Connecting the Cabinet-Purcell Mountains
Straddling southeastern B.C., northern Idaho and western Montana, snow-capped peaks tower above dense forests and wide river valleys that support a mix of farms, ranches, rural residences, vacation homes and small towns and cities.
Along those flat valley bottoms, roads and private properties section off the landscape, and grizzly bears and other wide-ranging wildlife try to avoid the many new obstacles fragmenting the ecosystems they’ve roamed for millennia.
Linking the U.S. Cabinet Mountains to Canada’s Purcells, the Cabinet-Purcell Mountain Corridor (CPMC) is a high priority linkage zone for Y2Y. And it’s easy to see why.
Stretching almost 400 miles (650 kilometers) from Missoula, Montana, to Golden, B.C., the area covers about 20 percent of the Yellowstone to Yukon region—one of only two travel routes for grizzlies in Canada to interact with endangered populations in Montana and Idaho.
“Grizzly bears are not the only iconic symbols of wilderness, but, as an umbrella species, they are a bellwether for connected and protected ecosystems,” says Y2Y President and Chief Scientist Jodi Hilty. “If grizzlies are in trouble, so are the many wildlife species that depend on the same intact habitat and movement corridors.” If they can’t live and move throughout this landscape long-term, she adds, isolated bear populations will decline and eventually disappear.
Scientists have long warned that bears in this region were on the brink. In 1975, when U.S. grizzlies were first listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, as few as 10 bears were estimated to live in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, core habitat in a prime location just south of the Canadian border.
In 2006, Y2Y initiated the Cabinet-Purcell Collaborative, a trans-border network of more than 60 conservation and community groups, government agencies, scientists and individuals working together to connect and protect this vital corridor. The partnership was only possible thanks to support from key donors who had the vision to recognize the ecological significance of protecting this region.
This April, as partners gather in Sandpoint, Idaho, for the 10th Cabinet-Purcell Collaborative partner meeting, they are celebrating those shared successes and defining next steps toward achieving long-term objectives.
It’s a massive undertaking. Partners must coordinate conservation efforts across a diverse and multi-jurisdictional landscape, and engage in a range of strategies. That means conducting research to learn more about the bears and spearheading on-the-ground work to restore and protect habitats and corridors—from de-activating logging roads to encouraging safe wildlife movement over major roadways.
After 10 years of collective action, the hard work is bearing fruit. Researchers estimate bear numbers have increased in the endangered Cabinet-Yaak grizzly population by more than 160 percent, up to 50 bears. Work from Y2Y and partners has led to the protection of close to 500,000 ac (200,000 ha) of public land, 185,000 ac (75,000 ha) of private land, and the closing of almost 600 mi (965 km) of forest roads to motorized vehicles.
Achieving these successes often involves pinpointed conservation efforts on small, but critically important parcels of land. Just east of Creston, B.C., for example, where tiny Kidd Creek intersects with Highway 3, a busy east-west road that bisects the Canadian portion of the CPMC, researchers have identified a prime corridor for wildlife movement.
You’d never know to see it, but this non-descript strip of land is vitally important—one of just a few corridors where grizzly bears move south-north across the Canada-U.S. border. With help from our supporters, Y2Y helped raise funds to purchase two critical pieces of land here, preventing them from being subdivided into multiple residential properties.
“This mosaic of habitats—intersecting with farmers’ fields, transportation routes and pieces of public land—is a critical corridor for grizzly bear movement,” says Y2Y’s B.C. and Yukon Program Director Candace Batycki. “If we can help grizzlies move freely through this area, we’ll increase their chances for long-term survival further south and in the U.S. We’re also protecting habitat for dozens of other species, and keeping the ecosystem interconnected.”
Ensuring bears can safely cross roadways is a major challenge, but not the only one. For many bears and other predators, death inevitably comes after any conflict with people or their property—an issue of vital importance in the CPMC, since its low-lying valleys are predominantly privately owned.
That’s why partners in the Collaborative focus on reducing these negative interactions between people and wildlife as much as possible. Doing so requires a community-driven approach—everything from engaging local landowners in animal awareness campaigns to encouraging more tangible efforts to secure properties, such as fencing in orchards or using bear-proof garbage bins to minimize human-bear interactions.
“These activities are making a substantial difference in this ecologically significant trans-border region,” says Y2Y’s U.S. Program Director Kim Trotter. “Grizzly bears are increasing in numbers further south in the CPMC, and the gap separating populations from the Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot is decreasing.”
Success in this exciting collaborative project will go a long way toward achieving the Yellowstone to Yukon vision. With your support, and the collective work of our collaborative partners, we are stitching this ecosystem back together.