Striking balance: Conservation in the Crown

The grizzlies were there long before humans moved into the lands uncovered by the last of the retreating ice sheets. The bears made room for the ancestors of the Blackfeet, Kainaiwa, Ktunaxa, Salish and Kootenai, unaware that the open lands of the Rocky Mountain West would soon be divided by national, state and private property borders.

Early mappers, explorers and colonizers recognized both the awe-inspiring majesty of the wild landscape the bears called home and the wealth of natural resources to be wrung from it. Since their first incursions into the lands Natives called “the backbone of the world,” people living in and off of the Crown of the Continent region have struggled to find the balance of conservation and use.

The grizzly is just one of the area’s charismatic creatures threatened by human encroachment. Early trappers in the late 1800s wiped out many of the bison herds native tribes had hunted sustainably for nearly 11,000 years. Miners, seeking oil, copper and gold, left exposed shafts and waste tailings, with generational impacts on wildlife and native fish.

Today, the region’s many parks, wilderness areas and resorts attract thousands of tourists annually, each seeking to experience the wild and free landscape as the early explorers did. The increased human traffic knocked the grizzly population down to new lows, causing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as threatened in 1975.

New challenges emerge as climate change takes effect. As temperatures rise, the delicate plants and wildlife in alpine regions seek cooler climes higher and higher. Eventually, they are bound to run out of mountains to climb.

To face these evolving challenges, conservationists, ranchers, government agencies and private citizens have joined forces to promote locally informed, landscape-scale conservation projects.  Coalitions like the Crown of the Continent Conservation Initiative and the Crown Managers Partnership take a generational approach, drawing together local businesses, environmental non-profits, research institutions and private landowners. Together, these groups organize to communicate the impacts of climate change and human activity, energizing communities in their efforts to protect the Crown ecosystem.

Non-profits, government agencies and private groups on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border spearhead initiatives to secure conservation easements, conduct research on the region’s biodiversity and protect watersheds from mining.

Canada set aside 195 square miles in 1895 that would eventually become Waterton Lakes National Park. The United States followed suit in 1910 with the establishment of Glacier National Park. Since 1995, the transboundary Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park that combines the two has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes became the first Native American tribe to designate a wilderness area with the establishment of the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness in 1975. The 73,877-acre preserve encompasses the western slope of the Mission Mountain range.

NGOs like The Nature Conservancy of Montana oversee more localized projects. In recent years, the Conservancy, in partnership with The Trust for Public Land, purchased 310,000 acres from Plum Creek Timber Company, ensuring that the land will remain open to public use and free from development.

Private landowners along the Rocky Mountain Front worked for decades to pass the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which in 2013 created the first new wilderness area in Montana in over 30 years. Beside adding tens of thousands of acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, it designated a less restrictive Conservation Management Area. Together with conservation measures on the state level, the initiative resulted in corridors for wildlife that stretch from south of Missoula north to Banff National Park.

Though the 18-million-acre region is beloved by millions, it takes on-the-ground leaders, keenly aware of the need for innovative, landscape-scale efforts, to preserve the Crown for generations to come.

— Nicky Ouellet