Beyond borders for a new age of conservation
By Monica Gokey Explore Big Sky Contributor

BOZEMAN – The Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative’s long name and affinity for acronyms is about the only clue to the program’s government origins. At its core, GNLCC is about reaching beyond administrative boundaries to tackle large-scale landscape problems that no single entity can achieve on its own.

“The cooperative was designed to help conservation organizations – and that includes government, non-government, tribal and university partners – work together to address issues like climate change and land use change that happen at such a large scale none of us can do it individually,” said Yvette Converse, Bozeman-based GNLCC Coordinator.

GNLCC is one of 22 Landscape Conservation Cooperatives created through a 2010 secretarial order by former Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The Great Northern LCC spans as far north as interior British Columbia and south through the sage steppes of southwestern Wyoming.

“The idea is for these LCC boundaries to be set up as eco-regions,” Converse said, explaining that LCCs were established to tackle large-scale problems by sharing science, data and resources between a region’s different stakeholders. “We’re here to help people understand what their options are when they have climate change data.” Converse spent more than 15 years as an aquatic ecologist and watershed scientist.

In its rawest form, a lot of climate change data are just sets of temperature and precipitation data points – making sense of that information isn’t always intuitive, she said. Making that data interpretable to people who need it on the ground is her team’s top priority.

Many LCCs use a program called LC MAP, an acronym for Landscape Conservation Management and Analysis Portal. It’s sort of like an online filing cabinet for science data, where a lot of the science is conveyed through maps. For example, clicking an LC MAP folder labeled “sage grouse” turns up a list of different studies showing data on grouse distribution, breeding density, habitat character and more.

What might have been a scattered array of grouse studies housed at a number of different agencies can be kept together under one secure folder in LC MAP. For a sage grouse scientist, it’s the difference between having to assemble the best available science through phone calls and emails to colleagues at different agencies versus being able to find them all in one place – LC MAP is the ‘one place,’ Converse said.

“The Park Service does its own studies, the Forest Service does theirs separately, the [Bureau of Land Management], [Fish and Wildlife Service], the state of Montana – we don’t all need to create the same data and pay for it five times,” she said.

It helps to be a little GIS-savvy to interpret the data available on LC MAP – many studies are layers best viewed in Google Earth – but the beauty is being able to layer the findings of different studies over each other. A bigger picture starts to take shape, and that’s the whole idea.

“The target audience for the science and the tools that are developed is really more the managers,” Converse said. “They’re who we want to be able to have access to the right kind of information and know what to do with it.”

Additionally, GNLCC is trying to stimulate discussion via webinars and workshops to improve conservation dialogue beyond administrative borders.

“The program is still very new,” Converse said. “And for the first couple of years my job was really about getting people to try to work together.”

It’s not just the government agencies GNLCC is trying to engage: Tribes, universities and non-governmental groups are also getting involved. The Wildlife Conservation Society is one such partner and Molly Cross, WCS climate change coordinator, said its conservation agenda aligns with GNLCC’s.

“Climate change planning on large scales is a big part of what we do,” said Cross, adding that because climate change has landscape-wide impacts, it’s not something you can handle on a locality-by-locality basis.

Under Cross’s wing, WCS received a $50,000 grant from GNLCC to stimulate discussion about planning for climate change. The group has hosted two workshops in 2013. The most recent, held in early June in Bozeman, attracted about 50 participants, she said.

Scientists, land managers, tribal representatives and non-governmental groups all sat down to discuss how science can be used to guide large scale, on-the-ground conservation strategies. For Cross, that discussion is essential.

“It’s really important to allow for that cross-geographic pollination of idea exchange,” she said, explaining that once people get a feel for the bigger picture, it’s easier to connect the dots between current and future habitats.

And Converse agrees: large landscape problems call for large-scale collaboration – it’s what GNLCC is striving to facilitate.