Think back, waaaaaay back to what were you doing in 1994. If you were between the age of 5 and 80, and you were living in the Rockies (or Canada for that matter), it’s likely that you were sporting a pair of MEC Rad Pants, striding confidently and comfortably into every adventure your high-waisted, function-over-fashion, elastic-cuffed self could find. But did you have any inkling that your preference for tapered wind- and water-resistant slacks marked you as a member of a community of the most influential mountain movers and shakers of the time?
It has been twenty years now since the seed of a connected future for the Rockies from the Yellowstone to the Yukon took root in our local mountain culture. And much like the pants – the times have been a-changin’.
In 1993, Harvey Locke – a local conservationist, environmental lawyer and volunteer president of CPAWS (the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) at the time – had been working in his home in the Rockies to assist local conservation groups in defining the language of their struggle against the pressures of modern development. The research supporting the need for connectivity between wildlands, though widely accepted in the scientific community, was relatively new to the public, and a common language to express this new knowledge had not been clearly defined. The concept of a “wildlife corridor” – a piece of land that connects protected wildlands – which is so clear to us now, was not popularly understood and the conservation of sensitive natural areas was typically being achieved by small local interest groups in isolation.
The historical belief in regards to conservation was that National, Provincial, and State Parks and other conservation areas were our best bet at preserving wildlife populations in the face of ever-expanding human development. Forward-thinking leaders of the past had dedicated lands to create Yellowstone National Park (the world’s first) and Banff National Park (the world’s second, and Canada’s first National Park) where wild animals could thrive and people could enjoy pristine and authentic wilderness experiences. This is often referred to as “America’s Best Idea”. But research was quickly proving that this model was not going to be enough to maintain healthy animal populations.
Since the 1960’s, wildlife biologists had identified the necessity of connecting these “islands” of conservation in order to prevent species extinction. Research consistently proved that many animals and plants require much more space to travel than suspected, and that our reserves were not providing them with enough room to ensure their species’ survival in the long term.
A vision comes to life
Considering conservation on a grand scale was not something new to scientists and the conservation community. In Canada specifically, The Wildlands Project (now Wildlands Network) were looking at a continental approach to protecting species and landscapes and the World Wildlife Fund was exploring something similar for large carnivores. Locke was even discussing large-ecosystem conservation with his colleagues, but no one had put the theory into a practical application on the ground. It was on a solo backpacking trip to Northern BC that the research of hundreds of scientists, first-hand understanding from his experience with on-the-ground activism, and the call of the wild finally crystallized in his mind: a vision to connect the entire Yellowstone to Yukon region became clear, and he penned it on the back of his trail map.
Dusting off his Rad Pants (one can only assume) he headed home, excited to share this big idea.
Soon, more than 30 scientists and conservationists from both sides of the Canada-US border were gathered in Kananaskis Country to explore Locke’s new “Y2Y Vision”. He presented the possibility that we can indeed live in the kind of world we want to live in – one with wild animals, clean water, healthy forests, breathable air and the chance to experience nature – by connecting and protecting habitat through an interconnected system of wildlands and waters that would harmonize the needs of people with those of nature.
While Locke was concerned the proposed area was too large, his colleagues challenged that it wasn’t big enough and should extend further north to the Arctic Circle and further south to Grand Teton National Park. It was unanimously agreed that the idea held weight and that it was time to challenge themselves to begin to collaborate on an unprecedented, international scale. The Vision depended on good science and boldness, but more importantly, it depended on enlisting the passion and experience of those who already cared deeply and worked in and with dozens of grassroots groups.
Power to the people
In the spring of 1994 the Vision was shared with the broader conservation community when Locke wrote an essay for Borealis magazine which included a commissioned map of the Y2Y region (tellingly, no map of the Rockies spanning the Canada-US border had existed prior to 1994). The official public launch of the idea came in 1997 at the “Connections” conference in Waterton, AB, attended by some 300 people including land trusts, scientists, government representatives, Native Americans, First Nations, and national news media outlets.
As the message of connectivity gained popularity, people began to change the way they thought about conservation. Groups and agencies considered the impact of their work not only to the local environment but to the continental ecosystem. Suddenly, a small corridor of private land commonly used by animals to get from one mountain range to another was recognized as vital to the survival of populations in the whole Rocky Mountain ecosystem.
In 1998, a Banff Park Warden named Karsten Heuer – who would become president of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in January, 2013 – embarked upon a 3540 km, 18 month trek from Yellowstone to Yukon, both to assess and to publicize the Y2Y Vision. Through years of wildlife tracking studies in Banff National Park, he says “My research with the animals was telling me that this Y2Y Vision was the way forward. I was hooked.” His trek confirmed two things: 1) the Rad Pant was indeed the most versatile piece of clothing in an adventurer’s wardrobe and 2) connecting the region was possible. The story attracted wide-spread media coverage and led to presentations in over 100 communities in the region.
Among the many efforts that helped the Y2Y idea go global – including a show on the CBC’s Nature of Things and a book by National Geographic – a four-hour HDTV documentary featuring the Y2Y Vision was created in 2005 by Banff film-maker Guy Clarkson. The movie, “Shining Mountains” (watch the film here), was produced for History Television, National Geographic Channel and the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network and was broadcast in Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the US. Translated into 16 languages, the film took the Vision global, and inspired millions to take action to improve wildlands connectivity in their own landscapes. An Australian government-led initiative has begun to connect reserves along a 3600km section of the Great Eastern Ranges and similar initiatives continue to crop up in eastern North America (A2A – Algonquin to Adirondacks) and in the marine environments (B2B – Baja to Bering Strait).
The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y-CI), the organization tasked with carrying the vision forward, has worked with more than 300 partners from all over the region, including landowners and land trusts, businesses, government agencies, Native American and First Nations communities, scientists and conservationist since the vision was launched. Funding for these projects and many others is made possible by over 150 foundations, companies, government agencies and countless individual donors who are sold on the Vision.
Measures of success
Our home here in the Rockies has been identified as one of the last intact mountain ecosystems on Earth as we continue to share the space with all of the wildlife species that were here when Europeans first arrived in North America.
Y2Y’s goal is to keep it this way by using the health of grizzly bear populations as their guide for the health of the whole ecosystem. Because they require a vast amount of territory, it is well-documented that if the grizzly populations are thriving, the rest of the animal populations, including humans, will be as well. In the last few years, thanks to the Y2Y, grizzly bears have been sighted in part of their historic range where they haven’t been seen for decades.
“Over the last 20 year, collectively we have been able to double the protected areas, mitigated hundreds of miles of busy highways, and helped grizzly bears expand their ranges for the first time in over a hundred years,” says Heuer.
Some Y2Y-CI and partner-driven successes include:
Wildlife fences and over- and underpasses have been installed along highways.
One of the most important corridors in the province has been protected on a number of occasions by halting Canmore’s Three Sisters Development.
Parks Canada has approved the return of bison to Banff National Park.
An international wildlife corridor has been created in the Flathead Watershed.
In 2013, Y2Y-CI affiliated organizations protected 18,038 acres of land through private land deals and 14 million acres of land in the Yukon was protected from drilling for another year.
Habitat for wildlife has been improved by decommissioning unused logging roads, restoring streams, and eliminating invasive species and or planting trees on thousands of acres of land.
Bear conflicts have been reduced by collecting fruit that may attract bears, installing bear-proof food storage and garbage containers, erecting electric fencing to protect livestock and gardens, and removing or modifying fences to allow for greater wildlife movement through the region.
A paradigm shift
“What’s most heartening to me is how peoples’ values have changed over this period of time,” Heuer reflects. “The fact that ‘wildlife corridor’ is now a household word is a perfect example of that shift.”
With its Canadian home base in Canmore – a town built smack in the middle of a critical wildlife corridor – Y2Y’s Vision has made a big impact locally and throughout the region. The Bow Valley is now a beacon for other conservation-minded municipalities around the globe, showing that it’s possible to share space with wildlife.
“I’ve been all over the world speaking about this concept, working professionally with other groups to help them figure out how they can live with wildlife in their back yards,” says Locke. “And I can tell you, there is nowhere else in the world that is doing it better than the Bow Valley. There will always be hurdles to overcome when living with wildlife, but it is encouraging to know that people are willing to try, and to set the example for the rest of the world to follow.”
To get involved, to learn more, or to donate, check out y2y.net.
*You can read Heuer’s account of his incredible journey in Walking the Big Wild: From Yellowstone to Yukon on the Grizzly Bear’s Trail.
**The Rad Pant – Canada’s national 90s uniform – is on the top of the list of endangered apparel. It is suspected that a handful of specimens remain in the wild, but to date, this glorious pant remains on the verge of extinction.