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Fur May Fly Over Plan to Give Big Mammals Room to Roam

Canada's ranchers are wary of a 'Yellowstone to Yukon' initiative unveiled last week.

By Carol BergerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 1997


A plan to turn a huge swath of land along the Rocky Mountains into a wildlife-protection zone has caught Canadian landowners by surprise.

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Earlier this month, a prominent group of biologists and environmentalists unveiled an ambitious proposal to create a wildlife corridor across the Canadian and American Rockies. Called "Yellowstone to Yukon," the protective zone would run 1,800 miles from north to south and encompass half a million square miles.

The plan was unveiled at a meeting of more than 300 environmentalists in Waterton Lakes National Park in southernmost Alberta Oct. 5.

While the plan made front-page news in Canada, whether the public support and political will to carry it through can be mustered remains far from certain.

In southern Alberta, the majestic Rocky Mountains are already white with snow. Throughout the rolling foothills, ranchers are readying their cattle for the long winter ahead.

Clay Chattaway owns a ranch west of the small town of Nanton. The area is considered to have some of the best grazing land in Canada. Mr. Chattaway's family has ranched here for more than four generations. He is a director of the Waldron Grazing Cooperative, which represents more than 70 ranchers in southern Alberta.

Chattaway says the protective-corridor plan is "claptrap and a pipe dream" that "will never work."

"If an animal at the top of the food chain disappears because of something we're doing, like using DDT that weakens the shells of birds, then we should be concerned," he says. "But if the grizzly bear starts to grow four toes on one foot and seven on the other because of the lack of genetic diversity, I'm not going to lose sleep about it."

Bart Robinson, coordinator of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, based in Canmore, Alberta, see things differently. His organization serves as an umbrella for more than 80 conservation groups. "People look at the map and they tend to think people want to turn this into an ark or something. It's really an area of focus or study. Within this area, we're interested in creating ribbons of connectivity," Mr. Robinson says.

"Bears, wolves, cougars, lynx, and wolverines need much larger areas than previously realized to stay healthy and alive. We're trying to connect the dots so animals can circulate from one 'island' to another."

At issue is whether wildlife living in "islands" of protected territory - national parks - can survive. Biologists are finding that grizzly bears, wolves, and other large mammals require large expanses of territory to thrive. The Rocky Mountains, running north to south in western North America, make up their natural habitat.

But development has chopped up natural migratory routes. Environmentalists note that the east-west TransCanada Highway and Canadian Pacific Railway running through Banff National Park in Alberta are just two obstacles the mammals find difficult to cross. The result is that smaller and smaller groups of these animals live together, reducing genetic diversity and threatening their survival.