In 1991, a grey wolf wearing a radio beacon set off on a journey through the Rocky Mountains, in just 9 months traversing more than 100,000 square kilometers encompassing three U.S. state and two Canadian provinces.
The adventures of the 5-year-old female dubbed “Pluie” captured the public’s attention, even making its way (slightly fictionalized) into the 1999 opening season of the television show The West Wing.
Now, in the real world, scientists say a movement inspired partly by the wolf’s journey is showing the potential gains that can come with ambitious, publicity-friendly conservation initiatives stretching across the vast migratory pathways of charismatic animals such as wolves. Nearly three decades after its inception, the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) project has coincided with a surge in land protections there compared with other areas, as well as an uptick in funding, growing numbers of endangered grizzly bears and an unmatched network of road crossings for animals.
“At the time, this seemed really audacious like an unachievable goal and pipe dream and pie in the sky thinking. But here we are 25 years later,” said Mark Hebblewhite, a wildlife habitat ecologist at the University of Montana who studies conservation efforts in the region. The approach “is really a blueprint for biodiversity conservation around the world.”
Today, there is growing pressure to expand habitat protections in the face of mounting losses of wildlands and species. Conservationists are calling for the protection of 30% of land and ocean habitat by 2030. While the world met a 2020 United Nations target to protect 17% of land habitat, there is concern that many of these areas are disconnected patches with limited conservation benefits.
In the early 1990s, the Y2Y campaign was one of the first of its kind. A broad coalition of organizations joined to push for an interconnected system of wildlands stretching across much of a continent – from the Canadian Yukon to Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming. The goal was to encompass the needs of large, wide-ranging carnivores including wolves and grizzlies. Since then, similar campaigns have been launched, including ones encompassing habitats stretching the length of North America’s Pacific Coast, forests near the Great Lakes separating the U.S. and Canada, and much of eastern Australia.
While such initiatives might garner headlines (and a mention on a tv drama), it’s less clear how much difference they make on the ground. It’s hard to draw causal links between conservation campaigns and changes in, say, the population size of an endangered species.
Hebblewhite teamed up with university researchers and staff scientists at the nonprofit leading the Y2Y campaign to find data that could help answer whether the hype translated into results.
To do that, they looked at how the region encompassed by the Y2Y initiative fared compared to similar places elsewhere. The area stood out, gaining more than 100,000 square kilometers of protected areas between 1993 and 2018, an increase of 7.8% to a total of 17.6% stretching from the remote Peel River in the northern reaches of the Yukon Territory south to the geysers of Yellowstone. By contrast, protections in those same states and provinces but outside the reach of Y2Y increased by only 2%, according to an analysis by Hebblewhite and his partners, published December 1 in the journal Conservation Science and Practice. That slower growth matched the increase in protected areas throughout North America over the same time.
The Y2Y area stood out in other ways. Grizzly numbers in parts of the U.S. included in the program grew from 400 to at least 1,700, prompting a legal fight over whether they were so numerous that they no longer needed protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Y2Y campaign also helped spur creation of 117 structures such as tunnels and bridges to help wildlife cross roads that can interfere with migration and isolate different animal populations. It makes for the highest concentrations of such crossings anywhere in the world, the researchers found.
Some other effects are less tangible but potentially important in rallying public support that can help drive funding and political change, said Hebblewhite. A National Geographic book titled “Yellowstone to Yukon” described the region’s ecosystems and the threats they faced. It earned a mention in the television hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy. The researchers counted nearly a hundred scientific papers and 67 books that referenced the Y2Y concept. Then there was the West Wing cameo. “The idea of large landscape conservation, specifically in the Yellowstone to Yukon region was being mainstreamed into public consciousness,” said Hebblewhite.
Even with all these anecdotes and evidence, it can still be tricky to show that without the campaign, such conservation advances wouldn’t have happened. “The field of conservation is struggling with this right now. Right?” said Hebblewhite. “How does one determine that my conservation initiative or my conservation campaign, or whatever it is, had an impact.”
In this case, he said the accumulation of these different lines of evidence add up to a strong case that thinking on the scale of a wolf’s wandering range translated into big gains in habitat conservation.
Hebblewhite, et. al. “Can a large-landscape conservation vision contribute to achieving biodiversity targets?” Conservation Science and Practice. Dec. 1. 2021.