One of the wildest and most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world is located where Alberta, B.C., and Montana converge, stretching along the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains. Naturalist George Bird Grinnell named the transboundary region the “Crown of the Continent” in the early 1890s. He recognized the region’s geographical importance as the headwaters of the continent, where clean water flows to the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay. For the Blackfoot Indians, the rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains were the “backbone of the world.”
Bounded by the Rocky Mountain Trench on the west and the prairie foothills to the east of the Rocky Mountains, the Crown extends from the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in Montana north to the Highwood River in Alberta and the Elk Valley in British Columbia. The landscape of this 18 million-acre ecosystem contains majestic high peaks, dense conifer forests, aspen glades, native grasslands and clean-flowing, sparkling rivers and streams. The Crown is home to more than 65 species of mammals, 260 species of birds and more than 1,400 species of native plants.
The Crown claims some of the most well-known and treasured national, state and provincial parks and forest and tribal reserves. Among them are Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (the first transboundary park in the world — and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the first tribal wilderness formed in the United States, the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness.
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While these magnificent parks receive international acclaim, it is the areas between and connecting them that are at risk and require dedicated stewardship. Roads and other human development, such as rural residential sprawl, fences and natural-resource extraction, are encroaching upon safe passages and havens between the parks. Vulnerable species — grizzly bears, wolverines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, numerous native bird species and trout — are forced to move across the landscape to forage and find conditions favorable to migration and reproduction.
“Crown of the Continent” explores the wildest part of the Rockies, where these spectacular mountains truly come to life, through the lens of Steven Gnam and the thoughtful essays of writers who live and work in the region and deeply care about the Crown and its future.
Gnam’s essay, reprinted here, sets the tone for the project.
“GROWING UP WITH WILD CONNECTIONS”
My roots in the Crown of the Continent go as deep as my first wobbly steps on Earth. My folks came to the heart of the Crown with hope for a better life for themselves and their children.
A handful of photos of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in a 1985 issue of National Geographic sparked their migration. They packed up their old white station wagon and two infants to leave behind the city and its traffic, crime, and air pollution, and to embrace a new life of fresh air and fresh starts, settling in the rural northwestern corner of Montana.
My early years were full of huckleberry-stained hands, clothes sooty from picking morel mushrooms in forest-fire burns, and the lingering smell of trout that clung to me after family fishing trips. In middle school I rode my bike beyond the edge of town to explore the woods and creeks flowing out of the Whitefish Range. I wandered looking for animals, fishing, and trying to live off the land in poorly constructed shelters that barely kept my skinny frame from hypothermia. I learned about plants, and made tea from birch, mint and spruce; I collected saskatoons, rose hips and cattails for food.
My awareness of humanity’s connection to the land grew in those creek bottoms and deep forests. I still remember pressing my 7-year-old nose against the cold glass of my parents’ station-wagon window, enchanted by the snowy peaks of the mountain ranges that form the Crown of the Continent. I tried to imagine what it was like up there, guessing that people couldn’t visit that rugged country. I didn’t know then that I would arrange my schedule in high school and college so I could spend as many days as possible in the Crown’s mountains.
I laugh now, looking back at those trips. I often went alone and always inadequately prepared — camping for days with plastic bread bags inside of sneakers for snow boots, layers of heavy cotton-flannel shirts and a leaky one-man tent.
Those early forays into the mountains provided the first inspiration for the images in this book.
The Crown of the Continent — the expanse of the Rocky Mountains stretching roughly from Missoula, Mont., to Banff, Alberta, Canada — is unique in the world. From the convergence of the climates of the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains, Arctic and northern Great Plains springs up a colorful spectrum of plants and animals. In the Crown, the full suite of creatures that lived here alongside the region’s earliest human inhabitants still make their home in these mountains and valleys. Nowhere else on this continent, and very few places in the world, is such wildness intact alongside modern society.
People live here to be close to the land; the land in return is what provides people’s living, as residents host visitors, harvest sustainable forest products and care for the wilderness. The land also shapes the culture of the Crown’s communities. Climbing a peak, encountering a bear, and picking huckleberries all strengthen the bonds between place, self, and community, forming stories and memories. Experiencing strong, graceful creatures and intact landscapes rubs off a bit and enriches the beholder.
The blessings of the land are not just for its residents. Every year millions of people from around the world visit the Crown to escape the bustle of cities and to experience nature in its wildest form — to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear or a wolverine, to hike in solitude, or to float a pristine river. These visitors come to experience something they can’t at home: the earth and its communities, whole and healthy.
The Crown of the Continent remains intact because a handful of people saw its natural resources and its beauty as something that should stay untouched for generations. In defiant acts of self-restraint, they chose to forgo the short-term rewards of using the land however they saw fit and instead laid the groundwork for the long-term rewards we enjoy now: wide-open space, abundant wildlife, clean water.
But these early visionaries who left a network of wild lands couldn’t anticipate the scale of growth and development that would come. Nor could they foresee that the protected islands of parks and wilderness would not be big enough by themselves for viable populations of wolverines and grizzlies, wolves, harlequin ducks and eagles, in the long run. These creatures need more than island preserves — they need corridors and routes from Yellowstone all the way north to the Canadian Yukon. These connected lands offer space for wildlife to travel and mix with others of their kind, to roam in search of food, and to migrate in response to the changes that climate and time bring.
I’ve witnessed the need for the Crown of the Continent to be connected to the lands surrounding it. The wild critters have shown me that this land is intricately connected to distant ocean coastlines, adjacent prairie ecosystems, and the Rockies north and south across state and international boundaries.
Since I was a kid, I’ve been enthralled with the colorful harlequin ducks that visit the Crown every spring. When I moved away for a few years, I continued to find them along Puget Sound near the Pacific Coast, where the waters from the Crown gather and reach the ocean. A population of these painted ducks spends a chunk of their life in the roiling surf of the Pacific Ocean, weathering winter storms from Alaska to Oregon. Every spring, pairs fly back across western North America to the crest of the Rockies, right to the heart of the Crown. They choose equally turbulent waters, this time the clearest and coolest streams, near which to nest and rear their young before flying back to the ocean.
Like the harlequin, wolverines move without recognizing our maps and political boundaries. Growing up exploring the mountains of the Crown, I often saw wolverine tracks crossing high alpine basins, traveling straight through avalanche chutes and cliff bands. Nowadays, I continue to cross paths with these rare creatures while I’m out backcountry skiing. Around the Crown, wolverines travel across provinces and international borders, in and out of protected areas. They need large tracts of mountainous terrain to find enough food to survive. They also need snow, deep snow that lasts well into late spring so that females can dig dens to house their newborn kits.
The harlequin and the wolverine show us that the Crown of the Continent needs to remain connected to other wild lands and that what we do with our human lives affects the wild — the land and wildlife — out there. Harlequins need clean water, on the Pacific Coast and in the Crown, to keep up their age-old migration. Wolverines need space — lots of it. As the snowpack shrinks due to climate change and mountainous areas are fragmented by human activities, wolverine country gets smaller.
If we know what to look for, the natural world tells us how we’re doing much better than we can tell ourselves. Just as the canary in a coal mine — if miners listened, that bird could keep them alive — told us about the air quality of the deep, harlequins tell us about the health of our oceans and trout streams; a wolverine’s presence tells us whether our mountain ecosystems are intact.
All the creatures of the Crown tell us that these wild refuges must be connected to one another to sustain the human and animal communities that live here.
During the last few years, I’ve worked with folks from the far corners of the Crown of the Continent, from southeast British Columbia to southwest Alberta to northwest Montana, to ensure this place remains a viable homeland for human communities and wild creatures. Over cups of coffee and miles of trail, we talked about the need to amplify the voice of the land and its animals.
Eventually this project was born so that we could share the treasure of the Crown and invite others to join us in this work. And so I find myself in the most pleasant of company — a cross section of some of the most down-to-earth and hospitable souls of the Crown.