A Rabbit as Canary: The Crown of the Continent

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Published on August 4th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  


Scientists trying to explain climate change might take note of a story in the latest edition of Newsweek magazine. It’s an elegantly written piece that discusses big scientific concepts such as connectivity, biodiversity and climate change in a way that neither dumbs down the science nor leaves the reader lost in a tangle of intimidating jargon.

In this case, the laboratory is a magnificent landscape known as the Crown of the Continent10 million acres that encompass frigid mountain tops, high meadows and sweeping forests. Within its wild heart, not a single species has blinked out of existence since Lewis and Clark first catalogued its natural wonders. The Crown is also a top conservation priority for The Nature Conservancy in Montana.

The focus of the story is the elusive Canada lynx and its favorite meal: the snowshoe hare. The fate of lynx is tied directly to the well-being of the snowshoe hare — and both are extremely threatened by the impacts of climate change on the Crown. They are in fact, the canaries in this climatic coal mine.

What the article fails to mention is that there are other threats to the fragile toehold of wildlife on the Crown – the biggest of which is human development. Given the Crown’s natural splendor, it’s no wonder that people are clamoring to stake out their little piece of paradise here. The pressure for development is huge and over time has resulted in second homes popping up deeper and deeper into the forests.

The Nature Conservancy seized the  opportunity when Plum Creek, a timber company that had diversified into a real estate investment trust, agreed to sell some of its vast holdings on the Crown. We’re in the process of purchasing more than 310,000 acres of Plum Creek land. The Montana Legacy Project , as the project is known, includes large portions of critical habitat not only for lynx, but grizzlies, wolverines, cougars and the full complement of animals that have existed here for centuries. It also includes vital connections between the habitats that these animals need now, and which will be even more crucial as climate change forces them to move as that habitat disappears.

Kat Imhoff is state director for The Nature Conservancy in Montana.

(Image: Snowshoe hare. Credit: Charlie Ott.)

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