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THE POWER OF PARKS Yellowstone: Wild Heart of a Continent

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THE POWER OF PARKS Yellowstone: Wild Heart of a Continent

On August 7, 2015, a ranger found the chewed-upon body of a man near a hiking trail in Yellowstone National Park, not far from one of the park’s largest hotels. The deceased was soon identified as Lance Crosby, 63, from Billings, Montana. He had worked seasonally as a nurse at a medical clinic in the park and been reported missing by co-workers that morning.

Investigation revealed that Crosby was hiking alone on the previous day, without bear spray, and ran afoul of a female grizzly with two cubs. The sow, after killing and partially eating him (not necessarily in that order), and allowing the cubs to eat too, cached his remains beneath dirt and pine duff, as grizzlies do when they intend to reclaim a piece of meat. Once trapped and persuasively linked to Crosby by DNA evidence, she was given a sedative and an anesthetic and then executed, on grounds that an adult grizzly bear that has eaten human flesh and cached a body is too dangerous to be spared, even if the fatal encounter wasn’t her fault. “We are deeply saddened by this tragedy and our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victim,” said Park Superintendent Dan Wenk, a reasonable man charged with a difficult task: keeping Yellowstone safe for both people and wildlife.

Grizzly bears, clearly, can be dangerous animals. But the danger they represent should be seen in perspective. Lance Crosby’s death was just the seventh bear-caused fatality in the park during the past hundred years. In the 144 years since Yellowstone was established, more people have died there of drowning and of scalding in thermal pools, and of suicide, than have been killed by bears. Almost as many people have died from lightning strikes. Two people have been killed by bison.

The real lesson inherent in the death of Lance Crosby, and in the equally regrettable death of the bear that killed him, is a reminder of something too easily forgotten: Yellowstone is a wild place, constrained imperfectly within human-imposed limits. It’s filled with wonders of nature—fierce animals, deep canyons, scalding waters—that are magnificent to behold but fretful to engage.

Most of us, when we visit Yellowstone, gaze from our cars at a roadside bear, stand at an overlook above a great river, stroll boardwalks amid the geyser basins. We experience the park as a diorama. But walk just 200 yards off the road into a forested gully or a sagebrush flat, and you had better be carrying, as Lance Crosby wasn’t, a canister of bear spray. This is the paradox of Yellowstone, and of most other national parks we have added since: wilderness contained, nature under management, wild animals obliged to abide by human rules. It’s the paradox of the cultivated wild.

Question: Can we hope to preserve, in the midst of modern America, any such remnant of our continent’s primordial landscape, any such sample of true wildness—a gloriously inhospitable place, full of predators and prey, in which nature is still allowed to be red in tooth and claw? Can that sort of place be reconciled with human demands and human convenience? Time alone, and our choices, will tell. But if the answer is yes, the answer is Yellowstone.

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant, compliant but no great advocate of scenic protection himself, signed a bill creating the world’s first national park. That law specified “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Within this park “wanton destruction of the fish and game,” whatever “wanton” might mean, as well as commercial exploitation of such game, was prohibited. The boundaries were rectilinear, although ecology isn’t. The paradox had been framed.

At the outset, the park was an orphan idea with no clarity of purpose, no staff, no budget. Congress seemed to lose interest as soon as the ink of Grant’s signature dried. The idea that the park should protect wildlife as well as geysers and canyons was an afterthought. Yellowstone became a disaster zone. Market hunters operated brazenly in the park, killing elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and other ungulates in industrial quantities, until the U.S. Army was brought in to handle enforcement. An elk hide was worth six to eight dollars, serious money, and a man might kill 25 to 50 elk in a day. Antlers littered the hillsides. Wagon tourists came and went unsupervised, at low numbers but with relatively high impact, some of them vandalizing geyser cones, carving their names on the scenery, killing a trumpeter swan or other wildlife for the hell of it.

Even after the National Park Service replaced the Army in 1916, persecution of the “bad” animals in the park—meaning mostly the predators, as distinct from the gentle herbivores—continued unfettered. One superintendent even encouraged commercial trappers to kill beavers by the hundreds, so that they wouldn’t build dams and flood his park. Otters were classified as predatory, that damning label, and for a while there was a fatwa against skunks. Wolf killing ended only when the wolves were all gone, not just from Yellowstone (by around 1930) but throughout the American West. Poisoning and shooting of coyotes continued until about 1935.

Bears, especially grizzly bears (though black bears are also present), have always been a different and more complicated matter. Grizzlies are omnivores, smart and opportunistic. From the early years of the park, they learned to accept handouts from passing travelers and to forage on humans’ garbage. Later, by the hotels at Old Faithful, on the lake, and near the Grand Canyon, large garbage dumps became theaters where tourists sat on bleacher seats to watch the “bear show” on summer evenings. For 80 years, Yellowstone’s grizzlies and black bears consumed food refuse in vast quantities, coming to depend on it unwholesomely, with the blessings of the park managers and to the amusement of the visiting public. The closure of those dumps during the early 1970s, when management ideas shifted toward more “natural” regulation, precipitated a crisis of hungry desperation among grizzlies that brought the population way down and resulted, in 1975, in the bear’s listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Today Yellowstone is the eponym of a great ecosystem, the biggest and richest complex of mostly untamed landscape and wildlife within the lower 48 states. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an amoeboid expanse of landscape encompassing two national parks (Grand Teton is the second) as well as national forests, wildlife refuges, and other public and private holdings, the whole shebang amounting to 22.6 million acres, an order of magnitude bigger than Yellowstone Park itself. Surrounding this great amoeba is a modest transition zone, where you will more likely find cattle than elk, more likely see a grain elevator than a grizzly bear, and more likely hear the bark of a black Labrador than the howl of a wolf. Bounding that buffer is 21st-century America: highways, towns, parking lots, malls, endlessly sprawling suburbs, golf courses, Starbucks.

Within the ecosystem, everything is connected. That’s the first lesson not just of ecology but also of resource politics. The wolf is connected to the grizzly bear by way of their competition for ungulate prey, especially elk calves and adult elk that have been weakened by winter or the rigors of the autumn rut. Because whitebark pine seeds constitute another important food for grizzlies, the bears are connected to the mountain pine beetle, which kills the pines in increasingly severe outbreaks related to climate change. Bison are connected to Montana livestock policy by way of a disease called brucellosis, probably brought to America in cattle.

Such interconnections underscore the truth of a truism: that the ecosystem is an intricate, interactive compoundment of living creatures, relationships, physical factors, geological circumstances, historical accidents, and biological processes. The changes that ricochet through these networks of connection, from animal to plant, predator to prey, one level of the food web to another, are a focus of interest, and disagreement, among scientists who study the wildlife and vegetation of Yellowstone. The details become almost Talmudic in complexity, but what’s important to keep in mind is that disturbances have secondary effects, usually unforeseen, and that sometimes those effects are irreversible. Restoring wolves to Yellowstone, for example, does not necessarily fix all the problems that removing wolves from Yellowstone caused. Taking grizzlies off the list of threatened species will have consequences down the road too.

Preservation of the grizzly bear population is arguably the highest and best purpose of Yellowstone Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But that doesn’t oblige one to extreme pessimism over the bear’s prospects of survival, nor to distrust of agency biologists, many of whom believe that the bear’s intelligence and flexibility of behavior will keep it robust and numerous despite changes in the landscape that require greater reliance on some different foods. After all, they say, the grizzly is an omnivore, and although some of its traditionally most used food sources are in decline—spawning cutthroat trout, whitebark pine seeds—because of human-caused impacts on the ecosystem, there are 264 other choices on the known list of grizzly dietary items in Yellowstone. Change may come, these scientists say, but the bear will adapt to the challenge.

For the people who live within it, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a focus of many hopes, ideals, and fond memories—but also of many angers, in part because it contains so many different expectations governed by different interests. Some hunters are angry that there aren’t enough elk. Some ranchers are angry that there are too many elk. Some wolf lovers are angry that wolves, including those that spend much of their year within the park, now may be hunted or trapped when they roam beyond the park boundaries. Some landowners in Gardiner, Montana, are angry that bison migrate out of the park in winter and into their yards. Some stockmen are angry that migrating bison carry brucellosis, which might be passed to their cows. Some wildlife activists are angry that bison from the park, once they migrate out, may be corralled and shipped to slaughter. Some range scientists are angry about overgrazed grasslands in the two parks, resulting from too many bison and elk. Some fishermen are angry about the slaughter of lake trout, an exotic species that’s being suppressed in Yellowstone Lake for the sake of the native cutthroat trout. Somebody somewhere is probably angry about coyotes. Scarcely a season passes, in the gateway towns of Cody and Jackson and Bozeman, without several public meetings, called by the various agencies, at which people express these angers.

Amid that push and pull, however, one important truth must be remembered: that the people who live and work and hunt and fish and hike within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are not the sole possessors of legitimate interest.

This is America’s place, and the world’s.

Have we vastly improved this great area since the bad old days of commercial poaching and vandalism, governmental neglect, Wild West brigandage, and uncontrolled tourism development—or have we already gone a long way toward making it a big, boring suburb with antler-motif doorknobs?

Passionately dedicated people need to find collaborative solutions and to recognize that righteous intransigence is not a strategy; it’s just a satisfying attitude. The various agency members of the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee (the body that tries to oversee the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a comprehensive entity) need to add private groups as partners and to make bold decisions that transcend turf politics. Climate change seems to be hurting Yellowstone—by way of temperature ranges, insect cycles, drought, who knows what else—and we all need to do better on fixing that.

Ha, easier said than done. But if the Yellowstone grizzly bear is expected to adapt, modify its behavior, and cope with new realities, shouldn’t we be expected to do that too?

In a spectacular yearlong event, the National Geographic Channel series America’s National Parks will show you the parks’ natural wonders—both big and small—as you have never experienced them before. Learn more about the series.

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