Long-Term Vision: Connecting Vital Ground for Grizzlies

April, 19 2017  |  by Adrienne Ingram Back »

By Matt Hart

Connectivity—it’s a hot buzzword when it comes to wildlife. But what does it really mean?

At The Vital Ground Foundation, connectivity shapes our organizational vision. A dozen years ago, when the foundation moved from Utah to Montana and became a working land trust focused on grizzly bear recovery, it was connectivity that drew us quickly to the Swan Valley.

“We don’t need to save thousands and thousands of acres,” explains biologist and Vital Ground trustee Douglas Chadwick. “We just need to save hundreds of acres in exactly the right places.”

South of Canada, grizzlies once lived from Glacier National Park to the Sierra Madre of Mexico and from the Olympic Peninsula to the Dakota prairie. But development of the West during the 19th and 20th centuries confined the big bruins to the region’s remotest corners and eventually pushed them near extinction. Recovery efforts now leave an estimated 1,800 grizzlies in the Lower 48, but the species remains confined to just 4 percent of its historic range across the American West.

That’s a problem if your goal is to ensure the survival of the iconic silver-tipped bears as an integral part of our regional heritage, as a birthright for future generations of Montanans, Idahoans, Washingtonians and Wyomingites.

Preserving that legacy is Vital Ground’s mission—and it’s why connectivity looms as our watchword.

It’s All About Genes

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only 40-45 grizzly bears remain in the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Area of extreme northwest Montana.

“We have a native species on the landscape that we have reduced to exceedingly low population levels,” says Wayne Kasworm, a longtime biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Bears need secure habitat that provides opportunities for them to move across the landscape without bumping into too many people along the way.”

While large cores of protected habitat anchor grizzly populations in the Yellowstone and Glacier-Bob Marshall areas, these footholds are not enough to provide long-term security for the species. The key to connectivity, Kasworm explains, is genetic diversity, the thing that prevents the downward spiral of inbreeding. That only happens when reproductive bears can move between previously isolated subpopulations. “When I think about linkages,” he says, “it’s not only about the ability of the animal to get there, but to get there and reproduce, so we have genetic linkage as well.”

In western Montana, the Glacier-Bob Marshall bears now range into the Rattlesnake Mountains and south of Highway 200. At roughly 1,000 animals, this Northern Continental Divide subpopulation is the largest south of Canada. The expanse of its range has everything to do with connectivity.

Highlighting that success is the Swan, where conservation efforts have linked Mission Mountain habitat with the larger core of the Bob Marshall Complex. Vital Ground began chipping in with a permanent conservation easement on Bud Moore’s Coyote Forest property in 2005. Eight easements later, we’ve helped create a patchwork of protected land in the valley, a corridor that maintains working landscapes while letting bears and other wildlife move between the mountains with much less risk of conflict.

“We are continuing the concept of maintaining vital wildlife as well as productive private forests,” says Bill Moore, Bud’s son and one of the participating landowners in Vital Ground’s Elk Flats Neighborhood Project near Condon. “We are striking a sustainable balance in our part of the Upper Swan Valley.”

In Search of Connections

Balance is harder to find elsewhere in the state. Although Northern Continental Divide bears periodically venture west of Whitefish and Highway 93, lack of an established habitat link keeps them genetically isolated from their neighbors in the Cabinet-Yaak recovery zone. Connecting these populations stands as a major goal in ensuring survival for bears west of the Glacier region.

Vital Ground sees the Cabinet-Yaak region as ground zero for building connectivity. The Montana-based land trust has purchased two properties in the Kootenai Valley near Troy, and our latest project seeks to conserve land along the river, creating a fully protected habitat corridor that links mountainous U.S. Forest Service lands on either side of the valley.

Even within the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, the developed Kootenai River Valley splits bears into two struggling subpopulations, one in the Yaak Valley and another in the Cabinet Mountains. With no evidence of breeding females passing between the two—or between the Cabinets and the Selkirk Mountains of the Idaho-Washington-British Columbia borderlands—the Cabinet and Yaak subpopulations hover around just 25 bears apiece, according to Kasworm’s latest estimates.

“We want to see linkage occur where bears move in naturally,” Kasworm says. “We’ve documented a couple of instances of males getting into the Cabinets from either the Selkirks or the Yaak, and that’s certainly a good sign, but ultimately we need reproduction because that’s where we get genetic change.”

With recent DNA sampling showing inbreeding among the Cabinet and Yaak grizzlies, Vital Ground sees the region as ground zero for building connectivity. We’ve recently purchased two properties in the Kootenai Valley near Troy, and our latest project seeks to conserve land along the river, creating a fully protected habitat corridor that links mountainous U.S. Forest Service lands on either side of the valley.

But the long-term vision of grizzly stability extends far beyond western Montana. Across the Clark Fork Valley from Missoula and the Rattlesnake Mountains, the sprawling Selway-Bitterroot-Frank Church complex offers several million acres of prime protected bear habitat, but the linkages are too weak for any grizzlies to have settled into recorded residency there. Meanwhile, recent sightings show silvertips moving west from Yellowstone into the Big Hole Valley near Wisdom, a promising sign that linking both Yellowstone and Glacier bears to the Selway-Bitterroot stands as a realistic goal. And to the west, in the North Cascades of Washington, a new proposal would gradually reintroduce grizzlies to that ecosystem, a large rugged wilderness anchored by a national park, and one that might eventually link to the Selkirks, less than a hundred miles to the east.

At a time when the West’s political discourse blares with threats of public land transfer, connectivity goals for grizzlies may seem like an environmental pipedream. But Vital Ground and other private-land conservation groups know that it’s not, that the template is before us to establish those key corridors that will make a much broader difference.

With the Swan Valley for inspiration, we are committed to working with landowners across the region who want to join in our connective vision, saving places not just for bears, but for elk and lynx and bull trout and people alike. Join us today in imagining a future that leaves room for all the diverse species and traditions that color our treasured heritage