The Northern Rockies: Saving the Crown of the Continent
By Gloria Flora

First Nation peoples called it Mitsakis, The Backbone of the World. Scientists call it the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). Regardless of name, the 'crown of the continent' straddles the Continental Divide with stunning and varied landscapes. Its six million acres comprise one of the last great intact wildland ecosystems in North America. These extraordinary mountains inform the weather, moisture regime, vegetation and thus the biological diversity and distribution of myriad plants and animals.

While this extraordinary region is defined by its core -- Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the surrounding lands -- most of which are also publicly-owned, managed by the federal or state government -- are no less stunning. But the future of the region is at risk. Indeed, experts believe that its fate and that of many of its native species will be decided in the next decade.

Along the eastern edge, the soaring ramparts of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front (RMF) run from the Canadian border to Helena -- over 150 miles of grandeur where the Great Plains collide with sheer limestone reefs, towering two to four thousand feet above. Analogous to a stack of fallen dominos, the sheer cliff faces are backed by gentle westward dipping slopes of forest and meadows. The ecotone between these two vastly different zones forms a biological gold mine, a network of fecund habitats with the diversity to support carnivores and their prey in every season. Known as 'America's Serengeti' and in the top 1% of the best wildlife habitat in the United States, the RMF supports abundant and diverse wildlife populations (277 species), including the largest herds of elk, mountain goat and bighorn sheep in the contiguous U.S. All mammals (except free-roaming bison) present at the time of Lewis and Clark still thrive here including wolves, grizzly bears, and lynx.

On the eastside, Douglas fir dominates lower elevations among stands of lodgepole, limber and ponderosa pine. Interspersed grassland parks and aspen stands are abundant. Sensitive plant species are found in all habitats: wetlands, meadows, upland forests and alpine zones. West of the Divide, the moister climate supports the remnants of remarkable old growth larch, ponderosa pine and Doug fir amongst extensively logged areas. While evidence of human presence is minimal and road densities are low on the east side, on the west wildlife habitat has been compromised by past private land development, including many towns and subdivisions, and extensive road building.

Presently, only the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Glacier National Park are legally protected from development. Non-wilderness lands envelop both. This largely undisturbed landmass serves as critical habitat but is dependent on those surrounding lands. The vast majority of this ecoregion are public lands managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the state of Montana.

The character of the west and east sides differ, as do their threats. Rampant timber harvest and intermingled private holdings fragment the west. Road densities there are as high as three miles per square mile (1 mi./sq. mi. is considered the maximum to protect habitats). Many towns and subdivisions are interspersed along the periphery. On the eastside, towns are very small and at some distance. Most private lands are huge ranches. Road densities are very low. Thus, the RMF thanks to a century of conservation efforts is largely intact.

Excessive and inappropriate oil and gas development, roading, motorized use, and logging of sensitive wildlands directly threaten the integrity of this region. Other major threats -- such as sprawling subdivisions and noxious weeds threaten important wildlife range.

Sensitive areas on the west side are now at risk of aggressive logging -- beyond the necessary fuel removal and thinning -- under the administration's new Healthy Forest Policy, which encourages entry into roadless areas. Throughout the region, off road vehicle use is growing year round, as increasingly more powerful machines allow access to ever wilder and more remote areas. The travel plans proposed on the RMF allow for excessive motorized use, including in places where it is now banned. Unless checked, these activities will fragment habitat, degrade current ecological connections between important parts of the region, and imperil sensitive species. (See map in Word document)

The most daunting threat to the RMF is energy development under a National Energy Plan that calls for expanding production from all public lands. New policies have been enacted that promote energy development at the expense of careful scientific review of impacts, public involvement, and the multiple use mandates overseeing our public lands. Although new leases were banned on the RMF in 1997 because of public opposition and environmental sensitivity, over 60 leases remain and leaseholders are pushing for approval to drill in occupied grizzly habitat and roadless areas. Oil and gas development in the southern Canadian Rockies has reduced that remarkable landscape to biological rubble but enriched corporations. The same could happen on this side of the border.

Public opposition to energy development on the RMF is extremely strong. By a wide margin nationally and in Montana, members of the public favor no development. Fuel removal, thinning and prescribed burning are also supported politically and publicly, however divisiveness over more aggressive logging remains problematic. Communities and politicians are most interested in economic growth and sustainable jobs. With a long history of 'boom and bust' resource development and many unfunded Superfund sites, most Montanans are skeptical of industry, preferring grassroots solutions.

Montana boasts an active and effective grassroots conservation community. Community collaborative groups are common and frequently effective. An impressive amount of work is being accomplished by coalitions of tribes, citizens and numerous local, regional and national conservation groups. Progressive representatives from industry have joined in these efforts to bring about effective change and long-term sustainability. These coalitions propose a range of complementary projects to protect the biological integrity of this region and its world-class natural resources. There are a number of effective ongoing programs, leveraging funds and human resources to achieve these goals.

There are three overarching conservation goals in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem:

We concentrate on influencing public land policies with an emphasis on the grizzly bear because of its iconic, protected status and its sensitivity to development. At the same time, we will work to create mechanisms for sound planning and growth management on private lands as well as economic incentives for sustainable development. We have built resiliency into our proposal, in the event existing or proposed strategies fail to achieve desired results. For example, we propose to seek federal and private funds to buy-out oil and gas leases on public lands in the RMF. If a buy-out program cannot be established, we will shift our focus to assist the private land protection efforts in order to increase the buffers around these leases.

We monitor our work using adaptive management (feedback and modification) techniques at key milestones. This means, we ask: 'Did we do what we said? Did the action proceed as planned? Did it address the problem without creating new ones?'. To avoid unintended consequences, systems thinking is used in monitoring the biological, physical and human dimensions of the problems we address.

For specific information on how you can help with conservation efforts in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, contact Sustainable Obtainable Solutions at