As human development spreads further and further around the world, very few large ecosystems remain relatively intact and uninterrupted by highways, cities, or other human-constructed obstacles. One of the largest exceptions is the Yellowstone to Yukon region, or Y2Y, which stretches more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) northwest of Wyoming into Canada’s Yukon area.
Conservationists have been working for the past 30 years to expand this large piece of land under the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Y2Y seeks to make way for wildlife in coupled landscapes that give animals the ability to move across large areas – whether they follow old migration patterns or respond to a changing climate.
Throughout this vast region, hundreds of partners – conservation groups, private landowners, businesses, government agencies, tribes and scientists – have worked to expand landscapes and enable animals to move across them. Participants built wildlife road crossings, conducted “bear-conscious” campaigns to reduce clashes between humans and animals, placed conservation services on private lands, and supported indigenous efforts to protect sacred spaces.
Thanks to these efforts, grizzly bears are extending further into the areas near Yellowstone National Park than they did 30 years ago. Animals roam safely across 117 new game road crossings instead of being killed. And Y2Y is highlighted throughout as an example of how large-scale landscape conservation can work.
We study wildlife ecology and international conservation conservation and have both served on Y2Y’s board of directors. One of us, Charles Chester, serves as the U.S. Chairman of the Y2Y Council, which advises the Y2Y initiative. We have both worked long and hard to determine how large-scale landscape conservation initiatives like Y2Y are making a difference. Although the answer may be difficult to quantify, we have identified a number of ways in which Y2Y has expanded the scale and effectiveness of conservation.
Inspired by a wolf
Y2Y was conceived in 1993 by Canadian conservationist Harvey Locke as nations sought ways to meet their obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity. This comprehensive document, signed by 150 nations at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, addressed the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, global equality, and other goals related to the protection of life on Earth.
Locke was inspired by the wanderings of a single wolf. On a rainy morning in 1991, Canadian biologist Paul Paquet caught “Plows,” or “Rain” in French, near the Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, and with a radio collar – the first time a scientist had a put satellite radio collar on a wolf. . Over the next two years, researchers were stunned by Pluie’s widespread movements of about 40,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers) in Canada and the United States before she was killed by a trapper in British Columbia.
This solitary journey clearly showed that conservationists had to think beyond the creation of individual protected areas, such as parks and wildlife, for wide species and larger landscapes. This approach is in line with the principles of the emerging field of conservation biology – the science of protecting and restoring all forms of life on earth.
Assessment of Y2Y
We have worked with several collaborators over the past five years to measure Y2Y’s conservation effects. We used a counterfactual approach to compare trends in protected areas before and after the formation of Y2Y, and to compare Y2Y with regions without similar broad visions in two areas of North America. Our analysis asked what would have happened without Y2Y by comparing the rate at which protected areas expanded in the Y2Y region with other areas of North America without similar conservation visions.
We found compelling evidence that Y2Y has significantly increased wildlife protection in its region. From 1993 to 2018, habitat protection increased from 7.8% to 17.6% of the Y2Y region. Elsewhere in North America, protected areas grew by only 2.5% over the same period.
We also found that:
• Federally threatened grizzly bears have expanded their range in the US portion of the Y2Y region.
• Private land conservation in the region has grown significantly; and
• The construction of at least 117 game crossings has given the Y2Y region the highest number of such structures in the world, which has helped wildlife move around and make roads safer for people.
Y2Y is one of the world’s earliest and largest landscape conservation initiatives. Conservationists see it as a model of how conservation can work for all creatures, large and small.
In our opinion, Y2Y’s most important achievement was perhaps the extension of the conservation community’s concept of how to do large-scale conservation effectively and fairly. By connecting and partnering with hundreds of organizations and individuals working on focused conservation projects across the region, it shows how people and wildlife can thrive together.
The future of Y2Y
There is still a lot to do. In an internet-enabled economy, people can work from anywhere. Many move to the Y2Y region for its natural beauty, abundant wildlife and outdoor activities. Ironically, Y2Y’s success raises development concerns.
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Logging, mining and fossil fuel production also present major challenges for soil protection. And climate change is changing conditions for people and wildlife in the Y2Y region. Y2Y and its partners have acknowledged this threat, but it remains to be seen how soil conservation will play out in a highly changed landscape.
One key Y2Y priority is the recognition of the rights of indigenous groups, which are often repulsed by countries that have ruled them for years when outside groups enter and turn these sites into protected areas. This approach has become known as fortress conservation because it seeks to protect places by building walls around them.
The Y2Y movement has recognized the rights of indigenous groups from the outset, working with them to establish several new indigenous-led protected areas in the Y2Y region. These additions have been led by and will be managed in conjunction with indigenous governments.
An international model
In the fall of 2022, international negotiators will meet in Kunming, China, for the second part of the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Biodiversity Convention. One of the key objectives of this meeting is to finalize a working concept of a strategic plan for the conservation of global biodiversity for the next decade or more.
The current concept calls for protection of 30% of countries and seas worldwide by 2030, based on the growing science of area-based conservation. Achieving this goal will more than double the targets that nations agreed on in 2011 – 17% for land, 10% for sea.
Such goals may have once seemed out of the question, but initiatives like Y2Y show that they are achievable. As we see it, Y2Y is the right scale for effective conservation on a changing planet.