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Crown of the Continent: Species Worth Protecting

A combination of U.S. Forest Service lands, national parks, tribal territories and private property, the Crown of the Continent links western Montana with southern Canada, encompassing some of the largest blocks of wilderness in the contiguous United States.

Once you've protected a place that can host a grizzly bear or a wolf, you have protected a place that can host all kinds of smaller, less well-known species that are part of the broader ecosystem and that will produce the kinds of things like clean air and clean water that we all depend on. So for us those are key decisions that we made a long time ago, and they're long-term commitments that we're not backing off from.

— Attorney Tim Preso, on Earthjustice’s work to protect wildlife in the Crown

As a fully functioning ecosystem, the Crown is home to nearly all of North America's large mammals. Learn about some of these animals:

  • (Andrew Gainer / Flickr)
  • (Gerald and Buff Corsi / California Academy of Sciences)
Fewer than 300 wolverines exist in the lower-48, and the breeding portion of this population numbers just 35 individuals.

Wolverine

Elusive, mysterious and one of the least-studied creatures on the planet, the wolverine is fast and famously fearless. About 30 pounds heavy and three feet long, these phantom-like creatures will go head-to-head with enemies twice their size, even taking on bears and bringing down caribou. Their Latin-derived name, gulo gulo, which means "gluttonous glutton," speaks to the wolverine's varying diet of plants and berries, rabbits and rodents, and carrion. As the largest terrestrial members of the weasel family, wolverines outpace their weasel brethren, often traveling 20 miles per day or more with the use of their big paws, which make great snowshoes and allow them to scale icy, snow-topped mountains in minutes.

Despite their ferocity, climate change is already taking a toll on the wolverine population. Wolverine mothers depend on deep snowpack for warmth, safety and security while they raise their kits, denning in tunnels up to 175 feet long under snow that must remain thick until spring. Although wolverines are typically solitary animals, young kits sometimes stay with their mothers until they reach adulthood. However, denning mothers will abandon their snowy hideaways if they melt early, even if the kits aren't yet ready to leave. And, the warming climate offers less and less snowpack for use by denning wolverines.

In 2010, following an Earthjustice lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that wolverines warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act. The listing is due in large part to the fact that currently fewer than 300 wolverines exist in the lower-48 and the breeding portion of this population numbers just 35 individuals. However, because of a backlog of other species also awaiting protection, the FWS has put wolverine protections on hold, delaying their official listing until further notice. (Listen to Earthjustice Attorney Tim Preso talk about the wolverines of the Crown.)

  • (U.S. FWS)
Wolves stand with grizzly bears at the top of the food chain throughout most of their territories in the Northern Rockies.

Gray Wolf

Though they're the ancestors of man's best friend, the majestic gray wolf is a far cry (howl?) from today's designer dogs. With their keen sense of smell and their ability to work as a team, wolves stand with grizzly bears at the top of the food chain throughout most of their territories in the Northern Rockies. As the original nuclear family, wolves stay together with the guidance of a dominant male and female pair leading the pack. They communicate with their pack and outsiders through howls, barks, growls and whimpers. In addition, body language plays a large role in conveying the rules of the pack, like lying on their backs and exposing their bellies to indicate submission to a dominant wolf.

Although unfortunately portrayed as fairy-tale villains, real wolves are intelligent and capable, extremely social with the other members of their pack, and devoted parents to their offspring—much like humans. Their persecution throughout history has often arisen from conflicts with livestock owners, but there are many non-lethal ways to reduce the chance of a wolf attacking livestock, including fencing and alarm systems.

Though they were once common throughout North America, gray wolves were very nearly wiped out by humans due to livestock protection and habitat loss. Thanks to a 1974 endangered species listing and reintroduction efforts in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, wolf numbers are rebounding, but that success is threatened by continuing hostility to wolves in many western states. Earthjustice has a long and successful record of advocacy for wolf restoration, and continues to advocate for wolf protection on Capitol Hill.

  • (USDA)
  • (John McCarthy)
  • (John Kalucki)
Elk face a continuing threat from wildlife diseases due to a decades-long government feeding program in Wyoming.

Elk

Elk may be a part of the deer family, but there won't be any sleigh-ride pulling for these tough, 1,000 pound plus creatures, which have been spotted charging vehicles and even kicking people who come too close. Like other animals with antlers, male elk (called "bulls") use their tough horns as weapons in a lifelong battle over mating rights. Elks' antlers, which they usually shed around early spring and begin re-growing in May, are covered in furry-looking "velvet," a natural supplement often found in Chinese medicine.

Besides their antlers, elk are best known for their bugle-like call, which begins as a bellow, quickly changes to a loud whistle and ends with grunting. Despite their bravado, elk populations face a continuing threat from wildlife diseases due to a decades-long government feeding program in Wyoming. By crowding the elk together, the animals are more susceptible to diseases such as brucellosis, which causes female animals to abort their calves, and the elk equivalent of the always fatal "mad cow" disease, which has steadily been moving across Wyoming toward the state’s elk feedgrounds over the past several years.

In 2008, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit to compel a long overdue environmental analysis of alternatives to elk-feeding in Wyoming. Unfortunately, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that four elk feed grounds on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management are exempt from a new environmental impacts analysis. However, as a result of this lawsuit, the U.S. Forest Service did prepare an environmental impact statement examining the impacts of feed grounds within the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

  • (Janice Searles)
  • (NPS)
During Lewis and Clark's expedition in the early 1800s,
there were approximately 50,000 grizzly bears. Today, fewer than 2,000 grizzlies remain in the continental U.S.

Grizzly Bear

During Lewis and Clark's famous expedition across America's vast western wilderness in the early 1800s, there were approximately 50,000 grizzly bears. Today, fewer than 2,000 grizzlies remain in the continental United States. Identifiable by its distinctive shoulder hump, long, curled claws and the grizzled tips of its fur, the mighty grizzly bear also has a terrific sense of smell and can run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Despite their reputation as predators, grizzlies actually get many of their nutrients from nuts, berries, roots and insects.

In many parts of the Northern Rockies, grizzlies have historically tended to confine their movements during late summer and fall to the remote, alpine areas where one critical food source—seeds of the Whitebark Pine—is present. Unfortunately, the Whitebark Pine has been nearly wiped out across the Northern Rockies due to overwhelming insect infestations fueled by global warming. This is a serious problem for grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park who stuff themselves full of the nutritious seeds to store energy for the winter months.

In 2009, Earthjustice was successful in getting Endangered Species Act protections reinstated for the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, which forces the federal government to develop a new recovery plan that takes into account the ravages of global warming. This offers hope for a new recovery zone that would protect more bear habitat so that bears can withstand the impacts of global warming. Earthjustice has also successfully fought U.S. Forest Service efforts to adopt new road management plans that would open up critical grizzly bear habitat to logging and further threaten the imperiled species.

  • (Terry Glase)
  • (Christopher Christie)
Bighorn sheep are threatened by a multitude of factors, including climate change, hunting, disease, competition from livestock and habitat destruction.

Bighorn Sheep

With large, curled horns that can weigh as much as 30 pounds and thick, bony skulls, bighorn sheep are built for epic battles that involve males hurling themselves at one another to establish mating rights and dominance. A relative of the goat family, these creatures use their split hooves, rough hoof bottoms and keen vision to deftly scale cliff faces across the steep Rocky Mountain terrain with a ballerina's precision as they search for foods like grass, seeds and plants.

Like many other species in the northern Rockies, bighorn sheep are threatened by a multitude of factors, including climate change, hunting, disease, competition from livestock and habitat destruction. They are also susceptible to diseases like pneumonia, which is periodically responsible for large die-offs in bighorn sheep populations. During the winter, bighorn sheep prefer slopes up to 2,500–5,000 feet where annual snowfall is less than 60 inches a year because they are unable to paw through the deep snow to find food.

Earthjustice is currently working with conservation groups to reduce activities that further threaten bighorn sheep, whose numbers are only one-tenth of the population that existed before settlers arrived in the Rocky Mountain region.

  • (Gerald and Buff Corsi / California Academy of Sciences)
  • (Scott Fisher / DNR)
  • (Keith Williams / Flickr)
Rare in the lower-48, the lynx is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to fur trapping and habitat destruction.

Lynx

A shy, medium-sized cat that's approximately two feet tall and weighs no more than 40 pounds, what the lynx lacks in stature it makes up for in stealthiness and skill. These elusive animals use their keen sense of hearing and sight to stalk the mountainous forests of the northern United States and Canada both night and day for hare, birds and other small prey. One of the lynx's signature characteristics, its long, black ear tufts, act as juiced-up hearing aids. Add to that its exceptional night vision, and it's not surprising that these slick cats can even spot a mouse in the dark at a distance.

Though lynxes are generally solitary animals, they have been spotted in small groups and females and cubs sometimes hunt together. With thick, grey fur and big, padded paws that act as snowshoes, the lynx has a great competitive advantage over its fellow neighbors, the coyote and the bobcat. Their excellent sense of smell and sight also allows them to hunt their prey on snowy terrain.

Rare in the lower-48, the lynx is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to fur trapping and habitat destruction. In 2009, Earthjustice intervened in a lawsuit to defend the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to designate 39,000 square miles of forest land as critical habitat for the lynx. Earthjustice's intervention helped to defeat a bid by snowmobilers to roll back the entire critical habitat designation. In addition, global warming may spell dire consequences for the lynx as diminished snowfalls allow other predators that usually shun deep snow to move in and push the lynx out of its native habitat. Diminished snowfalls will also impact snowshoe hare populations, which are the most important sources of food for lynx, accounting for a large portion of their diet.

  • (Rick Hargrave / ODFW)
Bull trout are sensitive to warm, dirty and slow-moving waters caused by dams, which, in addition to water pollution and habitat destruction, have fragmented their populations.

Bull Trout

Members of the char subgroup of the salmon family, bull trout can grow up to 20 pounds and live for 12 years. Though they're easily confused with trout and salmon, they differ from these fish by sporting a large head and a dark-colored body with light spots, while their relatives have dark spots over light-colored bodies. Bull trout reside mostly in the high mountains and coastal rivers of Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Bull trout can be homebodies or world-weary travelers. Some travel more than 150 miles to spawn, others migrate from coastal streams to the sea, while still others stay put right near where they were born. Since bull trout need cold, clear water and clean gravel beds that aren't bogged down with lots of sediment to spawn, they’re excellent indicators of high water quality. Small bull trout eat mostly aquatic insects, but switch to eating fish once they're bigger.

Like salmon, bull trout are sensitive to warm, dirty and slow-moving waters caused by dams, which, in addition to water pollution and habitat destruction, have fragmented bull trout populations, diminishing their numbers to threatened levels over the years. In 2010, conservation advocates scored a major victory for both bull trout and grizzly bears when a federal judge rejected the U.S. Forest Service's approval of a massive industrial mining operation on the edge of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area. The proposed Rock Creek Mine would have smothered important bull trout spawning grounds under tons of sediment and threatened to drain water out of lakes in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The fight continues in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as Earthjustice works to overturn the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s approval of the Rock Creek Mine.

  • (Galen Rowell / Mountain Light)
  • (U.S. FWS)
Indiscriminate shooting, baby chick snatching, egg stealing, habitat destruction, and the pesticide DDT all contributed to the birds' sharp demise.

Peregrine Falcon

With hooked beaks, strong talons and a wingspan of 3½ feet, peregrine falcons make formidable hunters of prey both large and small that they track by land, sea or air. Upon striking, peregrines cup their wings and dive at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, making them the fastest flying bird in the world. Their name, which means "wanderer," is appropriate since some have been known to fly more than 15,000 miles in a year, while others choose to take up permanent residency sitting atop bridges and skyscrapers. Smaller males court the females through a series of acrobatic displays of dives, loops and rolls.

A favorite of falconers, these birds are among the most widespread raptors in the world, found everywhere from the tundra to dry desert landscapes, but that wasn't always the case. Before World War II, the peregrine population in the eastern United States was estimated at about 350–400 breeding pairs, but indiscriminate shooting, baby chick snatching, egg stealing and habitat destruction all contributed to the birds' sharp demise. It was the synthetic pesticide DDT, however, that turned out to be the main culprit in pushing the species to the brink of extinction by thinning the birds' egg shells.

With the banning of DDT and the help of a successful captive breeding and release program, peregrine falcons have made a successful comeback and are now no longer listed as endangered. Still, nesting and wintering habitat in areas like the Crown of the Continent ecosystem must be preserved in order for the falcons, which require a large feeding territory, to survive.