Large-Landscape Conservation: A Key to Achieving Biodiversity Targets

Teton Range and elk
Photo: Lance Schelvan
The Yellowstone to Yukon region stretches from Wyoming's Teton Range (pictured) and surrounding wildlands north through Montana, Idaho and western Canada. A new study seeks to measure and evaluate the conservation progress made by many collaborative partners across this vast transboundary landscape over the last 30 years.

New Study Shows Progress Toward Regional Vision

By Lena Beck, Conservation Writing Intern

The health of an ecosystem depends on animals being able to roam to their full natural range. For big mammals like grizzly bears, this range can be as large as 1,500 square miles. When inhibitions like roads and urban centers get in the way, it can negatively affect the biodiversity of an entire region.

A recent study published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice sought to evaluate the effectiveness of large-landscape conservation across one of North America’s iconic wildlife communities, the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) or “Crown of the Continent” region stretching from Wyoming, Idaho and Montana north through western Canada. The study is unique in its goal of quantifying the progress of conservation on a regional, transboundary scale.

Keep reading to find out how the Y2Y vision can help with achieving global biodiversity targets—such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s goal of protecting 30 percent of the Earth by 2030—and how your support of Vital Ground’s One Landscape Initiative plays an important role.

What is large-landscape conservation in this context?

Large, connected landscape corridors are important for the wellbeing of individual animals and collective ecosystems. Animals like grizzlies need access to their full natural range in order to meet seasonal needs and adapt to change. There are some initiatives that think of conservation at this larger scale. A frequent Vital Ground partner, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, is one such project. But it’s not the only one! Other prominent efforts include the Florida Wildlife Corridor and the Great Eastern Ranges initiative.

Lance Schelvan photo of Rising Wolf Peak, Glacier National Park
Rising Wolf Peak towers over Glacier National Park. National parks provide stable cores of habitat but large-landscape conservation requires connecting wildlands rather than protecting isolated areas. (Photo: Lance Schelvan)

The new study didn’t look at Y2Y as an organization, but rather at the nearly 30-year-old Y2Y vision driven by the belief that a large-scale interconnected Crown of the Continent landscape is important.

“[Y2Y] was really the result of people realizing as technology changed and as research changed, that our protected areas were important, but not sufficient,” said Dr. Jodi Hilty, president and chief scientist of the Y2Y organization and one of the study’s co-authors. “Wildlife need more room to roam than is available in parks.”

Therefore, conservation has to occur at a scale that actually matters to animals, Hilty says, and that corresponds to large-scale ecological processes like fires and floods. This means thinking bigger than one singular protected area. Today, Y2Y the organization works across about 2,000 miles of connected land through the U.S. and Canada. The Y2Y vision is shared and implemented by more than 470 different partners, including Vital Ground.

“The organization doesn’t try to hold onto the vision; it’s really about sharing that vision,” Hilty said.

How can you evaluate the success of a large-landscape conservation strategy?

It’s really hard to evaluate the success of large-landscape conservation! This is because of the inherent scale of the vision, but also because conservation goals take a long time to be realized. Broadly, success of this vision means shifting the paradigm from small (i.e. individual parks) to large-landscape conservation.

Because of its complexity, the researchers in the study evaluated the Y2Y vision using five main criteria: They compared rates of protected area gains, evaluated changes in conservation easements on private land, documented changes in grizzly bear habitat, evaluated the growth of crossing structures, and examined popular culture like media and academia for mainstream adoption of the Y2Y vision.

What does this have to do with grizzlies?

Grizzly sow and cub in Glacier National Park
As an umbrella species, grizzlies are a barometer for regional conservation.

Analysis of grizzly bear habitat was one of the main criteria that the researchers used to evaluate the effectiveness of the Y2Y vision over the last 30 years. Why?

With large ranges that cover a wide variety of habitat types, grizzly bears are known as an ecological “umbrella species.” This means that the welfare of the grizzly—either good or bad—has a cascading effect on the rest of the ecosystem.

“If you get it right for them, it serves other species,” Hilty said. This made grizzly bear territory a useful metric for evaluating the success of the Y2Y vision in protecting the region’s broader biodiversity.

What were the results of the study?

The results of this study indicated that large-landscape conservation strategies like Y2Y may be an effective means of achieving conservation goals!

The study found that the rate of protected area growth increased under the Y2Y vision by 90 percent—whereas it decreased or stayed the same in comparative regions without a shared large-landscape conservation vision. There is also evidence that grizzly habitat has expanded—the U.S. territory occupied by grizzly bears has more than doubled from 1990 to 2014, with the proportion of their range occurring on protected areas decreasing from 70 percent to 45 percent. This speaks to the increasing importance of private lands and unprotected public lands to grizzly bear species health. Additionally, the number of wildlife crossing structures has increased exponentially in the last 30 years.

There were other markers of success too—seeing a Y2Y poster in the background of an episode of the popular television show Grey’s Anatomy was one piece of evidence that the Y2Y vision has made it into mainstream consciousness.

According to Hilty, it can be easy to focus on the problems—continued development and climate change impacts, for example. But the progress shown by the study represents a good step forward.

“Having a positive, forward-facing vision can bring entities together to work toward that positive vision,” Hilty said.

How do people fit into large-landscape connectivity?

Large-landscape conservation hinges on connectivity throughout the landscape. But that connectivity can look different depending on where you are. Sometimes it means protected lands, sometimes it means crossing structures over busy roadways, and it can also mean conservation easements on private lands that connect core wild areas. Connectivity includes peoples’ interactions with the landscape and decisions for managing it.

“Our vision is certainly that people are living in this landscape and utilizing this landscape, but doing it in a way that they’re aware of their impacts and managing those impacts, so that it can stay the most intact large mountain region in the world,” Hilty said.

What is Vital Ground’s role?

Vital Ground’s One Landscape Initiative works to conserve private lands that help connect the wild strongholds of the Northern Rockies, making it a crucial part of the Y2Y regional conservation vision. (Graphic by Eric Ian)

Vital Ground knows that large-landscape conservation is an important part of ensuring the health of grizzly bears, the countless other animal species that share their range, and the diverse ecosystems they call home. That’s why our One Landscape Initiative aligns strongly with the regional Y2Y vision. With the goal of conserving 188,000 acres on private lands that help connect the Northern Rockies’ wild strongholds, One Landscape forms a crucial strategy for implementing large-landscape conservation in the American portion of the Crown of the Continent region.

That means that by supporting the One Landscape Initiative, Vital Ground community members like you are part of a coordinated international effort that is achieving measurable success. You are helping advance a new paradigm for conservation that enables a resilient future for wildlife.

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