The Spine of the Continent: Protecting Grizzly Bears
(Page 3 of 5)
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.
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