The last best place, learn why it is one of the wildest ecosystems in North America.
The Crown of the Continent Ecosystem covers 28 million acres and extends east to where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, south to Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley, west to the Salish Mountains, and north to Alberta’s Highwood Pass. The Continental Divide splits it north to south. Its jumbled terrain contains a crazy quilt of mountains: the Livingstone, Mission, and Whitefish ranges, among many. Watersheds best characterize this ecosystem: the Elk, Flathead, Belly River, and Blackfoot. It contains a triple divide peak from which rainfall flows into the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans, and thousands of lakes of glacial origin. But anyone who’s spent time here knows the Crown of the Continent is far more than the sum of its parts, its wildness seemingly endless.
The large carnivores are part of what makes this place so ecologically remarkable.
One of the two ecosystems in the forty-eight contiguous United States that contain all the wildlife species present at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), the Crown of the Continent provides critical habitat for animals that need room to roam. John Weaver, senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, has found seventeen carnivore species here, a number unmatched elsewhere in North America, including the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Alaska.
According to Weaver, the Crown of the Continent matters for three principal reasons. First, because of its large, intact wildlands that provide habitat security for carnivores compared to other ecosystems with greater human development. Second, because of its connection to northern ecosystems with abundant large carnivores. Third, because of its physical and biological diversity. The Crown of the Continent has four climatic influences: Pacific Maritime in the west, prairie in the east, boreal in the north, and Great Basin in the southwest. Coupled with a tremendous range of elevation from prairie to peak, these influences create a variety of environmental conditions which, in turn, support a variety of ecological communities, from shortgrass prairie to old-growth rainforest.
Within this ecosystem, rivers have incised narrow, fertile valleys into the mountains. These valleys represent the last bastions of wildness, where a grizzly bear can travel easily, finding abundant food and little trace of humanity. I live in one of these valleys. Yet, much is at stake, even in a place as wild as this. For example, some of these animals are having their travel corridors cut off by logging, natural gas extraction, and backcountry recreation (e.g., use of snowmobiles).
Today, Yellowstone to Yukon, Parks Canada, and other organizations are helping keep the Crown of the Continent wild and connected.