The Spine of the Continent: Protecting Grizzly Bears

The Spine of the Continent is a landscape conservation initiative named for the entire Rocky Mountain expanse from the Yukon down through Mexico. Grizzly bears are a key species in this area.
By Mary Ellen Hannibal
February 2013

In “The Spine of the Continent,” author Mary Ellen Hannibal travels the length of the Spine, an area that describes the Rocky Mountains all the way from Canada down through Mexico. Hannibal digs deep into the history of America’s habitat, the animals within it, and the scientists and controversies behind the environment science that aims to protect it.
Cover Courtesy Lyons Press
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As climate change encroaches, animals and plants around the globe are having their habitats pulled out from under them. At the same time, human development has made islands out of even our largest nature reserves, stranding the biodiversity that lives within them. The Spine of the Continent (Lyons Press, 2012) introduces readers to the most ambitious conservation effort ever undertaken: to create linked protected areas extending from the Yukon to Mexico, the entire length of North America. Learn about the significance of grizzly bears in indigenous culture and why they must be protected in this excerpt from chapter 1, “Bear with Me.” 

I’m sticking close to Rob Watt for several reasons. For one, he’s a great storyteller, and I don’t want to miss a word. Watt has been a ranger for Parks Canada for more than three decades; he’s also an author who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area we are traversing, which is in the Belly River Valley of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada. It’s a chilly September morning with nature’s glories in high relief—the burbling onwardness of the river itself, a curious mink skittering around on the other side of it. Gesturing up and over to our left, Watt says, “There’s where Albany Featherstonhaugh set up Great Britain’s astronomical station,” in 1874. Featherstonhaugh was measuring latitude by the guidance of Polaris, the north star, in the days before GPS, before satellites, on behalf of the British Empire. American surveyors set up their own astronomical station nearby, and the two nations thus here divided the landscape along the forty-ninth parallel after the Napoleonic wars. Watt points out more history, but my eyes are glued to signs of the present tense.

Every several feet he punctuates his narrative with the same single word: “grizzly.” Watt points out overturned dead logs, shredded by bears in pursuit of grubs and insects, which they eat by the giant pawful. He elucidates huge indentations in the understory where bears, moose, or Volkswagens have evidently been at repose. Watt moves fast and it is a challenge to keep up with his practiced bushwhacking. He stops for a minute or so to touch blond, frizzy fibers entangled in a wired hair trap, used to get DNA samples from the bears with minimal interference in their daily doings. “Grizzly,” he says. “The kinked hair is why they’re called that.” I’m starting to feel like we’re trespassing on private property, in this case owned by Ursus arctos horribilis. 

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.

Watt notes that before the forty-ninth parallel helped drive the final achievement of Manifest Destiny, bringing white settlement, Indians used this landscape for thousands of years, and still do. Just north of us is part of the Blackfeet reservation. And for tens of thousands of years before any people were here, wolves, grizzlies, bighorn sheep, and bison traveled along this route. With the exception of the bison, Watt says, “they still do.”

His assertion is evidenced rather quickly by an enormous pile of grizzly scat right ahead of us on the trail. Plenty of times I have gazed on old bear poop with a sanguine eye, noting the desiccated red berry skins and twigs that have passed only partially digested through a bear’s gullet. Such deposits look old and unthreatening. This is different. This looks as if ten seconds ago someone upended a compost bucket. It’s 9 inches tall, green, slimy. It’s still steaming.

A Biotic Conveyor Belt

Tens of thousands of years ago the ancestors of today’s grizzlies, wolves, fox, lynx, badgers, beavers, and more came over the Bering Land Bridge from Russia, dispersing downward along the Spine. About 13,500 years ago, the Clovis were the first people to inhabit North America, and they came via the same route. Roughly 8,000 to 10,000 years ago a second pulse of human emigrants came. Traveling down the Rocky Mountains these Athabascan peoples made it to the American Southwest about 600 years ago and eventually became known as the Navajo and Apache. First Nations have long referred to it as “The People’s Way.”

To this natural north–south flow of animal and human movement, BC Highway 3 takes exception. It slices across the Spine, across the Continental Divide. BC Highway 3 is a two-lane road extending more than 700 miles. On one 75-mile stretch of it, 6,000 to 9,000 vehicles traverse daily; 1,200 employees of a major coal-mining operation commute along it. More than 314 wildlife fatalities occur on a 100-mile stretch of this road per year. “It’s a pinch point,” says Wendy Francis, executive director of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), an organization dedicated to restoring connectivity for grizzly bears (and the ecosystems they roam in).

Stopped in Their Tracks

Right now you and I could get out our smart phones or onto our computers, or even go to a bookstore and buy a map, and plan a road trip with the family this summer. We could decide to fly into Salt Lake City, then drive to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, head north to Glacier, then drive back down around and stop in Yellowstone. Or maybe give our kids a hands-on history lesson and follow part of the Lewis and Clark Trail as approximated by the National Park Service, including a stop at Great Falls, Montana, where the Corps of Discovery was confronted with spectacular walls of water that are still crashing today.

Now say you are a grizzly bear. Grizzlies once inhabited the entire north–south trajectory of the continent, from Alaska to Mexico, and from the West Coast nearly to the center of the landmass. Now their numbers are small enough to keep tabs on: There are more than 600 grizzlies in Yellowstone, and just about 900 more distributed through the northern Continental Divide, the North Cascades, the Selkirks, and the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains. The Cabinets, the Selkirks, and the North Cascades all straddle both the United States and Canada. The Bitterroots, covering central Idaho, are perfect habitat for grizzlies, but the last of their kind was shot there in the 1940s. These six areas are “recovery zones” that patched together on a map look like big watermarks over mountain ranges; they don’t quite touch one another. Bears are not like wolves. While their territories are large, bears don’t make such big trips looking for new grounds. Most female grizzlies live in territories that overlap their moms’. To keep the Yellowstone grizzlies genetically viable over the long haul, populations of bears need to be close enough together to intermingle all the way up through Glacier-Waterton, and then onward up to the mother lode, the still-thronging Canadian wilderness, home to more than 27,000 grizzlies. If bears in the lower forty-eight can’t mix with those above, their populations will become inbred and that will be that.

The Crack-Up

When an animal goes extinct, we not only lose vital pieces of biodiversity; we also lose contact with a cultural history. The grizzly bear has been revered by indigenous cultures all over the world for hundreds of years, American Indian tribes among them. The Native belief systems did not merely honor grizzly bears with the distinction of being almost human, but in general endowed all animal life with a more than natural status, issuing from their existence on the earth prior to people. Joseph Epes Brown writes that for Plains Indians, animals “in their anteriority and divine origin . . . have a certain proximity to the Great Spirit . . . which demands respect and veneration. . . . They are intermediaries or links between human beings and God.”

Should you choose to define God simply as the “as yet not known,” in animals like the grizzly there is much undisclosed: for example, hibernation. While other hibernating animals wake up every couple of days to eat, drink, and eliminate, grizzlies don’t. In a process tracked but incompletely understood by science, hibernating grizzlies live off the breakdown of fat, muscle, and organ tissue as a starving animal would, but then in a reversal from the trajectory that would eventually kill that animal, the bear utilizes urea to actually build new protein. Living off their own fat, hibernating bears create a unique form of bile that prevents hardening of the arteries or cholesterol gallstones.

The famous maternal solicitude shown by the female for her cubs begins before they are even implanted; a mama grizzly can carry a fertilized egg in her womb for many months, ready at any moment to attach to the uterine wall and begin becoming a bear, which it does not do until conditions are right. How the bear knows that she has enough body fat to support a pregnancy through hibernation, or how she knows whether there is enough forage available to support her progeny, is a mystery to us. If conditions are right for pregnancy, a bear will wake up in January long enough to deliver her cubs. She’ll go back to sleep, periodically waking to minister to the cubs. For approximately three months, these little ones will not hibernate but live in a half-waking world with their slumbering dam. Talk about attachment theory. It’s no wonder the mother-offspring bond in bears is so ferocious; they are more or less unified in darkness until the group emerges in spring.

From the perspective of human limitations, these natural abilities of bears are death-defying and thus amply justify the frequent Indian association of grizzlies with immortality. Even on a smaller scale of causality, however, to let the grizzly go extinct is to eliminate a repository of information about survival before we have even begun to understand it.

Reprinted with permission from The Spine of the Continent: The Most Ambitious Wildlife Conservation Project Ever Undertaken by Mary Ellen Hannibal and published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, 2012. 


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