John Bergenske knows what it means to love the land. The Conservation Director for Wildsight moved to the East Kootenay from Wisconsin, USA in 1969 with the late great mountaineer and conservationist Art Twomey in search of a wild place to live. They arrived to the St. Mary’s Valley where they built log cabins and embarked on lives filled with mountain adventure.


“Spending time in the Purcell mountains, we totally fell in love with the place. Coming from a landscape where there was little wilderness remaining, we recognized the importance of protecting the wild Purcells,” said John.

Art was a filmmaker, and made a film about the St. Mary’s Alpine. The duo showed the film all through the Kootenays and their proposal for an alpine park to protect the area proved successful.


It wasn’t long before they were approached by a local logger and miner who were concerned about a pristine area about to face bulldozer and chainsaw, and inspiration for the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy was sparked.


“A diverse group of people who loved the Purcells and knew these mountains intimately came together for Earthwatch conferences in Golden. We were fortunate to have a provincial government at the time that was receptive to our message and recognized the need to protect some of these lands.”


The Purcell Wilderness was established as a Wilderness Conservancy in 1974, protecting 325,000 acres. The 22,640-acre St. Mary’s Alpine Provincial Park, adjacent to the southern boundary of the Conservancy, had been established earlier the same year. In 1995, the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy was expanded to its current size and named a Class A Provincial Park by the B.C. government.


“We spent 25 years holding off development at its edge, 25 years of ongoing skirmishes on perimeter areas until 1995 when the Conservancy was expanded beyond the centre of the range. In order to make the system really work it needed the valley bottoms from the Rocky Mountain Trench to Kootenay Lake,” said John. “Pushing back on unrestrained loss of wildlife habitat continues to this day. The Purcell Conservancy is a great core wilderness area but the key to having functional ecosystems is connectivity – Purcells and Rockies to north and south, connected across the Trench and into the West Kootenay. It’s one of North America’s most diverse ecosystems for wildlife. We can’t ignore any of the parts.”


Throughout his conservation career, John has also been instrumental in working to establish the Southern Rocky Mountain Conservation Area, and the Columbia Wetlands and East Columbia Lake Wildlife Management Areas, and has participated in extensive field research on both mountain caribou and grizzly bears in the region. Formerly the Executive Director for Wildsight (2002-2012), he has been active on land use, forestry, access management and caribou recovery. He is presently focussed on the Southern Rockies Wildlife Corridor in the Flathead and Elk Valleys, as well as wildlife issues including species at risk.


“Unfortunately we’re seeing fewer and fewer people with an in depth relationship with the land. That’s a key issue we face right now.  I believe the Ktunaxa Nation recognizes this at a very deep level. Wildsight’s goal is to reconnect people, particularly young people, to place and teach respect for all living things; to recognize we are a part of this landscape and connected with it,” John said. “We’re fortunate to have a great group of people supporting and working with Wildsight. I find it very exciting.”


Learn more about Wildsight’s conservation programs here.