Nature does not stop at the borders of a national park or between nations. Appreciation of that fact has led to a growing realization among conservationists that the best, and perhaps only, way to preserve the environment and protect wildlife is through large landscapes that transcend the artificial boundaries drawn by humans. Animals need room to rove for any number of reasons—and these needs cannot be met within isolated sanctuaries standing as islands amidst a sea of development. The home range for a single grizzly bear, for example, can cover 1,000 square miles—and wolves roam even farther. Securing movement corridors and other “linkages” between designated wilderness areas has thus become a cornerstone of an emerging conservation strategy.
Healthy ecosystems are endowed with a property called “resilience,” which refers to their capacity to withstand perturbations. One way to achieve resilience is to make landscapes large enough that the entire area won’t be wiped out by fire or other disturbances. Global climate change will only exacerbate environmental impacts and complicate the cause of preservation since most ecosystems are likely to undergo significant transformations, be they from forest to grassland, grassland to desert, etc. Efforts to protect specific animals may fail, similarly, if the land being set aside is no longer a suitable habitat for the target species.
What’s required, clearly, are landscapes with sufficient “geographic variety and biological diversity to allow species stressed by a changing climate to adapt, whether that’s to migrate 100 miles north to avoid excess heat or move 500 feet up a mountain to find a new food source,” notes Rob Buffler, executive director of the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative. That was one of the motivations behind Y2Y, which was launched in 1997 to ensure connectivity amongst the world-class protected areas—including Yellowstone in the U.S. and Banff in Canada—in the 2,000-mile-long swath of land running from Wyoming to the northwesternmost reaches of Canada. Although the Y2Y region is unquestionably mountainous, where the effects of climate change will therefore be most severe, its terrain is sufficiently diverse and still comparatively intact enough to offer plants and animals the ability to seek more hospitable locations and elevations.
Despite having an undersized staff and an oversized goal, Y2Y has made steady progress by pooling the efforts of more than 350 different environmental groups and working with state, provincial, and federal agencies of the United States and Canada. “Before Y2Y, conservation projects along the Rockies were strictly parochial; they weren’t connected,” explains Gary Tabor, an early proponent of Yellowstone to Yukon. “Y2Y was the unifying idea that showed these local concerns were consistent with a broader vision.” That vision, moreover, has become a model for conservation in the 21st century, inspiring similar large landscape and “seascape” ventures in North America, Australia, Europe, and beyond.
The home range for a single grizzly bear can cover 1,000 square miles—and wolves roam even farther.