Making Connections

Inspired by a childhood dream, the 2008 Conservation Photographer of the Year uses his work to aid the creation of one of the world’s largest wildlife corridors

  • Hannah Schardt
  • Apr 01, 2009

WHEN HE WAS a young boy in Germany, Florian Schulz dreamed of visiting the wide open spaces of North America’s West—grand, untouched landscapes that he, in densely populated Europe, could only imagine. So as a teenager, Schulz signed up to visit the United States as an exchange student. His visions of charismatic megafauna—grizzly bears, wolves, moose and elk—were briefly dashed by his U.S. landing place: Iowa, hardly the vast, mountainous wilderness he had pictured. “But as soon as I finished all my exams, I traveled by train to Banff,” says Schulz, who brought with him the equipment that would become his constant companions: his first camera and telephoto lens.

That trip to Canada’s oldest national park confirmed for Schulz that the mountainous West was where he wanted to be—and not just for a visit. After completing his studies in Germany, he returned to North America, where he spent more than a decade, on and off, photographing the wild lands that extend from Yellowstone National Park north through Canada’s Yukon Territory. The product of those years is Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam, a book of photographs and essays published in 2005 and released in paperback two years later. Last year, Schulz was named 2008 Conservation Photographer of the Year by NWF and the Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice Awards, an honor awarded to an individual who uses photography to educate the public about an environmental issue. In Schulz’s case, that issue is the ongoing quest by conservationists to create a wildlife corridor that connects Yellowstone to the Yukon.

In 1997, a group of U.S. and Canadian scientists founded the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative—often referred to as Y2Y—a not-for-profit organization that promotes the idea of a corridor through scientific research and advocacy. Schulz’s own commitment to the corridor began years ago while he was researching an article on grizzly bears for a German magazine. Schulz says the scientists he interviewed agreed that excessive killing and habitat fragmentation constituted the greatest hurdles to the recovery of the threatened bears.

Fragmentation through the creation of roads and other development increased the human presence in grizzly habitat, inevitably leading to more bear deaths from traffic collisions and other run-ins with people. This, in turn, created smaller and more isolated populations. That process, along with unregulated killing, led to the extinction of grizzly bears in 98 percent of their habitat south of Canada. Only populations in northern parts of Canada and in Alaska are, so far, relatively unaffected by these factors. In recent years, conservation efforts have reduced the number of grizzly bear deaths in areas like Yellowstone and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) in and around Glacier National Park, allowing these populations to increase in size. However, all other grizzly populations in southern Canada and adjacent border areas with the United States remain highly threatened. Today in the Lower 48 an estimated 1,500 grizzlies live in five protected populations, including 600 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) removed the Yellowstone grizzly from the list of species needing the emergency protections of the Endangered Species Act, though state and federal agencies continue to work to find ways to reduce the isolation of this population. Over the long term, isolation may leave the bears vulnerable to inbreeding, disease and other threats, including global warming.

Even protected areas such as Yellowstone and Banff are usually bisected by roads, the latter by the four-lane Trans-Canada Highway. Wildlife species—not only grizzlies but wolves, wolverines, and the ungulates and countless smaller animals that serve as their prey—are scared off or killed by traffic, effectively isolating animals on one side of a thoroughfare from animals and habitat on the other. “What makes species’ populations more robust is interconnectedness,” says Schulz. “It’s the web of life. If we’re able to connect and preserve habitat, we will facilitate the survival of all species.”

Chris Servheen is the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for FWS, a job he has held since the position was created 27 years ago. He envisions a wildlife corridor that extends along the Purcell, Selkirk and Bitterroot Ranges, from southern British Columbia south through Montana, Washington and Idaho into Yellowstone. Throughout the mountainous region that stretches between Yellowstone and the Canada-Alaska border, development tends to concentrate in the mountain valleys. “There are limited numbers of these valleys, but what happens in them is really important to what’s going on in the Northern Rockies,” says Servheen. Within the valleys are the highways and housing developments that bar wildlife from moving freely between areas of suitable habitat. And these barriers are spreading rapidly; the U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 44 million acres of private forests will be developed within the United States over the next three decades—more than half within 10 miles of a national forest.

“There’s a small window of opportunity to keep terminal fragmentation from happening,” says Sterling Miller, a senior wildlife biologist with NWF who supports the expansion of grizzly bear habitat and the creation of a wildlife corridor to connect that habitat. “If that doesn’t happen, and that whole area along the U.S.-Canada border gets subdivided, it will create an impermeable barrier for bears and other species.”

The idea of a corridor isn’t a new one. But scientists such as Miller and Servheen say that the need for action is becoming increasingly clear. Servheen estimates that, given the current rate of development in the area, wildlife managers have about a decade to make the connections isolated grizzly populations need to survive. Since houses and highways, once built, are rarely torn down to make way for wildlife, wildlife managers are increasingly relying on specially created underpasses and overpasses to allow animals to move freely across roads. In order to draw the animals they are intended to protect, the passageways must be surrounded by fencing on both sides. Otherwise, wildlife will ignore the structures and opt to cross the wide expanses of highway instead. “It’s a safety problem for animals, of course, and a big safety issue for humans,” says Servheen. In Banff National Park alone, two overpasses and 22 underpasses have been built to allow wildlife to safely cross the highway, with promising results: Mortality rates along the road have dropped by 80 percent.

Of course, creating safe passage for wildlife is not simple. A single under- or overpass, flanked by miles and miles of road, will do little good. “We’ve found that you need to have about one underpass every three-quarters of a mile” along a highway, says Servheen. “And the most important thing is that you have to have a good conservation effort on the land on either side of the underpass. If you have a crossing structure from good habitat into developed land, you haven’t really benefited the land or the wildlife at all.”

For a variety of reasons, animals in the Canadian portion of the region face a different set of circumstances than they do south of the border. The grizzly bear population in British Columbia alone is ten times larger than the entire grizzly population in the Lower 48. Narrower, less-developed valleys mean that Canada’s wildlife habitat is generally less fragmented than its U.S. counterparts. “That means that our repair job is easier,” says Michael Proctor, a Canadian biologist who works with Servheen and other scientists on a transborder grizzly bear recovery project.

“We’re putting a reasonable effort in, and we are having real and significant success in the Rockies and the Purcells,” says Proctor. Many of his country’s successful attempts at restoring wildlife connections have come not from building structures but from identifying so-called “linkage zones” for grizzlies—those areas with the least human disturbance and best quality habitat. “We’re taking that information to conservation organizations,” he says. Those organizations, in turn, are buying easements—and in some cases, land—to secure those linkage zones across major roads, assuring that once animals cross those roads they find themselves in safe, suitable habitat. Grizzlies, because their populations are so limited and isolated, are the most obvious beneficiaries of a Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor. But according to Servheen, the corridor would provide benefits to all species, predator and prey alike. Numerous studies have shown that vegetation is moving upward—both in latitude and in altitude—as global temperatures rise. A large swath of contiguous suitable habitat would allow wildlife, including many species that serve as prey to large animals such as wolves and grizzlies, to follow shifts in habitat. “Climate change will make these corridors much more important because wildlife will need to shift their distributions,” says Miller.

In recent years, he and other NWF staffers based in the region have focused on sanitation work: trying to reduce the potential for human-bear conflict—mostly through the installation of bear-proof garbage facilities—in linkage zones around Montana and Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, the third-largest wilderness area in the Lower 48. Grizzlies were extirpated from the Selway-Bitterroot 70 years ago; conservationists have lobbied for decades to reintroduce them. Eight years ago, after much legal wrangling and a historic compromise between conservation groups and the timber industry, the federal government agreed to bring 25 grizzlies back into the wilderness area over the course of five years. Almost immediately, however, that decision was put on hold by the incoming Bush administration. After eight years of the plan being “on pause,” Servheen is cautiously hopeful that the project will be funded and bears will be returned to the Selway-Bitterroot, which will form a key link in the chain that currently is broken between Yellowstone and the NCDE.

With the looming threats of further isolation, a warming climate and rampant development in the West, the situation in the Yellowstone-to-Yukon ecoregion is troubling—particularly in the fragmented habitat of the Lower 48. But Servheen believes the wildlife that roams the area’s mountains and valleys can be saved. “Today, I think so,” he says. “In a decade, though, if we haven’t acted, I’d probably say not.”

Schulz agrees that time is of the essence. During his decade working on the book, he spent eight to ten months of the year—a total of eight full years, he estimates—in the region, braving snow, mud and summer heat while tracking and photographing the wolves, elk, eagles and grizzlies that rely on large swaths of contiguous habitat for their survival. Since he completed his project, he has continued to spread the word through photography exhibits and talks in the United States, Canada and his home country. “I’ve reached probably tens of thousands of people,” he says. “In Europe, sometimes a thousand people will come to a talk, and everybody really gets excited” about the idea of a Yellowstone-to-Yukon wildlife corridor. But enthusiasm alone can’t sustain the fragile populations, particularly in the face of a warming climate and rampant development.

“We need to make the right management decisions in the next 10 to 15 years” to ensure the survival of the region’s wildlife, particularly the grizzly, he says. And we shouldn’t assume that wildlife will always find a place in the vast wilderness that first drew him to the continent, he adds. “America is big, but not that big.”

Hannah Schardt is a senior associate editor of the magazine.

Swapping Conflict for Conservation

Since 2002, NWF has sought ranchers willing to accept payment to stop grazing livestock on public lands, leased from the government, where chronic wildlife conflicts occur. To date, NWF has retired more than 566,120 acres in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is currently raising funds to retire additional allotments. Visit the National Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program site to learn more about how NWF is finding solutions to livestock-wildlife encounters.

Courtesy of ILCP and The WILD Foundation. Photos © Florian Schulz

Book Review 
Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam

Photographer Florian Schulz’s love for the Northern Rockies started in early childhood, long before the German native ever set foot in North America. That love—along with a decade spent living in and photographing the mountains and valleys that lie between Yellowstone National Park and the Arctic Circle—shines through in his beautifully illustrated 2007 coffee table book, Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam. The book serves as both a paean to the wild lands and wildlife of the region and a warning of what could be lost if those lands continue to be threatened by development and division. In essays by a half-dozen prominent scientists, authors and environmentalists (including geneticist David Suzuki, biologist Karsten Heuer and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.), Schulz’s book outlines the argument for the creation of a wildlife corridor that would allow grizzly bears, wolves and other wildlife to freely roam the more than 2,000-mile distance between Yellowstone and the Yukon.

Such a corridor—created by limiting development and building passageways over roads and highways—would connect isolated populations of threatened species, lessening the impact of threats such as habitat loss and global warming. While the essays are thoughtful and revealing, it is Schulz’s photographs that bring home the message that the ecosystem of the Northern Rockies, for all its monumental size, is actually quite fragile. Images of grand, apparently unspoiled landscapes are juxtaposed with intimate portraits of osprey feeding their young, river otters playing at the edge of an icy stream, and grizzly bears digging for roots. But Schulz doesn’t ignore the reality of encroaching development: In one photograph, a black bear ambles across a Canadian highway as a line of drivers pull over to the shoulder to watch.

For more information, visit The Mountaineers Books.

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