It was the early 1990s, and the advent of radio collars, satellite transmitters and GPS technology gave biologists a revealing scope of incredible distances covered by animals. Travels like a wolf named Pluie, who was radio-collared in southern Alberta, was tracked as she covered an area 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park and 15 times that of Banff National Park.
And inspired by scientific information that showed wildlife requiring large distances to support their need to roam, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) was started in 1993.
Using data from Pluie and other animals like lynx, cougars, golden eagles and bull trout (who had also recorded traveling distances of more than 1,000 miles), showed that connecting the areas between Yellowstone National Park and Yukon Territory in Canada, would be imperative for all the species living there – thus creating a massive wildlife corridor stretching some 2,000 miles (3,200 km). Since then, Y2Y has inspired similar organizations who aim to keep habitat connected in migration areas that span borders, including Algonquin to Adirondacks and Baja to Bering.
At its heart, Y2Y is a joint Canadian/U.S. network that has partnered with more than 400 organizations, institutions, foundations, and conservation-minded individuals over its history to help maintain and sustain the region. Since starting their mission, the organization has helped many species living in the region thrive (from fish to birds, and plants to people). And one of the species Y2Y focuses on is grizzly bears.
“Grizzlies are called umbrella species since they require large wild spaces, safe from threats such as roads and development,” Y2Y’s communication manager Kelly Zenkewich tells ASN. “When those populations are healthy, their habitat also protects about 80% of other species that live in the same region.”
Since grizzlies are so important for other species, Y2Y has worked hard to keep these grizzlies connected instead of becoming isolated in “islands” of habitat. This is called “connectivity” and it’s important for genetic diversity for the bears.
“Historically grizzlies used to roam many parts of the lower 48 states into Mexico – a number once estimated at more than 100,000 bears,” Says Zenkewich. “By the 1920s, only island populations were left in the U.S. and today, the only island population left is in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Now, parts of British Columbia, the Yellowstone to Yukon region, Alaska and portions of Canada’s Northwest Territories are the only places grizzlies still roam in North America.”
There is an increasing risk of death for the bears, from being hit on busy roads or being killed after they find garbage or other food on ranches or near towns. Keeping these remaining populations connected is important, not just for bears, but for the other species who share their habitat.
According to Zenkewich, the Y2Y mission isn’t just for wildlife. “It’s for people too, ensuring that people have a place to go and recreate and have fun, but also for the wildlife, to do what they need to keep our planet healthy.”
Connectivity and coexistence are two important parts of what Y2Y does. One perfect example are the wildlife overpasses, underpasses, and associated fencing in Banff National Park. These crossings not only connect habitat on either side of the busy Trans-Canada Highway, they also keep wildlife off the roads, making the highway safer for people and animals. In fact, wildlife-vehicle collisions in Banff National Park have dropped by more than 80% since these structures were built in 1997.
They have become a global model for keeping wildlife connected and Y2Y helped by funding and rallying community support to help fund these structures to get built. Today, the collection of 38 wildlife underpasses and six overpasses is the most well-studied crossing network in the world. Planners, engineers and biologists from around the world come to visit and understand them.
“Wildlife crossings and fencing are popping up all over North America, as well as in Asia, in Africa and Europe. Around the world, they help small species such as salamanders, crabs and toads all the way up to pronghorn, elephants and mountain lions cross the roads that cross their habitat. And so everybody is coming to Banff to learn about these overpasses and underpasses,” explains Zenkewich, who points out there are 106 over- and underpasses with fencing in the Yellowstone to Yukon region.
Y2Y is working on researching, amplifying community requests for, and funding more highway passages for wildlife across the Yellowstone to Yukon region. They’re also working on other projects that include helping ranchers and farmers retrofit fencing so animals don’t get stuck and secure attractants such as chicken coops and berry bushes on their homesteads. Within mountain town communities, Y2Y advocates and supports coexistence programs such as those WildSmart runs to keep garbage locked down, encourage people to carry bear spray, keep community trees free of fruit, keep dogs on leash, and to just be aware of wildlife in general.
Another project involves restoration of a wetland in north Idaho’s panhandle, near the border with British Columbia. Y2Y has teamed up with Idaho Fish and Game on the Bees to Bears Climate Adaptation Project to restore 250 acres of forested lowland habitat, improving landscape climate resiliency for six species on the Boundary-Smith Creek Wildlife Management Area.
“This project benefits bees, bears and more,” says Zenkewich. “By working together with state agencies, people living nearby and other community members, we aim to meet a common goal to help these species and the area thrive.”
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