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.

| February 2013

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.”

6/18/2014 4:10:05 AM

The cover illustration is awesome. It's very attractive. Thanks for this great post. It was truly inspiring.

6/17/2014 3:56:42 AM

This is a beautiful post. I like it.