Long Trails and Wild Spaces

The sign at the trailhead stated: “Beware of mountain lions.” Next to it another sign was posted that warned about the dangers of and correct behavior in a bear encounter.

You are entering the Continental Divide Trail, one of America’s longest and most challenging trails.Here on the Continental Divide Trail, mountain lions, bears, wolves-and even the occasional wolverine-are as welcome along the trail as hikers. Maintaining a healthy environment for hikers to pass through requires supporting diverse wildlife populations.

It requires supporting the entire ecosystem-not just a niche-at the largest scale possible. “We’re interested in the integrity of the whole landscape,” said Teresa Martinez, director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “The trail experience is about being in wild spaces, and for that we need to protect both the landscape and the wildlife within it by connecting protected areas.” Martinez’s nonprofit organization is the lead national nonprofit partner that works with the US Forest Service to manage, maintain, and protect the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Increasingly, the CDT and other trails are seen not just as recreational ventures but as conservation tools that may connect disparate habitats.

Connections are crucial to successful conservation. Worldwide, according to the global database statistics of the World Conservation Monitoring Center, only 5 per cent of protected areas are larger than 35,000 acres. That may be large enough to sustain the interactions of, say, a small seasonal population of monarch butterflies and their milkweed food source, but is hardly enough area to protect the migrating monarch phenomenon, or even enough habitat for a single female grizzly bear. And in the model of protected areas in the U.S., where hard boundaries are drawn between “nature” and “urban” areas, such animals are in danger whenever they stray from the boundary lines.

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