Sep 16, 2015

United Nations should support more Yellowstone area wilderness, international environmentalists say

A group of international environmentalists are calling on the United Nations to seek the protection of more wild places — including wildlife migration corridors around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The environmentalists’ paper — published in the journal “Conservation Letters” on Thursday — suggests the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lobby for more protections for lands stretching from around Yellowstone National Park up the Rocky Mountains and into eastern Alaska.

The paper's authors included a map of this area between Yellowstone and the Yukon as an example of a possible "World Heritage Wilderness Complex." Courtesy graphic
UNESCO already plays a role in promoting the conservation of areas with exceptional cultural or natural qualities. It currently recognizes “World Heritage Sites” — areas like Yellowstone, Egypt’s pyramids or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — deemed to have such outstanding value to humanity that they “belong to all peoples of the world.”

Such a designation can only be made at the request of the country that owns the site. Though UNESCO has a small amount of money available to aid World Heritage Sites, it’s effectively just a listing.

If UNESCO doesn’t like something going on in a World Heritage Site (such as proposed logging in Tasmania’s forests), they can list them as being “in danger” to try to bring international attention and pressure to the issue. However, countries have the final say on what happens at their sites — such as how the United States continues to have sole control of Yellowstone’s management.

The international conservation effort stems from a 1972 treaty known as the World Heritage Convention.

The new paper, titled “A Wilderness Approach under the World Heritage Convention,” says the UNESCO committee that oversees the convention should go beyond World Heritage Sites and create broader “World Heritage Wilderness Complexes.” The authors say the larger focus on areas “free from industrial infrastructure” would be be a logical extension of the World Heritage Committee’s current efforts and “show leadership in connectivity conservation practice.”
Antelope migration routes have shrunk around Yellowstone, the paper notes. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco, National Park Service

Among the paper’s authors are five experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the official advisor to UNESCO on World Heritage.

“The World Heritage Convention is a powerful international instrument and it can provide the leadership required for wilderness and large-landscape conservation,” said lead author Cyril Kormos, Vice Chair for IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas, in a statement published on the IUCN website. “Protecting intact nature at large scales helps stabilize the climate and allow species to move and adapt to changes in the environment, so protecting them is a high-priority response to climate change.”

The paper lays out four possible examples of World Heritage Wilderness Complexes, one being a possible complex stretching from Lower Yellowstone to the Yukon area.

As an example of the need, the paper cites North America’s grizzly bears, which “require connectivity between protected areas to sustain viable populations.”

“The absence of large predators very often changes community composition, dynamics, and vegetation structure, eroding the site’s outstanding universal value,” the paper adds.

The authors go on to say migration routes are “often poorly or only partially protected by World Heritage and other conservation areas.” By way of example, it quotes prior research from the Wildlife Conservation Society finding that 75 percent of pronghorn antelope migration routes have been lost in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Yellowstone managers submit periodic reports to UNESCO about the park's status.
The paper suggests UNESCO could gradually expand or add buffers to existing World Heritage Sites and promote connectivity between them. Areas outside the heritage sites “would have specific protection policies to assure connectivity is maintained,” the group recommends.

The rough Yellowstone to Yukon “World Heritage Wilderness Complex” mapped out in the paper appears to draw in much of the Big Horn Basin, but the group warns that it’s a rough drawing.

Paper authors also include representatives from Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. The 11 writers hail from locales ranging from Berkeley, California, and Bozeman, Montana, to Switzerland, Australia, Italy, Canada and Brazil.

The authors wrote that their opinions don’t necessarily represent the views of the IUCN or the other organizations who made contributions.

The IUCN says it’s currently working on a compilation of possible new wilderness areas that should be added to the United Nations’ list.

The full paper is available at


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