MISSOULA – It’s one thing to mount a decades-long conservation campaign on a continental scale like from Yellowstone to the Yukon, or Y2Y.

It’s another to prove that something about it worked. When you look at a place as big as Argentina but you don’t have a gross domestic product or high school graduation count to use as statistics, what do you measure to report success?

A team of US and Canadian researchers addressed this question for Y2Y in a new article published this month in the Journal of Conservation Science and Practice. Led by University of Montana wildlife biologist Mark Hebblewhite, they verified progress in saving one of the world’s most biodiverse places through highway projects, TV scripts and home ranges of grizzly bears.

“Just adding more protected areas doesn’t tell us what we need to know,” Hebblewhite said. “It doesn’t tell us how that translates into biodiversity outcomes. It’s hard to assess conservation and say “this action did that”.

The results were posted in “Can a vision for the conservation of large landscapes contribute to the achievement of biodiversity objectives?” Other authors include Sara Williams of UM, Harvey Locke and Jodi Hilty of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative in Alberta, Charles Chester of Tufts University, David Johns of Portland State University and the private consultants. Gregory Kehm and Wendy Francis.

In a landscape as large as Yellowstone in the Yukon, the scale can dazzle. As first reported in 1993, the Y2Y boundary stretched from the Alaska border at Fairbanks south along the Rocky Mountains through Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta to National Parks. Glacier and Yellowstone in Montana, ending around Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho and Wind River in Wyoming. Wilderness areas, reports the Missoulian.

The study created five different measuring sticks to gauge success. The most basic looked at the number of acres conserved in the Y2Y region since the start of its campaign compared to surrounding Crown lands and American and Canadian nations as a whole.

He found that the conservation rate within Y2Y has increased by 90% since the start of the project in 1993, while the surrounding areas have remained stable or even declined. Protected areas like national parks and wilderness areas increased from 9.7% in 1993 to 17.6% in 2018.

The growth rate of protected land before and after that date in 1993 also showed that the campaign was not simply a continuation of a trend that had gained momentum before public efforts began. Over the past quarter century, the area has added an average of 2,598 square kilometers of protection per year. Over the next 25 years, during the Y2Y campaign, that figure nearly doubled to an average of 4,962 square kilometers per year.

This has manifested itself in projects such as the Rocky Mountain Front Wilderness Additions in Montana and several new national parks in Canada’s Yukon Territory, British Columbia and Alberta.

The next measuring stick was for similar progress on private land. There, initiatives such as the Grizzly Bear Transboundary Project have spearheaded strategic habitat purchases on both sides of the Canada-US border, along Canadian Highway 3 and US Highway 2. Y2Y participated in the raising $ 11 million for conservation easements on Stimson Lumber’s 28,000 acres. Co. the forests surrounding the confluence of the Yaak River and the Montana Legacy Project which conserved more than 300,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. working land.

Then the researchers tried to examine what the occupants of the land were doing. In particular, they have followed the grizzly bear populations that depend on them. Not only are bears closely watched on both sides of the border, but what improves a grizzly bear’s quality of life has an umbrella effect on many other species down the food chain.

They found that the grizzly bear’s occupied range more than doubled between 1990 and 2014, from 20,500 square miles to 46,144 square miles in the United States alone. An important corollary of this discovery was the amount of unprotected or private land that bears began to use. At the start of the Y2Y campaign, grizzly bears depended on protected lands like national parks for 70% of their habitat. Today, the share of unprotected and private land accounts for almost half of the grizzly bear’s range.

“As grizzly bears extend beyond Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, their future fates lie on great private lands,” Hebblewhite said. This led to the next measuring stick – projects to connect fragmented pieces of habitat.

The study found that wildlife crossing structures proliferated throughout the Y2Y in ways that inspired other parts of the world. With 107 overpasses and underpasses such as Animal’s Bridge near Evaro, MT and the 80-kilometer stretch of overpasses and tunnels penetrating the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff National Park, the study’s authors could argue that “Y2Y has become a global model for green infrastructure to reduce fragmentation and foster connectivity.

Such projects often involve relatively small acquisitions or changes, according to Vital Ground executive director Ryan Lutey. The Missoula-based land trust has collaborated on grizzly-related conservation efforts throughout the year. One of his most recent and successful deals involved a 240-acre conservation easement on land along Interstate 90 near Ninemile Creek.

“This plot would logically never host a grizzly bear or a wolf in the long run,” Lutey said. “But it does allow a grizzly bear to crawl under the freeway with a lot more safety and less risk of a traffic accident.”

The validity of this idea was confirmed this fall with the adoption of the Law on investment in infrastructure and employment. It contains $ 350 million for structures and improvements to wildlife passages. It’s not just so that the creatures can cross the road.

“Anyone who has hit a deer with their car knows they’ll be lucky to walk away with just a $ 5,000 bill,” said Hebblewhite. “If they hit a moose, they’re lucky to go away. “

Perhaps the most unusual measuring stick was a marketing journal. The study team used a method called “counterfactual analysis” to compare the changes in the Y2Y area with similar areas that did not have active advertising and eye-catching activity. This is similar to what advertisers do by comparing the performance of a cereal brand in a community where it is supported by a lot of ads with another place that does not have any ads.

“We looked at the rate of change and expansion of protected areas in the year 2000 25 years ago, and it accelerated – there was an 80% increase,” Hebblewhite said. “Then we looked at other parts of Alberta, British Columbia and Montana. Conservation has declined. We also looked across the continent. All of North America was at a standstill as conservation increased over the past year. “

Part of what the researchers looked at to gauge public interest was the amount of Y2Y posts that made their way into popular culture. Magazine covers, TV documentaries and even episodes of the Gray’s Anatomy and West Wing TV series prove that the campaign has reached a large audience.

“This is how you get conservation,” Hebblewhite said. “You change people’s attitudes. This work has global implications. Yes, it takes 25 years, but it shows you can get anywhere.