The Spine of the Continent: Protecting Grizzly Bears
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As many a grizzly-loving field biologist will tell you, these bears rule the wild. Female grizzlies weigh up to 400 pounds, and males up to 700. Yeah, they won’t hurt you if you don’t bother them, usually. They’re incredibly smart and, as displayed in the gallant tolerance many of them showed toward Timothy Treadwell in the film Grizzly Man, they are not necessarily always thinking with their teeth. On the other hand, we all know what happened to Treadwell.
The Backbone of the World
I am here to research the Spine of the Continent, a landscape conservation initiative named for the entire Rocky Mountain expanse it aims to protect, 5,000 miles from the Yukon down through Mexico. I first learned about the Spine of the Continent in 2008, in the offices of Dr. Healy Hamilton at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Hamilton maps where species live now and where they are likely to live based on seventeen of the IPCC climate change scenarios. Hamilton’s maps show that as the world gets hotter, the geography that today provides the climate western biodiversity is used to will be greatly reduced. If bighorn sheep, grizzlies, wolves, elk, and aspen can’t adapt to new conditions, the area they can survive in will be ever more concentrated, mostly in high, mountainous terrain.
“It makes no sense to only conserve species where they are now,” Hamilton says, “because they are moving. We have to think entirely differently about the landscape. We have to figure out where species are going to go, where they are going to persist, and we have to protect those places now.” It’s quite a thought. What is Yellowstone, if not the bison and the aspen that inhabit it? Yet in 50, 100, 200 years, these species may be gone from the place we know as Yellowstone. “Those animals have to be able to get to where they need to go," says Hamilton. "We have to protect the connections. There isn’t time for anything else.”
The Ghosts of Animals Past
The Spine of the Continent initiative is about protecting big cores of abundant nature, keeping them populated with carnivores, and connecting them to one another so that wildlife can trek from one to the next. Ergo, conservation’s three C’s: cores, carnivores, and corridors. We are taking this particular trek today to check on the whereabouts of some of the critters that make Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park a core. Almost all of the animals that historically have lived here still do. Heading farther up into Canada is the most intact ecosystem on the continent.
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