Spring runoff was in full swing in May when a warden in Canada's Banff National Park discovered the mangled, waterlogged body of a female wolf on the banks of the Bow River. It had been struck by a train on the Canadian Pacific Railroad line that runs through the park, a not-atypical death in the sprawling, 1,560-square-mile Bow Valley, where dozens of wolves have died on the tracks and highways over the last decade. Yet it symbolized something of the endgame confronting the Rockies' dwindling wolf population: The dead wolf was pregnant with pups sired by the pack's lone surviving male, and Banff biologists recently declared that they have no intention of reintroducing wolves in the foreseeable future. "If we brought them in right now," says Carolyn Callaghan, codirector of the Central Rockies Wolf Project, "we'd be signing their death warrant."
However dismal the news, it's just the sort of ammunition that will come in handy this fall when a group of maverick biologists unveils one of the most sweeping and controversial environmental proposals in recent memory. The Tucson-based Wildlands Project hopes to establish a group of enormous North American wildlife corridors—vast parcels of land free from subdivisions, mining, timber, roads, and other intrusive activities that will insure the vitality of ecosystems by providing animals the wilderness they need to roam safely in search of mates (a male grizzly typically covers 500 square miles in its lifetime looking for food and fertile females). Created in 1991 by Earth First! cofounderDave Foreman and University of California–Santa Cruz conservation biologist Michael Soulé, its current aim is to establish nothing less than 21 swaths of interconnected habitat across the continent, including a 2,000-mile-long wilderness highway linking wolf and grizzly territory in the Bow Valley to the wide-open tundra of the Yukon.
A logistical long shot? Possibly. Phase two, which follows eight years of planning and will kick off with the release of corridor maps to the public sometime in the next few months, promises to be especially time-consuming: Soulé and leaders from regional Wildlands chapters will begin lobbying federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to designate wilderness connections between public lands, build wildlife-friendly highway overpasses, and restrict road access in particularly sensitive areas. From there, they'll confront the challenge of creating buffer zones: coaxing landowners—through purchases and easements—to relinquish crucial acreage, imploring ranchers to switch to less intensive grazing methods, and promoting green businesses such as ecotourism. "Restoration of these lands will take decades or even centuries in some places," concedes Soulé. "But remember, the Manhattan Project may have seemed improbable and fantastic in its day, too."
Needless to say, this is precisely the sort of language that members of the ever-vigilant Wise Use crowd find deeply threatening. "The Wildlands Project is an effort by the extreme elements in the environmental groups to carry out a cultural genocide of rural America and force people into cities," declares Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights
Association. "It scares the hell out of us."