By: Barbara Theroux
for Mountain West News
Aug. 22, 2012
The Spine of the Continent initiative may be the most daring and important conservation effort of our era, knitting the islands of natural beauty we've preserved (or ignored) during the last century into a connected, functioning ecosystem to sustain us all. Mary Ellen Hannibal delivers a compelling and personal narrative about science, nature, the extinction crisis -- and the men and women determined to restore America's most epic landscapes.
-- Edward Humes,
author of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash
What is the Spine of the Continent Initiative?
As animals and plants around the world were having their habitats reduced by human development which isolated the biodiversity that lives within them, conservation biologist Michael Soule started a movement to protect wildlife and land by connecting expanses of acreage across North America. This movement grew to be called "The Spine of the Continent."
The Spine is a grassroots, cooperative effort among conservation activists – NGOs large and small -- and regular citizens that has been seen as a long-term way to help preserve wildlife and plant life in the West. Its ultimate goal was to unite discrete areas of publicly and privately owned wilderness to create one huge nature preserve stretching from Alaska to Mexico. The Spine of the Continent is not only about making physical connections so that nature will persist; it is about making connections between people and the land we call home.
"The Spine of the Continent initiative is about protecting big cores of abundant nature, keeping them populated with carnivores, and connecting them to one another so that wildlife can trek from one to the next. Ergo, conservation's three C's: cores, carnivores, and corridors."
In her book, The Spine of the Continent, Mary Ellen Hannibal travels the length of the Spine, sharing stories and anecdotes about the passionate, idiosyncratic people she meets along the way – and the carnivores they love. Hannibal learned about the Spine initiative while doing research for her book, Evidence of Evolution.
"Several of the taxonomists I interviewed actually wept while telling me about their research. The plants and animals they study are disappearing; the very special places these scientists love are changing too fast."
On her website, Hannibal goes on to say:
"While trying to figure out how to help these people, I heard about an ambitious initiative to link landscapes along thousands of miles in the Rockies – perhaps the most iconic of American places. Imagine a grassroots movement stretching from Mexico to Canada, powered by cutting-edge technology, fueled by idealism, and guided by blue-ribbon science. By connecting landscapes we can help save biodiversity, and that is what is happening along The Spine of the Continent. In this inspiring story, the West can still be called, as Wallace Stegner called it, "the geography of hope."
In the opening chapter, background information on the term "Spine of the Continent" traces back to the Blackfeet people's name for the Rocky Mountains--the backbone of the world.
The Crown of the Continent ecoregion adds to the language, as the Continental Divide defines the directional flow of the water system of the land. Y2Y's (Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative) work on restoring ecosystem connectivity for the grizzly bear is discussed as an important part of the Spine initiative. Other chapters in part one give background on the history of conservation biology.
The book goes beyond the politics of wildlife protection to present a real history of America’s habitat, the animals within it, the people who study them, and the disparate motivations behind responsible conservation.
In the last two-thirds of the book, Hannibal spotlights some of the many small organizations and researchers that are contributing to the larger vision, including projects focusing specifically on beavers, jaguars and wolves, as well as aspens and cows.
"The next part of this book focuses on various conservation issues and work along the Spine. I have not been comprehensive--that would take 900 pages, at least. Nor have I stuck to profiling only the work of NGOs that are official Spine partners. I've chosen people, places, and creatures that reflect on the historical trajectory, or how we got here. I have also attempted to choose subjects that build on one another, to help illustrate how the fate of beavers, cows, aspen, and wolves (and us, of course), to name a few are intertwined. The whole story most of these individual ones tell together has a theme. In addition to habitat loss and fragmentation, much of the ecological devastation wreaked on our landscape can be traced to extirpating top-tier predators--grizzlies, wolves, and jaguar. Our precursors thought, and some people still think, that all these animals do is kill. Now science tells us that their killing is fundamental in keeping ecosystems healthy. If this is sin, we need more of it.
The folks in these pages are all heroes. None of them do what they do for money or personal aggrandizement--because in the field of conservation, there really isn't any available. These are citizens helping restore natural processes on our land so that it will function better. The very good news is that nature does bounce back, or still has the potential to in most places, at this moment in time. Which of course, is running out. Let's get to work!"
The concluding paragraph has the last plea:
"The most important element in connectivity conservation is the land itself: habitat. Support open-space programs that help create conservation easements around development. If you are in a position to contribute to one, land trusts protect big swaths of nature into perpetuity--perhaps there is no greater gift to posterity. As much as we can possibly safeguard from development is the way we want to go; where it is not possible, mindful placement of infrastructure to accommodate wildlife is the next best option. The thing to remember is that it is not just people and our buildings and roads using the landscape, and even when we don't notice plants and animals we depend on them."
Barbara Theroux is the manager of Fact & Fiction, now part of the Bookstore at the University of Montana.