Some people worry
that walking into this country from Mexico is too easy. Others worry that walking into this country from Canada is too hard. A visionary "Yellowstone to Yukon" scheme
called Y2Y for short, currently the subject of a photography exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum
, would create a continuous pathway for grizzly bears and other wild animals in the Rocky Mountains from Wyoming to northern Canada, a swath that includes the Selkirk Mountains of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and northwestern Montana.
But imperiled critters that walk or swim between the U.S. and Canada west of the Selkirks need pathways, too. Over the long term, without safe passage across the border westward from the Rockies, Northwestern populations of grizzlies, lynx, mountain caribou, and wild chinook salmon might all be toast. What follows is an overview of cross-border species and the legal and political battles being waged on their behalf.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
's sanguine reliance on a Canada connection was the key issue when a federal judge shot down a 1993 proposed grizzly bear recovery plan. Bears in the North Cascades, the Selkirks, the Cabinet-Yaak of northwest Montana, and the Northern Continental Divide (aka Glacier National Park) all travel back and forth across the Canadian border. The smaller U.S. populations probably couldn't survive long without their Canadian connections and, ultimately, links to bear populations farther north might be vital to all the grizzlies in the Lower 48. The grizzly bear recovery plan assumed that bears in the Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak were, and would remain, linked securely to larger populations north of the border.
But U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in D.C. rejected the recovery plan in 1995, citing a contradiction. The Fish and Wildlife Service had conceded that bear populations in Canada were small and that development threatened to isolate them – and yet it assumed the border-straddling Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems in which those Canadian bears lived would play a key role in helping American grizzlies recover. Friedman said the Fish and Wildlife Service had to explain whether or not its plan relied on a Canada connection and, if so, why such reliance was reasonable. The Fish and Wildlife Service went back to the drawing board but never got court approval for a revised plan, although the agency has followed the 1993 plan ever since.
As logging and development spread
across southern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta, it gets harder and harder for a bear to make its way across the border without driving. A Canadian biologist named Michael Proctor has sampled the DNA of grizzlies in the Canadian Selkirk Mountains, the Purcells, and the Rockies. In the Selkirks, he found virtually no interbreeding between grizzlies living north and south of Canada's east-west Highway 3, suggesting that the grizzly really didn't cross the road. In the other locations, he found a couple of male grizzlies had crossed, but apparently no females did. A few stray males can keep a population from becoming genetically isolated. But if you want wandering bears to augment an otherwise isolated and declining grizzly population, you need females. Evidently, you're not going to get them.
This year, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the grizzly's status, the Center for Biological Diversity
- one of the seven plaintiffs suing Fish and Wildlife over removing the Yellowstone grizzly from the threatened species list – submitted comments urging the agency to upgrade the listing of grizzlies in the North Cascades, Selkirks, and Cabinet-Yaak from threatened to endangered. Actually, the Fish and Wildlife Service had already deemed an endangered listing for those populations "warranted but precluded." In other words, they were definitely endangered, but so were a lot of other critters, and the Northwest grizzlies would just have to get in line. The Center for Biological Diversity pointed to the low numbers and probable isolation of the North Cascades bears and also suggested that grizzlies in the Selkirks and Cabinet-Yaak "require connectivity with other populations as soon as possible." The Center's Michael Robinson notes that the 1993 recovery plan said a threat to connectivity was a problem but then proposed nothing to counter that threat, which was "schizophrenic on its face."
It's not just bears. "Unless we get a handle on the perverse economic incentives" that drive commercial forestry in southern B.C., Defenders of Wildlife
counsel Bill Snape said early in the decade, "you're going to see critters like lynx and wolverines, and to a lesser extent marten and fisher, continue to decline." Snape and Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest
tried to get environmental considerations onto the table when the U.S. and Canada negotiated a new softwood lumber agreement, but "we didn't get any traction," Scott recalls.
Access to the border
became an issue in the government's long refusal to list the Canada lynx
. In 1991, environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lynx population of the Okanogan region of north-central Washington. The Fish and Wildlife Service refused, saying that because the lynx traveled freely back and forth across the Canadian border, there was no evidence that the Okanogan animals made up a distinct population.
(The State of Washington treated the border as a hard barrier and decided that south of the border, the lynx was in trouble. East of the Okanogan, it concluded, outside the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, which lies in the Selkirks northeast of Metaline Falls, all lynx populations were "vulnerable due to low numbers, forest maturation, past habitat alteration, reduction of conductivity to British Columbia, reduced lynx immigration from core populations in Canada, and reduced reoccupation of suitable habitat.")
A series of lawsuits finally forced the feds to list all lynx populations in the Lower 48. For Washington populations, a Canadian connection remains key. Biologist Dave Britell, who studied lynx in north-central Washington during the 1980s, radio-collared an animal in the North Cascades that was later found 368 miles north, near Prince George, B.C. A more recent study by Forest Service wildlife biologist Michael Schwartz indicates that lynx in the Rockies travel and interbreed over long distances, too, showing little genetic variation from Montana all the way up through the Yukon into Alaska. Brittell has said that Washington lynx populations can keep their resilience – so that they can, for example, renew themselves after a catastrophic fire – only if they remain free to cross the Canadian border.
When the Fish and Wildlife Service established critical habitat for lynx at the end of last year, it omitted north-central Washington's Kettle Range - along with all Forest Service, tribal, and private land. The Fish and Wildlife Service conceded that lynx had once lived in the Kettle Range and that the area included good lynx habitat but reasoned (in something of a non-sequitur) that because no lynx had been known to live there for the past 10 years, it wasn't essential to the conservation of the species. Lynx clearly used to live in the Kettle Range. When fur prices rose in the 1970s, trappers hit them hard. The lynx never recovered. Some years ago, Brittell suggested that because the lynx population in central British Columbia had declined and because it had to run a gauntlet of clearcuts, roads, ranches, people, and dogs to reach the border, the lynx population in the Kettle Range had too little resilience to recover from the heavy trapping. State wildlife biologist Steve Zender hypothesized, on the other hand, that because lynx in the Kettle Range were cut off, their population would have crashed even without trapping.
In the Selkirks
, which are included in the western edge of the conceived Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor, the lynx shares habitat with the mountain caribou, which has been called the most endangered large mammal in North America and which lives no place else in the U.S. Mountain caribou have big feet that enable them to walk easily across deep mountain snow. They can digest old man's beard and other tree-growing lichens, which provide most or all of their late-winter nourishment.
Most mountain caribou habitat lies north of the border, but caribou wander south into the Salmo-Priest and other parts of the Selkirks. Snowmobilers hassle them, hunters occasionally poach them, and cougars eat them, too. Since cougars have presumably eaten them for millennia, blaming their decline on predation - the main direct cause of premature death – seems rather short-sighted. Some people theorize that when young forests develop after old growth is cut, they attract dense populations of deer and elk, which in turn attract predators, which bag the occasional caribou. Predation aside, old-growth logging destroys caribou habitat - and removes the trees on which the lichens grow. Both logging and development across southern B.C. threaten to cut the caribou off entirely from their habitat in the U.S.
Last Valentine's Day, a U.S. District Court judge in Eastern Washington ruled that the Forest Service had to keep snowmobiles out of prime caribou habitat in the Flathead National Forest of northern Idaho. Conservationists and snowmobilers had worked out a compromise plan, but the Forest Service had come up with its own plan that let snowmobiles into a lot more of the forest. The court protected less area than the compromise had envisioned but a lot more than the Forest Service had wanted.
Roads and development
form barriers only to organisms that walk. For organisms that travel by other means, the border can be more porous than we might like. When wild chinook salmon from Puget Sound reach the Pacific Ocean, they hang a right and swim up along Vancouver Island and northern British Columbia, all the way to Southeast Alaska. The same fish might come under the jurisdictions of two nations, three states, and one province, and it may run a gauntlet of hooks and nets in any or all of the above.
Sockeye and pink salmon from Canada's Fraser River follow much the same northbound routes. On their way back to the mouth of the Fraser, many swim through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands, where Washington fishers catch them. Even in the good old days before World War I, much of the "Puget Sound" salmon catch consisted of Fraser River sockeye. When the U.S. and Canada negotiated agreements on Pacific salmon fishing in the 1980s and again in the late 1990s, preserving access to the Fraser River runs was a key American goal. The U.S. kept that access in part by letting Canadians catch Puget Sound chinook along the coast of B.C. Because of that quid pro quo, Wild Fish Conservancy
executive director Kurt Beardslee says, "each one of those Fraser river sockeye ... has to be counted as some percentage of a Puget Sound chinook."
Beardslee's group believes Washington's current Puget Sound chinook management plan ignores the impact of Canadian fisheries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has approved the plan, though, and has issued a biological opinion that says its approval won't jeopardize the recovery of wild chinook. Wild Fish Conservancy and three other groups have asked the U.S. District Court for Western Washington to toss the biological opinion out.
"The same salmon populations that are subjected to harvest-plan fisheries in Washington waters also are subject to Canadian fisheries, and some are caught in Alaska as well," lawyer Svend Brandt-Erichsen, who is representing the plaintiffs, writes in this spring's Wild Fish Journal
. "When NOAA's analysis showed that these combined fisheries would prevent key populations of [Puget Sound] chinook from making progress toward recovery, the agency should have rejected the harvest plan, or found that its own approval of the plan would jeopardize the listed chinook. ... Instead, [the National Marine Fisheries Service] brushed the problem under the rug." (The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Indian tribes have filed briefs supporting the feds.)
Salmon aren't the only inconvenient international travelers. The barred owls that have invaded northern spotted owl habitat throughout the Pacific Northwest flew in from B.C. A plant disease called white pine blister rust that originated in Eurasia has been spreading southeast from Vancouver since 1910. It has already killed a lot of the white pines in Glacier National Park and has appeared in Yellowstone National Park, where it threatens one of the Yellowstone grizzly population's main foods, the whitebark pine nut. (Squirrels collect whitebark cones. Grizzlies raid the squirrels' caches in the late summer and early fall. Pine nuts enable the bears to build up fat for hibernation. If there aren't many nuts, grizzlies have fewer cubs, and they look for food at lower altitudes, where they're more likely to get shot. The white pines face threats not only from blister rust but also from global warming and from the mountain pine beetles that warmer winters have allowed to thrive at higher elevations, where white pines grow.) That's a key reason why conservationists want Yellowstone grizzlies linked to habitat in other places through something like Y2Y - and why last month they asked a federal court to set aside the Fish and Wildlife Service's March decision to take Yellowstone grizzlies off the threatened species list.
One thinks in terms
of habitat corridors, but "we try not to use the word 'corridor,'" says federal grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen. It's a mistake to imagine Yellowstone to Yukon or any other habitat pathway as a wildlife equivalent of Interstate 5. A male bear might wander fairly long distances, but a young female will establish a home range that overlaps her mother's. Her own daughters might move farther afield, but their ranges will overlap hers. Therefore, a breeding population won't expand its range rapidly. Connecting bear populations would mean getting bears to live in "linkage zones" all along the way. It would require building wide overpasses on which bears could cross highways - predators avoid underpasses – and might require planting trees on land that has long since been cleared for agriculture. Someone would have to buy conservation easements on or title to private land. Someone would have to set land aside now in the hope that bears or other critters would use it in a couple of generations. This is a tall order. But it might be possible.
"If you look at a map of the West, there's [already] a lot of protected land," Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest says. "It wouldn't take a lot" to connect the dots. "The key to that is maintaining a lot of that land in its current uses." He suggests that in some places this might mean subsidizing ranchers so they can keep ranching, rather than selling out to developers. In others, it may mean piggybacking on concerns about global climate change. If political leaders in B.C. and elsewhere want to preserve carbon-trapping forests as mitigation for their carbon-emitting power plants and automobiles, they can get "the biggest bang for the buck" by preserving them in places that provide connectivity. "It just takes vision," Scott says.
Some years ago, Canadian wildlife officials trapped a young male grizzly bear later nicknamed Winston in British Columbia's Coast Range, put a radio collar on him, and turned him loose in the Cascades just north of the U.S. border. Winston wandered south into North Cascades National Park, hung out for a while around Ross Lake, then headed for home, crossing the border and evidently wandering right through people's yards without being seen, until he finally made it back to the Coast Range, where he had started. Could Winston do it now? Will a bear be able to do it in 10 or 20 years? If we're serious about saving species, the answer had better be yes.