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 , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

On Oct. 8, the British Columbia government announced an agreement to protect a huge area of wilderness that adds a significant piece to the puzzle environmentalists are trying to put together. More than 2.5 million acres in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains, known as Muskwa-Kechika, is to be safeguarded from development. Environmentalists hailed the move as a major step forward in the wider effort to protect wildlife throughout the Rocky Mountains. The new protected region is home to large numbers of caribou, grizzly bears, and other mammals.

The decision was reached after negotiations between the provincial government and oil and mining companies, environmentalists, and Indian groups.

Environmentalists accept that their plan for the much larger Yellowstone-to-Yukon protective zone may take a generation before results are seen. Some interest groups, Robinson concedes, are "pretty hostile" to the plan.

Several senior spokesmen among Alberta's cattlemen said they had never been consulted about a wide protection plan that would directly affect their land.

And the issue is about land. One rancher described the southern border area in British Columbia and Alberta as "like Aspen [Colo.] in the '50s." Beautiful scenery and close proximity to parks and ski resorts has turned what was formerly a mining and agricultural region into a prime recreational area.

The price of land reflects that. An acre of farmland has risen sharply in value, to as much as $1,500 Canadian (US$1,125) an acre. Add to that Alberta's current oil-and-gas development boom, and pressure on the province's wilderness areas has never been greater.

Jim Abbott follows environmental issues for Canada's populist opposition Reform Party. He refers to environmentalists as "armchair quarterbacks" who live in apartments in cities. His home constituency in southeastern British Columbia is a region "smack dab in the middle" of the proposed wildlife-protection zone, he says.

The plan, he says, promotes "the idea of 'two legs bad, four legs good.' "

"There has been a total lack of consultation. There has also been an almost total lack of science," he says. "They're working on intuition."

After decades of living in the foothills of the Rockies, rancher Chattaway questions efforts to build special overpasses or underpasses across highways to give large mammals a way to migrate farther.

"They can have all kinds of fancy overpasses, but there's absolutely no logic in this thing. If the grizzly bear dies out because of a lack of genetic diversity, that's just a consequence of the way the world is headed. There was no one to defend Tyrannosaurus rex when he was around."

"This project does involve change for many people within the area, changes in the way they've done things," Robinson says. "But, at the same time, what's absolutely apparent to me is that change is coming anyway."

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