline of a third across the valley. By this point, the sound of branches breaking a hundred yards away has each of us jumping for our bear spray, and in seconds we have five canisters of the heavy duty mace pointed at the spot where a grizzly cub bursts noisily through the brush. We can hear another bear, presumably the mother, not far behind. The cub lifts its head, sniffs, and looks in our direction. It pauses for a second and disappears the way it came. To our relief, mom follows.

This is an occupied wilderness. Most of our crew is backpacking in grizzly country for the first time, and it's a new experience to have to call out around blind corners, warning bears of our presence. We're exploring the area just south of Yellowstone National Park to report on large landscape conservation efforts for the State of the Rockies Project. And simply being in the presence of the wide-ranging grizzlies is a good sign we've found a well conserved -- and large -- landscape. "The main thing grizzly bears need is security from people," Jonathan Proctor of Defenders of Wildlife would tell us a few weeks later. "People are the main cause of grizzly mortality." This is largely due to the fact that bears who grow accustomed to humans tend to become more dangerous than their wilder, shier counterparts and often have to be killed. According to Proctor, the low human population densities and large tracks of roadless land in Wyoming and Montana are the main reason the bears are confined to those areas. While most people tend to think of grizzlies as being at home in the mountainous forests of the Northern Rockies, they were once found in every state west of the Mississippi and ranged from Mexico to Alaska. "Grizzly bears are the ultimate omnivores," Proctor said. "They can survive on a wide variety of food sources from vegetation to fish to elk, all sorts of things, even cutworm moths. They'll eat grass. They can be found grazing out on peoples' lawns. It's amazing where they can survive and on what."

The simple fact that moths could be a staple for 400-pound creatures is surprising enough, but their dining method is even more shocking. Grizzlies will ascend high above treeline in the alpine tundra to flip over rocks that are sheltering the insects and lick them off in great globs. A single bear can eat 40,000 moths in a day. There are stories of mountain climbers who've had to turn around when they met grizzlies at the top of 10,000-foot peaks in Glacier National Park. Apparently even bears sometimes succumb to a mountaineer's logic: if you're all the way up there, why not summit the peak?

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The next morning in the bear camp, we unroll the lightweight packrafts we carried in on our backs, click together collapsible paddles, and float out onto the nearby river. We glide through meanders, quietly following a family of river otters downstream. Later in the day, we reach rapids and run some small falls and slides. It sure beats walking -- especially considering our bags were so overloaded with river gear -- even if we have to pull over every few minutes and dump the water from our boats. But when we enter Yellowstone National Park a few days later, our rafts stay rolled up and packed away. Floating any river within park boundaries is prohibited and rangers don't take the rule lightly. Kayakers who were caught running a class V section in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone some years back were chased by a helicopter for eight hours and had their boats confiscated for several years.

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The arbitrary line of the park boundary amounts to a minor inconvenience for us in the end, keeping us out of the rivers and on the trails. But for wildlife it can mean life and death. A wolf, for example, who wanders beyond park borders is legally classified as a "predator"and can be shot on sight. Now in danger of being delisted completely from the federal endangered species list, the gray wolf is caught in the midst of a fierce political battle with one side claiming they perform an essential ecological service in keeping elk and deer populations from overgrazing, and the other side concerned about the loss of livestock and game.

Although the future of wolves in the lower 48 remains to be determined, the reintroduction that has taken place since 1995 has generally be successful for the species. The 66 wolves first reintroduced to the region has grown to more than 1,500 individuals in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

But it's still a touchy issue, to say the least. While hitchhiking the shuttle for one of our packraft floats, a local tells me that more wolves mean less elk, and less elk mean noticeably worse hunting in recent years. It's a valid concern in a state that still takes sportsmanship very seriously.

"How do you tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote?" he asks me already chucking at the punchline. "If it's dead, it's a coyote," he says, roaring with laughter. The joke has lost some of its bite since 2012, however. In most of Wyoming covering up a shot wolf by pretending it's a coyote is no longer necessary to keep the game warden off your back; now it's legal to kill wolves.

For many, Yellowstone National Park is synonymous with wildlife. Without even leaving your car, the park's famous animals are hard to ignore, as a traffic jam will instantly form wherever an elk or bison has ventured within sight of a park road. What may be less obvious to the average visitor is the extent to which the bears, bison, wolves, cougars, and elk in the park rely on the surrounding area for their survival, the area outside designated park boundaries. Even the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a nonprofit that works on behalf of the wildlife in the park took some time to learn this point. Jeff Welsch, a spokesperson for the group, explains: "We were created [in 1983] to save the grizzly bear from extinction here in Greater Yellowstone region. It was down to less than 200 bears and biologists thought that was that. Very quickly while talking about grizzlies, it became evident that you needed more than just a park to save a species. They don't identify with political boundaries."

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The coalition began working with private landowners and various public lands agencies to knit together a network of conserved lands around the park. The approach is working. Today, there are over 600 grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone. Welsch told us the return of the griz has been a collaborative effort which has for the most part meant learning to find shared values. "We leave all our differences aside and focus on what everybody loves about living here, which is open space, clean air, clean water. It turns out that everybody loves wildlife, it's just different in different cases. When you start doing that, you find you have more in common than you thought, and you start to trust the other guy."

Conservation biology -- a branch of science that is dedicated not just to studying life but to ensuring its survival -- has a simple recipe for a healthy landscape called the three C's: Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores. In Greater Yellowstone, the core area is the park itself, the world's oldest national park, which was officially designated in 1872.

Carnivores in this case refer to the wolves, grizzlies, wolverines, and mountain lions, which help regulate the entire ecosystem by keeping deer and elk populations in check. But what about the corridors? Parks and wilderness areas -- the cores -- have been compared to "islands" of habitat by conservation biologists in that they can get cut off from the surrounding landscape, which can lead to inbreeding and the eventual loss of the large animals. Legendary environmental activist, Dave Foreman, writes in his book on reconnecting landscapes, "Even Yellowstone National Park is not big enough to maintain viable populations of the large wide-ranging mammals native to it... But if habitats are connected so that animals can move between them -- even if it's only one horny adolescent male every ten years -- then inbreeding is usually avoided."

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This scientific observation has led wildlife advocates and conservationists to think big. A vision called Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) has emerged to protect corridors and cores in what is one of the largest conserved landscapes in the world. In some places, connecting the cores can be as simple as an electric fence around a home or a wildlife bridge over a highway, in others it might mean a conservation easement on a ranch. It's a complicated and ambitious task, but it's not an impossible one. Unlike so many other parts of North America (and the world for that matter), the Y2Y project focuses on protecting an area that is still largely intact. Grizzlies never left, wolves have been reintroduced, and there is already enough protected land to make the vision achievable. With so many environmental battles being fought defensively -- whether it's challenging unsustainable logging practices or fighting fracking in a key wildlife habitat -- Y2Y moves on the offense, protecting land before it needs to be restored. "It's very compelling for people to hear about this grand vision," commented Peter Aengst, Senior Director for the Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies office. "This is the one place left in the world where we can actually to do this: ensure wildlife populations not just remain, but actually grow healthier on this huge, huge scale. It's a very positive vision."

This positive vision may not get as much press as the Pebble Mine in Alaska or the Keystone XL, but its effects are very real. When conservation plays offense, what's at stake is not so much some future loss, but a linked and living landscape that's out there right now, a landscape where it is still possible to see five bears pass by a campfire in a single night.

For more information on the State of the Rockies Expeditions, please visit www.RockiesExpeditions.org.

All photos copyright David Spiegel.

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