The Last, Best Chance to Save the Northern Rockies

Storm over the Gallatin Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In these times of turmoil, Americans are flocking to our public parks, forests and rivers like never before. We are quite literally seeking shelter from the storm where we can socially distance and have our spirits regenerated by the solace and beauty of wild nature. It should therefore come as no surprise that Americans overwhelmingly support protection of our public lands and want decisions based upon the best scientific information.

Aldo Leopold, heralded as the father of modern wildlife biology, wrote “The first step in intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.” The sciences of conservation biology and landscape ecology provide insights vital to the viability of species and protection of habitats essential to native fish and wildlife. Among these are that roadless habitat is better than roaded; bigger roadless areas are better than smaller ones; connected wildlife populations are better than isolated ones; rivers and streams are better free-flowing rather than dammed and diverted.

A mountain of scientific research from across the globe has re-confirmed that roadless areas are the foundation upon which wild ecosystems and viable populations exist. Moreover, intact systems provide a buffer against sudden change from climate alteration, allowing native species to adapt to new conditions.

The Northern Rockies still contain most, if not all of the original parts. There are roadless areas, both large and small. There is a world-class suite of native species including top carnivores and hundreds of thousands of elk. There are free-flowing rivers that support spawning migrations of native trout and salmon. There are opportunities for landscape connectivity between the major public wildlands in the Northern Continental Divide, Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.

However, if not properly protected, and soon, we could lose what we still have. Large-scale plans for new roadbuilding within roadless areas and connectivity habitat abound across the region from the Gallatin National Forest next to Yellowstone, to the Ninemile area of the Lolo National Forest to the last remaining roadless old growth forests in the Yaak. The project names sound a warning. Soldier-Butler, Sawmill-Petty, Redd-Bull, Mid Swan, Black Ram and yes, this is a real project name, End of the World.

Most of our remaining wildlands and habitat for threatened and endangered species are located on federal public lands and Congress has the major role in protecting these national resources. Legislation isn’t science as they are two different processes. However, appropriate legislation is informed by the best science. At this time the only public lands legislation in Congress that meets these standards is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). Drafted by leading scientists and conservationists, passage of NREPA would provide lasting protection for roadless areas and protect large core areas of wild habitat. It would protect free-flowing rivers and streams and provide the foundation for a network of connectivity areas between the major blocks of wildlands. NREPA would help buffer against climate alteration through carbon sequestration while providing species an opportunity to adapt.

It’s well-documented that our wildlands have tremendous economic value as measured in tourism, sightseeing, hunting and fishing dollars. Yet the highest value of these special places is the haven they provide native wildlife and natural ecological processes and the shelter and solace we continue to find there.

Saving and protecting all the parts is crucial to our future and that of the planet. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act should be passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the incoming President.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, Montana with nearly 40 years of experience in land management and species protection. In his early career he was a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone involved in grizzly bear management and research. He has published several papers on grizzly bears and is the co-author of a recent paper on grizzly bear denning and demographic connectivity that has been accepted for publication in a scientific journal.