The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is a non-profit, US-Canada organization that hopes to connect wild lands in a 3,218-kilometre wildlife corridor. The area spans across four Canadian provinces and territories, and five American states. Co-founded by Harvey Locke, Y2Y has also worked on expanding protected and conservation areas in both Canada and the US since 1993. This has increased the number of protected areas in the Yukon-Yellowstone region significantly with the help of 300 partner organizations, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Assembly of First Nations. The initiative and its partners also engage in community education and outreach, habitat preservation, advocacy and fundraising as part of their project.
Wildlife corridors link two or more habitat areas with native plant and animal species to protect migration patterns and promote the propagation of these species. Vegetation connects corridors which are often intiatited by humans and are usually planned following migratory patterns of native animal species. The Y2Y corridor connects protected areas along Rocky Mountains and its surroundings, instead of building the corridor through planting vegetation. This means that the corridor is a mixture of public and private lands, leaving the land as it is and with no additional conservation efforts. However, it requires extensive building of wildlife overpasses and underpasses for roads, as well as negotiating with private landowners, resource developing companies, and even state and provincial governments.
Large mammals benefit the most from the wildlife corridors. Underpasses and overpasses reduce collisions between animals and vehicles in highways, and allows large predators to have protected, relatively undisturbed hunting grounds. Further, they let isolated populations of mammals move into other areas with populations of the same species, reducing inbreeding in potentially endangered species. A focus on large mammals, specially those at the top of the food chain, is an important point of consideration when planning wildlife corridors. It is especially important to the Y2Y, as significant predators like grizzly bears and wolves are critical to the ecosystem.
There is no consensus on the effectiveness of wildlife corridors, despite an increased enthusiasm and advocacy for them. Invasive species can thrive in connected, undisturbed habitats and do more damage than good to the area. The spread of pathogens and parasites is also increased. The Yellowstone to Yukon initiative has succeeded for the most part in the increase of grizzly bear population, but issues arise as ecologists are unsure if animals will move through the corridors built for them. This was observed in Montana, where a population of grizzly bears from Cabinet Mountain was connected to another in Selway-Bitteroot as part of the Y2Y, and only one bear moved through a tunnel under Interstate 9 in a few years.
The Y2Y project has many stakeholders, and cooperation with all affected parties is necessary to achieve their goal. Alberta alone has a myriad of oil pipeline structure, extending into the proposed corridor area and beyond. Cooperation with resource-extraction companies, local governments, and First Nations groups is prioritized by Y2Y, with their biggest challenge being the size of the area they want to connect in terms of people, habitats, and square miles.
Planning and management are crucial for the success of natural corridors. New technologies, such as Geographical Information System (GIS), are being used to supplement the research done by conservation biologists and environmental planners. GIS software is used to find ideal points to build highway crossings, as well as information on the geographic distribution of endangered species in a region. Managing this area will also require extensive and effective habitat protection; the connected areas must be protected from disasters, human development and other risks for animals and plants to thrive. Without long-term programs to reduce habitat loss and ensure the protection of the corridor region, there will not be a lasting impact.
Wildlife corridor projects have been used to conserve and expand endangered populations in other parts of the world as well. In Russia, corridors have been built to help protect Amur Leopards and Siberian Tigers and corridors for Pandas in Southwest China are built across new railroad tracks to continue preservation efforts. Another large wildlife corridor effort is the Jaguar Corridor Initiative in Central and South America and other projects exist in Australia and the Indian subcontinent. North America has other initiatives, one aiming to connect the Appalachians, and another connecting protected areas in Florida.
Yellowstone to Yukon is an ambitious, large-scale project that is very much a continuous process. Despite the challenges, Y2Y’s progress is commendable, and its endeavour to connect protected areas across the Rockies highlights the positive impacts of environmental action when needed most.
By Eduardo Montero
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