Make Way for Wildlife—Land&People

On a glorious Sunday morning just past dawn, Alex Diekmann walks with his eight-year-old son, Logan, and a hiking companion up a treeless hill shaped like a camel's hump. From this skyscraping vantage, Diekmann, who manages The Trust for Public Land's work in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, lifts his binoculars to spy the rugged panorama along the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River in the remote central reaches of the Madison Mountain Range southwest of Bozeman, Montana.

Below him lie scores of narrow, barely discernible lines etched into the earth. These lines funnel into larger tracks that could easily be mistaken for well-worn footpaths or possibly off-road vehicle trails. They are in fact wildlife highways, fragile passages between Yellowstone National Park to the east and the verdant Madison Valley on the other side of the western horizon.

Only days earlier, Montana state biologists conducting an aerial census in this area counted 11 grizzly bears (including four sows with cubs); a huge scattering of elk (including mothers and newborn calves); moose wading through swampy bottomlands; mule deer grazing across sagebrush-coated uplands; and even a few wolves.

"Isn't this place great?" Diekmann says to his son. "We're standing at the spot where it all comes together."

"Who owns this land, Dad?" the boy asks.

"You do," Diekmann replies. "We do. We all do."

Ten years ago the Taylor Fork drainage was in imminent jeopardy of being developed and fragmented, many of its wildlife corridors blocked forever. While some of the land was protected national forest, there were many private, developable inholdings left over from frontier times when railroad companies were given vast tracts of land by the federal government. Hundreds of 20-acre home sites had been platted. A network of roads was being bulldozed. Prefabricated guest cabins were beginning to pepper the hills. Farther upstream, a timber company planned to fell old-growth trees.

This prospect was particularly troubling to bear biologists such as Chuck Schwartz, who oversees the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, headquartered in Bozeman. "The Taylor Fork has the highest density of bears in the northern half of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem," Schwartz says. With plenty of elk calves, rodents, and a wide variety of native plants to eat, some grizzly bear sows have given birth to as many as four cubs in a litter, twice the usual number. "It's not just incredibly productive for grizzly bears," Schwartz says, "the Taylor Fork is a rich piece of real estate for a whole array of species." But carve it up with development and the Taylor Fork, instead of being a natural factory for bears, could have quickly become a "black hole" for bears, where their numbers would have dwindled.

In 2001, TPL began working with private landowners, local conservationists, citizen stakeholders, government leaders, and Congress to protect the land, eventually transferring more than 3,400 acres to the Gallatin National Forest. "The Taylor Fork is one of the most precious wildlife areas in the entire Yellowstone area," says Kurt Alt, regional wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Losing it would have been tragic. Saving it was a close call. TPL stepped forward at a critical moment."

National Parks Are Not Enough

But the Taylor Fork is just one critical piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle that must be assembled to protect wildlife in the 18-million-acre Yellowstone ecosystem, the largest intact bioregion in the lower 48 states. Encompassing northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana, and southeastern Idaho, this area the size of New England is best known for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks-home during much of the year to the nation's most diverse assemblage of large wild mammals outside Alaska.

Yet ecologists have long recognized that the national parks alone cannot protect the region's abundant wildlife. As autumn advances and the park interiors are blanketed by several feet of snow, animals instinctively go on the move, following age-old pathways to lower-elevation valleys. Public and private lands outside the parks provide vital linkages to winter habitat elsewhere in the ecosystem. Should these lands be developed, the parks would become biological islands. Such isolated places, no matter how vast, suffer restricted and weakened gene pools and higher rates of species extinctions.

In addition, development is consuming more and more land in the ecosystem, according to an analysis by the Sonoran Institute. Over the last three decades the human footprint in the greater Yellow-stone has expanded disproportionately faster than in other regions experiencing similar growth. Not only are greater numbers of people moving here, but they are building homes on increasingly larger tracts of land.

Over the last decade scientists, conservation groups, and government wildlife managers have begun focusing on the protection of habitat linkages between parks and wildlife refuges, says Rob Ament, former executive director of American Wildlands, which promotes the protection of wildlife corridors throughout the Rockies. He describes this as "stringing together the pearls of protected areas by focusing on the common threads that stitch them together."

Together, TPL, the Montana congressional delegation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the Montana Land Reliance (a nonprofit land trust), and local leaders have protected hundreds of thousands of acres of key wildlife habitat in the greater Yellowstone region that were in danger of being lost. TPL has protected more than 200,000 acres across the three-state northern Rockies region since 1998.

This work has been bolstered by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which in 2001 awarded $8.2 million to groups working on conservation within the Yellowstone region, including $1.8 million to TPL. It also has relied heavily on support from Congress through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the USDA Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP). In recent years budget pressures have taken a toll on these federal funding programs. Despite this, Congress has continued to invest millions of dollars in Montana conservation efforts-a credit to Montana's congressional delegation and in particular to U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, who chairs the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee that dispenses these funds.

Years ago Senator Burns served as a county commissioner in the Yellowstone region, and he recognizes that the stakes here are high. Senator Burns and a network of supporters (including senior administration officials, fellow Montana senator Max Baucus, and the staff of the USDA and other federal natural resource agencies) are working to safeguard local economies, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and the natural values of this unique region. Taylor Fork is only the latest victory in a lengthy list of conservation successes, including many TPL projects, that Senator Burns's work in Washington has made possible back home in Montana.

Besides protecting land for wildlife, these conservation projects have created better access for hunters and guides, anglers, skiers, horseback riders, snowmobilers, and family recreationists-all part of a natural-amenity economy worth more than $1 billion a year to local communities. "There's a balance you have to strike," says Senator Burns. "It is important to protect and preserve our natural areas and ensure we have habitat for our wildlife and recreational opportunities. That said, we have to guard against locking away our public lands to the detriment of the folks who live and work in the area."

"We've come a long way, but we've still got a ways to go," notes Diekmann. "We've been given a second chance to save the best that's left by applying better thinking and better tools to modern problems. But we only have a limited amount of time to do it right because the clock is ticking."

Elk Tracks

Farther south, near the western border of Yellowstone National Park, Diekmann pulls off the road and strolls to the sparkling meander of Duck Creek. A tributary to the Madison River system, Duck Creek isn't a large waterway, but it nurtures a wide riparian ?oodplain thick with willow. Grizzly bears use the corridor in their secretive travels from the park to nearby Hebgen Lake. So, too, do moose, elk, and bison. Brown, brook, and rainbow trout spawn in the creek's cobble bottom.

A few years ago a developer sought to build an 18-hole golf course and almost 1,000 homes on 320 acres overlooking Duck Creek, adjacent to the park and Gallatin National Forest. The plan drew red flags from wildlife biologists, park officials, and conservationists, who worried that it would pose a gauntlet for migrating wildlife and pollute the stream. No sooner had that project been stopped by a district court judge than another development, of 71 homes, was proposed on an adjacent tract. TPL acquired this parcel in 2004 and transferred it to the Forest Service. Today a new picnic area and fishing site sit on the creek's banks, and wildlife moves through the area unimpeded.

"These pieces of property might seem relatively insignificant compared to the millions of acres of public land surrounding them," Alex Diekmann says. "But their location is what makes their protection crucial. Even a small amount of development within this corridor would jeopardize its ecological function and block access for anglers and people interested in viewing wildlife."

Dennis Glick, director of the Sonoran Institute's Northwest Office, agrees. "Protecting Duck Creek has been long recognized as a high priority by the conservation community and residents of the Hegben Basin," he says. "This purchase will help conserve critical wildlife habitat and support the land use goals of local residents. It's a win-win for wildlife and people."

Duck Creek and Taylor Fork straddle an ancient fall migration path for elk moving out of Yellowstone National Park. After moving through these areas and then navigating the spine of the Madison Range, the elk enter the open expanse of the Madison Valley, ford the Madison River (internationally famous for its blue-ribbon trout fishery), and head farther west onto the lower flanks of the Gravelly Mountains, where they spend the winter on the windblown grasslands of the Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area, administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The migration takes them 50 miles across a mosaic of public and private land.

"The dramatic journey that these wapiti take underlines the impact on wildlife of the mixed ownership pattern that has arisen since the era of frontier settlement," says Rob Ament. "If any segment is compromised by development, the ecological integrity of the whole corridor can fall apart." (Wapiti, another name for the American elk, is a Shawnee word.) For this reason conservation groups have been working to assemble protected habitat in the Madison Valley along the elk's route. In 2002, The Nature Conservancy helped protect 6,800 acres of the 18,000-acre Sun Ranch, in the upper Madison Valley, with a conservation easement. The ranch is home to 8,000 elk-the second-largest elk herd in the ecosystem-and also offers habitat for wolves, grizzlies, lynx, fisher, martens, and wolverines.

Until 2005, however, there remained a troubling and difficult-to-close gap in conservation on private land just south of the Sun Ranch and next to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. In that year TPL brokered a pair of agreements conserving nearly 1,700 additional acres by purchase or easement, ensuring that one of the most important wildlife corridors in the upper Madison area remains free of subdivision. The transactions included permanent public hunting rights, a trail easement that guarantees public fishing access to almost four miles of the Madison River, and a new trailhead for hikers and hunters entering the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area.

Striking such deals depends on the right circumstances and combinations of personalities, says Kurt Alt of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Thanks to the perseverance of Alex Diekmann and TPL, some very difficult land deals were put together that nobody thought had a chance of getting accomplished. Future managers are going to have some wonderful opportunities to conserve wildlife-opportunities that easily could have been lost."

For their part, in addition to funds they might receive for land or easements, landowners get the satisfaction of protecting the land and safeguarding a primordial passage of animals that has been going on since the time of the glaciers.

"So often you read about intractable environmental problems," says Alex Diekmann. "But what's happening with protection of wildlife corridors in the greater Yellowstone region is about finding win-win solutions. We still have a lot of work to do, but I'm optimistic. You have to be optimistic if you want to accomplish anything worthwhile."

Writer Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Montana, and writes for several national magazines and newspapers. He is also a western correspondent, specializing in the environment, for the Christian Science Monitor.