Reconnecting grizzly bears across the U.S. Northern Rockies - Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

Reconnecting grizzly bears across the U.S. Northern Rockies

Helping grizzly bears stay connected across landscapes is at the heart of our work. What we do today to connect and protect their habitat — with our partners’ and your help — gives hope for a brighter future of people, bears and other wildlife that share common spaces.

Grizzly bears nearly disappeared from the lower 48.

Many people are familiar with what it’s like to visit or live in bear country. There’s a special connection to the bears’ gentle yet powerful presence, a knowing that one could be nearby at any time and that what you do could impact their well-being. Imagine if that feeling disappeared — that bears nearly disappeared.

In the lower 48, the thriving existence of grizzly bears depends on a very important factor to ensure that they don’t vanish: connectivity, especially to the mountain ranges of the Cabinet-Purcell Mountain Corridor and elsewhere in Idaho and Montana.

More than 100,000 grizzly bears once roamed western North America but by the 1920s, mostly isolated island populations were left in the United States. Today, there are just a handful of populations in the lower 48.

Grizzly bears require connected habitat to access food and mates. Small islands of habitat are not big enough to ensure that bears retain the diversity that keeps them genetically healthy.

In addition to high-quality, safe habitat, grizzly bears must be able to navigate around some of the fastest growing human communities in the west while staying connected to populations throughout the Yellowstone to Yukon region.

It’s growing communities and roads with high traffic volumes that are slicing up and eliminating bears’ habitat, keeping them isolated.

It’s not too late.

Today, we have an opportunity to reverse the shrinking range of grizzly bears and other wildlife.

We can help bears by reconnecting their currently isolated populations and creating the right conditions to thrive in areas they return to, such as in central Idaho.

For years, Y2Y and partners have worked to recover grizzly populations and improve wildlife corridors in northwest Montana and north Idaho, in hopes that a healthy population would expand its range and move south into the central Idaho’s unoccupied Bitterroot Ecosystem Recovery Area.

In early 2020, two reports of a young male grizzly bear were made in central Idaho. These are some of the first grizzly bears to show up since 1932 when the last known resident grizzly bear was shot in the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem.

Bear by bear, these are the kinds of stories that show us that connectivity is working. These are the stories that give us hope.

Grizzly bear connectivity
Grizzly bears need large, connected, and wild spaces where they are secure from threats such as roads and development to continue upholding their vital role in ecosystem function. Photo: Eric Johnston/National Park Service

The benefits of getting connectivity right are not limited to just one species, either. Grizzly bears are often called umbrella species. In other words, when grizzly bear populations are healthy, they also help other species that live in the same region thrive.

By protecting and restoring wildlife corridors from the U.S.-Canadian border into the central Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, grizzly bears may return to their historic ranges in central Idaho, and Yellowstone bears will be more genetically robust over the long term.

How Y2Y is taking action: Recover and connect habitat

Years of scientific research has provided a clear picture of key corridors that will reconnect the U.S. Rockies.

Such science helps Y2Y and partners identify and protect and restore three corridors in the transboundary Cabinet-Purcell region and support expanding populations of grizzly bears along the U.S. Cabinet-Yaak mountains from 10 bears in 1990 to around 60 today.

Working with communities, state agencies, scientists and other partners, we aim to reconnect the rest of the US Northern Rockies next.

Today, groups of bears in central Idaho are just 50 miles (80 kilometers) apart — the closest they have been in about 100 years. Credit: Y2Y

Strenghtening wildlife corridors

Thanks to work with partners and biologists, a series of corridors in Montana have been identified as places grizzly bears can reconnect across the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States.

To connect more northern bears to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and central Idaho, we are working to enhance and connect 12 valley bottom corridors — the lands in between islands of public land habitat that are key to connecting these bears.

Recipe for success as bears bounce back:

  • Working with willing property owners to connect private lands.
  • Making sure wildlife can move across busy roads.
  • Promoting coexistence within communities.

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