Y2Y Conservation Initiative to Preserve Wildlife

by Nicky Blackshaw 

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), an international non-profit, is recognized as one of the world’s leading examples of large-scale landscape conservation in practice. Y2Y works with local organizations to facilitate and create a holistic approach to land use management throughout the mountainous region that extends 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres) from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon wilderness. 

The Yellowstone to Yukon region contains some of the most spectacular mountains and beautiful landscapes in the world, and holds a rich diversity of wildlife and habitats, as well as a wide variety of human communities and cultures.This region represents one of the world’s last chances to hold onto a vast, fully functioning mountain ecosystem. A place where trout and salmon spawn in clean rivers, and where healthy forests and highlands support all the native species – from grizzly bears to human beings – that comprise the unique natural heritage of the Yellowstone to Yukon region. 

Climate change is emerging as one of the most profound ecological and social concerns of our time, and this means large-landscape initiatives like Y2Y are more important than ever. Responses to climate change take two forms: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation involves taking action to reduce the human causes of climate change, such as using clean energy sources instead of fossil fuels. Adaptation involves biological, behavioural, or physical adjustment to changing conditions. 

In terms of adaptation, the vast lands of the Yellowstone to Yukon region will give animal and plant species some of the space and resources they need to adapt to changing conditions. Significantly, this area is one of the world’s few remaining areas with the geographic variety and biological diversity to facilitate an opportunity of this magnitude. 

As scientists continue to study the potential scope of climate change, it is apparent that plant and animal species need a variety of ecosystems and landscapes available to them if they are going to successfully adapt to a changing climate. If they can’t adapt, species will ultimately face extinction. In the face of warming temperatures, many species are already starting to adapt. For example, North American red squirrels experiencing warmer spring temperatures and a corresponding increase in available food are adapting by reproducing earlier in the year. 

Climate-induced changes are already affecting grizzly bears that depend on whitebark pine trees, which produce a nut that is a key grizzly food source. The trees are being decimated by a blister rust that will spread more widely and become more deadly in a warming climate. Situations such as this and the mountain pine beetle underscore the importance of maintaining connectivity so bears, as well as other species, can search out habitats that will support them. 

In response to the accumulating evidence of, and scientific information on, climate change, Y2Y is working to maintain and restore important grizzly bear habitat. By preserving an umbrella species like the grizzly, a whole array of other animals and plants with less extensive needs are also preserved. 

Based on in-depth analyses of the way climate change could affect the region, Y2Y has been integrating an understanding of climate change into three foundational conservation strategies – the Grizzly Bear Strategy, as noted above, and the Avian and Aquatic Strategies, currently in development. These strategies address the pressures of climate change on animal and plant species in the way they work: 

• Conserve and connect large landscapes, providing plants and animals with the ability to move to more habitable locations; 
• Offer linked, north-south habitat zones for wildlife migrations; 
• Provide various elevations to allow both plant and animal species to ascend to higher ground as climate change makes higher elevation habitat more hospitable;
• Sustain as many native plant species as possible to reduce the invasion of exotic species. 

To put these conservation strategies to work, Y2Y partners with a number of organizations across the region. For example, we are working with American Wildlands in Montana and Idaho to identify and secure linkage zones – areas of land that connect quality habitats – to facilitate the movement of animals, including grizzly bears. 

Recently the Nature Conservancy of Montana and the Trust for Public Lands successfully announced the Montana Legacy Project, the largest land conservation deal in US history. Similarly in Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced the largest private land deal in Canadian history, the Darkwoods Project. These projects involve massive pieces of land in British Columbia and Montana that support a tremendous range of biologically rich habitats, from old growth forests to rich aquatic ecosystems. These types of land deals are crucial as they provide the space and diversity of habitats that wildlife need to successfully adapt to our changing climate. 

With public dedication and involvement, especially in land use and community planning, humankind can meet the challenge of climate change. Y2Y and our partners have a critical role to play in meeting that challenge, by ensuring healthy and interconnected ecosystems for wildlife and people, today and into the future. 

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Nicky Blackshaw, Communications Manager for Y2Y, completed a public relations program at Mount Royal College and worked in the oil and gas and high-tech industries before transitioning to the environmental non-profit sector.

[From WS January/February 2009]

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