Hiking in the Yukon. Image: Pat Morrow
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Wildlife Cameras in Yahk to Yaak

In the trans-boundary Yahk to Yaak region, Adam Switalski’s remote wildlife cameras are proving just how successful road restoration projects can be.

The Yellowstone to Yukon vision is all about the big picture: connecting and protecting a vast area that stretches across the spine of North America.

But on-the-ground work to ensure wildlife can roam freely throughout the region is usually scaled down significantly—all the way to non-descript parcels of land along wildlife migration routes, wildlife crossings over or under main highways, or small projects restoring disturbed landscapes.

A look at the work of Y2Y’s partners in the Yahk to Yaak project area is a case-in-point. Extending from Canada’s Yahk River, near Cranbrook, British Columbia (B.C.), and south to Montana’s Yaak River, the region became a key focus for Y2Y because it’s a strategic zone for connecting wildlife north and south across the border—part of a much larger priority region called the Cabinet Purcell Mountain Corridor, which stretches from the bottom of the Idaho panhandle way up to north of Golden, B.C.

Restoring Roads from Yahk to Yaak

Y2Y is working with multiple partners, including the Montana-based Yaak Valley Forest Council and Hawkins Creek Stewardship Committee, based in Yahk, B.C., to decommission and restore logging roads throughout the Yahk to Yaak region. That involves the hard work of churning up the compacted soil of old roads and removing old culverts , but it also involves monitoring the sites afterward to see how wildlife are using restored areas.

Enter Adam Switalski, an ecologist and principal of InRoads Consulting, who for the last decade has been setting up wildlife cameras to monitor wildlife on restored roads. From Yahk to Yaak, he’s helped set up several wildlife cameras where road restoration work is slated to be completed.

“I’m trying to document how wildlife responds to road restoration, and communicate key findings to local communities,” says Switalski. “Closing and restoring roads in this trans-boundary area is a key strategy for the Threatened Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear, and these photos and videos are a great tool for demonstrating that bears are benefiting from road reclamation efforts.”

In the 10 years that he’s studied the effects of restoring old roads, Switalski found that black bears in particular used them extensively. “Returning the road to a natural state creates more food options, in the form of berries and other grasses that bears eat, and it also increases security because there are no more vehicles,” explains Switalski. “Lo and behold, you get lots of bears using these sites.”  In the Yahk to Yaak he wanted to extend that research to grizzly bear habitat as well.

A black bear walks through a restored meadow near Freeman Creek, B.C. Photo: InRoads Consulting.

New Food Source for Bears

Old logging roads can be a major hindrance for bears, by increasing conflict with humans and creating obstacles to movement. But they can actually become a source of new habitat after restoration, says Switalski, and in some instances they are even better than densely forested areas, which don’t have as much early successional growth in the form of berries and grasses.

Switalski said he was surprised at how quickly the wildlife responded and started using the sites after restoration. “We started to really see a difference a couple years, sometimes just one year,” he says. “It all depends on how quickly the shrubs re-colonize, with thimbleberries coming first and huckleberries taking a bit longer.”

To get a better sense of the long-term effects of road restoration on wildlife, Switalski says he plans to continue the monitoring out to five and even 10 years later to see what happens, and how successional stages affect these species.

He also hopes to communicate his findings widely, so that more people realize the benefits of doing this. “Strategically restoring roads is a win for everybody,” says Switalski. “For forestry companies, it mitigates expensive issues related to washouts and erosion, and for conservationists, it results in high-quality habitat for bears and other animals.”

It’s also a big win for Y2Y, because it could keep bears moving between protected ecosystems north and south of the border—from Yellowstone and Selway-Bitterroot all the way up to national parks in Canada.

On a cold December night, a grizzly stalks past one camera near Montana's Yaak River. Photo: InRoads Consulting.