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Great Natural Zoo has Become an 'Extinction Zone'

by Joel Connelly, P-I Columnist
In The Northwest, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 18, 2002

Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Columnist BONNERS FERRY, Idaho -- On camping trips when I was a kid, the Connelly station wagon would stop at this north Idaho town for gas, groceries and cold root beer as we drove toward Glacier National Park or the Canadian Rockies.

Never did we think to pause and explore medium-sized mountains -- the southern Selkirk Range, Cabinet Mountains and bottom end of the Purcells -- flanking the valley of the Kootenai River.

What our family overlooked has become a societal omission. This sparsely populated area needs some long overdue attention.

Along the U.S.-Canada border, from the Columbia River in northeast Washington to the Yaak River in Montana, lives one of the most diverse populations of rare mammals and fish in North America.

Grizzly bears make their home here. So does Washington state's tiny population of moose. Rare woodland caribou live off the lichens of the forests. And the Kootenai River, one of the Columbia River system's great tributaries, is home to sturgeon and a freshwater cod called the burbot.

Outside the fast-growing recreation area around Sandpoint, Idaho -- where Los Angeles police Detective Mark Fuhrman came to retire after starring in the O.J. Simpson trial -- the human population is small. Renowned writer Rick Bass is one of only 150 year-round residents of the upper Yaak Valley.

But with few prying citizens, government agencies have felt free to build roads, cut trees, dam rivers and punch through power line corridors like almost nowhere else in the American (or Canadian) West.

Aside from the small, 42,000-acre Salmo-Priest Wilderness at the northeast corner of the Evergreen State, and the narrow Cabinet Wilderness in Montana, none of this country is protected -- and a mining company wants to operate at the edge of the Cabinet Wilderness and dig tunnels beneath it.

As caribou and grizzly populations shrink, however, eloquent voices of alarm are being raised.

"We're talking the extinction of an entire subspecies of grizzly bears," Bass said. "We've lost 12 bears killed by humans in the last 12 years. It's not sustainable. I face the horrifying realization that I may live to see the Cabinet-Yaak population of bears disappear forever."

Across the border, a onetime labor union organizer named Gil Arnold studies the woodland caribou population on the Washington-Idaho-British Columbia border for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Only about 35 animals remain in the southern Selkirks.

"This is British Columbia's own little extinction zone," Arnold said.

Arnold ticks off missing protection. Not a single sign on Kootenay Pass warns westbound motorists of caribou on the highway. Big clearcuts clog habitat. The provincial government is moving to let timber companies, logging in sensitive wildlife zones, regulate themselves.

As in the North Cascades, Canadian logging companies have extended roads and clearcuts within yards of an area protected in the United States, in this case the Salmo-Priest Wilderness.

Down along the Kootenai River, Vaughn Paragmain wrestles with the Army Corps of Engineers over adjusting river flows to encourage spawning by wild fish.

Only about 750 sturgeon remain in the river below Libby Dam, with perhaps 550 burbot in the river on the U.S. side of the border.

An Idaho Fish and Game biologist and program leader for the Kootenai River, Paragmain has put together a local working group to come up with a conservation strategy.

The curious fact is, however, that the Corps of Engineers responds only when threatened with the federal Endangered Species Act.

Some measures have been taken to enhance sturgeon. But, warned Paragmain, "If we wait long enough, we won't have any burbot left."

A similar situation prevails with grizzly bears.

Imperiled bears in the Selkirks, Cabinets and Yaak River are far down the pecking order of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spending priorities.

Ursus horribilis has a higher profile in the Greater Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems, where bear populations show small increases.

Fish and Wildlife has acknowledged that the bear populations along the border "should be classified as endangered according to our recent data." But, it added, the agency "has to focus its resources on other species."

Bass has watched the million-acre Yaak get cut more intensely than any other national forest in the West. He is trying to set aside less than 20 percent of the valley, about 180,000 not-yet-logged acres, as sanctuary for the grizzlies.

Bass is a supporter of logging when it sustains local jobs. Arnold is a hunter. Conservationists in this neck of the woods are rod-and-gun types, not Animal Liberation Front activists.

They want a modest sense of balance applied to land management -- setting aside some pristine areas, and spending money to create corridors where bears and moose can cross, say, from the Selkirks to the Cabinets. Isolation puts many animal populations on the road to extinction.

Down on the river, Paragmain would like to see some evidence of all those fish restoration provisions that Congress wrote into the 1980 Northwest Power Act.

Our border mountains are the Northwest's great natural zoo.

They're also a linchpin connecting habitat further north in Canada with the large wild "islands" of land around Glacier and Yellowstone.

"What this country has is a lot of diversity," Bass reflected. "What it's never had is a constituency."

Joel Connelly
Great Natural Zoo has Become an 'Extinction Zone'
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 18, 2002

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