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LINCOLN — The 13 million-acre Crown of the Continent officially just grew by 496,164 acres, the equivalent of 775 square miles.

The Crown has embraced the wildest and largest intact ecosystem in Alberta and the United States, running from the Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, since its unofficial inception in the early 1900s. But to Rick Graetz, a University of Montana geography department lecturer and longtime outdoor enthusiast, the lines drawn on the map didn’t take into account what he was seeing on the ground south of Highway 200.

So in 2014, he enlisted the aid of graduate geography students to truth-check his theory. And this week, now that Verena Henner’s mapping project, Katie Shank’s study on biological diversity and wildlife corridors, and Josh Hoerner’s look at topographical maps and GPS readings are finished, Graetz announced their findings.

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Rick Graetz, left, a geography lecturer at the University of Montana, stands alongside his former student and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation worker Katie Shank on the Blackfoot River as they speak about their work on the Crown of the Continent project. The project centers around assessing the Crown of the Continent region of the Continental Divide Trail for the purposes of increasing wildlife habitat.

Today, the Crown’s boundaries drop south from The Bob to include the town of Lincoln, all the way to MacDonald Pass west of Helena. The boundary pushes east past Rogers Pass to Highway 434, and down to Wolf Creek, then follows the Missouri River before taking a dogleg west through Canyon Creek and Marysville. The western edge follows Highway 141 just east of Helmville and Nevada Lake before connecting with the southern border near Avon.

It also doesn’t matter that parts of the area were heavily mined and logged, or that roads and subdivisions dot the landscape in places. Rules in place now restrict how logging is done on the forest, and defunct mines, including the Mike Horse between Lincoln and Rogers Pass, are being remediated.

“People can live in the natural system as long as they’re not hindering wildlife movement,” Graetz said.

And that’s what both Shank’s study showed and the residents of Lincoln know — just because people are present on the landscape doesn’t mean that wild flora and fauna can’t co-exist.

Shank boot-truthed that, checking out the flora biodiversity in the Scapegoat Wilderness, then walking along the Continental Divide Trail from Rogers Pass to Nevada Mountain. Every 2 miles she stopped and checked a 5-by-5-foot plot off the trail, looking for a wide variety of plants in the habitat. Out of 56 plots, only two were considered to be low in biodiversity.

“That diverse ecosystem brings in a lot of diverse animals for food,” Shank said. “But Rick and I wanted to look at more than just biodiversity. So we did an assessment evaluating whether there was enough connectivity for the large mammals to migrate across Highway 200.”

Area residents, who helped with the recent installation of two animal underpasses on Highway 200, told about their experiences with everything from wolves to elk to grizzly bears. And a camera captured images of a herd of elk, a grizzly, a mountain lion and wolves using the tunnel. Some of those photos now hang on the walls of the Lincoln Ranger District office, near where the 830-pound stuffed grizzly, which was killed by a vehicle on Highway 200, is on display.

“One special thing about the Crown of the Continent in general is that the boundaries are not an exact thing. It’s an ecosystem,” Shank said, with a map spread out in front of her in the ranger district office. “But what’s exciting is we have the capability of drawing lines around another portion of the ecosystem. It changes every day, but having this designation in place, you realize how important it is to biodiversity.”

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Lincoln residents Becky Garland and Karyn Good see additional opportunities with the designation. As mining and logging has diminished, tourism and outfitting have grown. Being able to say that Lincoln is one of the jewels in the Crown of the Continent is a great marketing tool, especially for targeting through-hikers on the Continental Divide Trail.

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From left, Jordan Reeves, of The Wilderness Society, Karyn Good, a Lincoln resident, and Dave Nardinger, of Helena, speak about the Crown of the Continent project at a campsite on the Blackfoot River near Lincoln on Friday.

“We recently became a CDT Gateway Community,” Good said, which means the town recognizes the economic and cultural value the trail brings, and makes services accessible to hikers. “It’s just one more thing we can boast about and celebrate.”

“I believe having Lincoln surrounded by the Crown of the Continent makes us more of a jewel than maybe what people thought about us in the past,” Garland added. “I’m tickled that we’re surrounded by the Crown of the Continent.

“There’s a lot of education to be done with folks, business people to understand that the Crown of the Continent means were not closing our doors to people. It’s more of a concept than anything else.”

The designation doesn’t bring any management changes, notes Jordan Reeves, the conservation program manager for The Wilderness Society, who also was involved in the effort to expand the Crown.

Crown expands

The newly expanded Crown of the Continent designation includes this view from Granite Butte looking west toward the Continental Divide and Nevada Mountain.

“You still have working ranches, forest restoration, timber-thinning processes; you can have that happen at the same time folks are trekking on the trails. This looks at that whole piece and the different types of uses to create a successful, harmonious situation between the community and the environment.”

He added that places like the Copper Creek Bowls, which include popular snowmobile trails northwest of Lincoln, don’t appear to have negatively affected either the flora or fauna biodiversity.

“When you have a large landscape like this, there’s a lot of room for figuring out a balance,” Reeves said. “The Copper bowls are an important economic driver, with agreements reaching back decades.”

Dave Hardinger of Helena helped define the newly designated southern border. He believes the beauty of the area is its own marketing tool, but the Crown designation makes that more powerful. In the past six years, he’s already seeing a jump in the number of people who are riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which follows the Continental Divide along the spine of the Crown of the Continent.

“Just in the last six years the number of people riding the Divide route quadrupled,” Hardinger said. “That’s huge, especially with Europeans, and this being the Crown will make it even more attractive.”

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