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The Big Picture: Thinking About Greater Yellowstone's Elephants In The Room

What's stopping us from confronting the deepening threats to America's wildest and most iconic backyard ecosystem?

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - Thomas Moran
I REALIZE IT'S RATHER UNCONVENTIONAL for a writer to give his readers an assignment in the second paragraph of a story. But here it is, and it’s the same one I tasked those who attended a recent evening conversation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming called “Elephants in the Room” hosted by Yale University professor Dr. Susan Clark, founder of a scientific research group called the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative.

Your mission now is this: simply watch two very short videos (only a couple of minutes each) produced by University of Illinois researcher and psychology professor Daniel Simons. I won’t tell you what they’re about. Just give them a viewing. Literally, keep your eye on the ball if you can. Once you’re done, let’s meet back here. I promise the exercise will be entertaining and well worth your effort.

Keep Your Eye On The Ball

Now Apply The Lesson You Just Learned



Whether one calls them elephants or gorillas in the room, those of us mutually interested in environmental issues—whether as journalists, scientists,  politicians, natural resource managers, local planners, businesspeople, recreationists or citizens—we have important questions before us that have vital implications for society.

One is: are we really paying attention or distracted by other stuff? The second is: if we are paying attention, what is our focus; what else are we missing with things happening imperceptably right before our eyes? The third and most vital is: once our awareness level is heightened, do we possess the will to change the way we think?

It is a humbling exercise to take full stock of the multiple parts present in a landscape. It is also clannish human nature to cling to what we know, or to what we think we know; to choose information or details that are familiar over those which press us out of our comfort zones; to believe in facts—or advocate “alternative facts”— that only confirm our cultural worldviews rather than those which challenge them; and ultimately to embrace doing status quo things over and over again instead of exploring solutions to challenges that may require inconvenience, or demand difficult short-term sacrifice in order to achieve long-term benefits.

Empires have risen and fallen over the arc of human history because of this failure.  Great civilizations have collapsed, so our elephant in the room is actually a very old problem.

On the blizzarding January night when Dr. Clark and I gathered with four dozen intrepid souls, every one a denizen of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, I said something that I knew made people mad. I could read it on their faces. I suggested that if Greater Yellowstone (this region of mostly federal public lands which belong to all Americans) is going to be saved, it may involve the need of saying “yes” to the idea of saying “no.”

The wild heart of Greater Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world—Yellowstone—and the ecosystem keystone of this larger all-encompassing province is wildlife.  True, Greater Yellowstone and its mountains, rivers, valleys, and sunsets are extraordinarily beautiful. It has spectacular, inspiring places to hike, hunt, fish, mountain bike, ride an ATV or horse,  or shoot the rapids, but what sets it apart from anywhere else in the Lower 48—and indeed most of the world—are the large wild animal populations (predators and prey) that still move across it.

Greater Yellowstone is as grand and vast as the Serengeti of eastern Africa and it only endures because of conservation. In blunt terms, it has meant that previous generations accepted limits on their own human behavior—not repeating the same patterns of conquest that have diminished the fuller expression of the natural world. 

The irony, of course, is that some of the biggest financial beneficiaries of the dividends of conservation are people who, for their own ideological reasons and motivations of rational self-interest, are today opposed to limits.  It’s probably fair to say that most possess no malicious intent, but the needs of wildlife, the underpinnings of what enables biological diversity to thrive, do not register with them.

Here is a fact: Were this country to try and do it all over again—knitting together a broad mosaic of publicly-owned national parks, forests and other kinds of wildlife refuges—the people mentioned above likely would be opposed to creation of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the establishment of the National Forest and National Wildlife Refuge systems, the passage of environmental laws and enacting prescriptions for safeguarding habitat against damaging natural resource extraction. The miracle of Greater Yellowstone could not be duplicated today. Yes, the wildest region in America’s backyard, an act of faith paid forward by previous generations and goodwill by leaders of both major political parties, would not exist.

Along with this fact, here is a truth often ignored in discussions about the essential ingredients of prosperity, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: There is no example on Earth where conservation of nature, over time, has not generated huge ecological, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual benefits. 

Here is a truth often ignored in discussions about the essential ingredients of prosperity, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: There is no example on Earth where conservation of nature, over time, has not generated huge ecological, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual benefits. 
To those who only measure the value of things based upon monetizing worth, the healthy wildlands of Greater Yellowstone that come together at the intersection of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are the basis for a $1 billion annual nature-tourism economy in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks alone; three or five times that if you add in the revenues generated by outdoor recreation in the entire region, making it one of the key economic pillars in all three states. And this, mind you, doesn’t include the uncalculated value of clean water and air, the role that these healthy landscapes play in real estate and intangible rewards represented in higher quality of life than those who inhabit overcrowded megalopolises.

We live in times, which some commentators describe as America’s new regression back to adolescence, where it is not fashionable to ever say no.  It is an age when some claim that natural landscapes have no limits for the amount and intensity of human activity that can occur on them without serious ecological harm being done. We live in a time of climate change and population growth in which users of landscapes (for profit, recreation or lifestyle) conclude that unless they can’t actually see impacts being caused by their own actions or by the larger cumulating wave of human presence, such impacts, therefore, do not exist.

A summer eruption of visitors in Yellowstone encircles the rim of Old Faithful, waiting for the world's most famous geyser  to send its hot water plume skyward.  Photo courtesy National Park Service/Neal Herbert.
A summer eruption of visitors in Yellowstone encircles the rim of Old Faithful, waiting for the world's most famous geyser to send its hot water plume skyward. Photo courtesy National Park Service/Neal Herbert.
But there is growing irrefutable evidence to the contrary and it puts scientists measuring it in a difficult position. Often, society has used science—and its application in field monitoring—to gather data that speaks to changes as they happen or after they’ve already occurred.

For me, as a journalist writing about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for more than 30 years, there are, as I see it, three major elephants in the room that desperately need to be acknowledged, yet public discussions of them have been resisted as taboo, in part, because they involve citizens having to contemplate the prospect of saying yes to saying no.  And, at a pivotal juncture when traditional serious journalism is on the wane, the level of scrutiny being applied by reporters parallels the initial attention span of a viewer seeing a Daniel Simons' videos for the first time.

The three pachyderms are: the deepening impacts of climate change and what they portend, especially where water in the arid West is concerned (there are so many known unknowns yet with implications for ecosystems and tens of millions of people); the deepening inexorable impacts of human growth (both an unprecedented rise in people migrating to live in Greater Yellowstone from other nature-attenuated areas, and accompanied by a somewhat related surge in unprecedented numbers of visitors and recreationists to public lands. Thirdly, the inability or reluctance of land management agencies,  the 20 different county commissions and city governments in Greater Yellowstone that oversee key private land,  and, of course, citizens to see the clear writing on the wall.

As a site devoted to old-school investigative journalism, what is Mountain Journal’s focus?  Answer: exploring the intersection of human and natural communities, with the realization that what is happening here can provide insight for other places.

Expert after expert has told me that saving Greater Yellowstone necessarily demands a coming together to wrestle with these challenges—because if we don’t, this ecosystem (unrivaled in so many respects on the planet) will go the way of every other region where the fracturing effects of human presence have overwhelmed nature in ways unlikely to ever be reversed.

Greater Yellowstone holds every major mammal and bird species that was here before the arrival of Europeans.  Ninety-nine percent of the rest of America cannot claim the same distinction, but why does it matter?

This painted map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, made by Heinrich  Berann, was commissioned by the National Park Service in the 1960s.  At the time, the concept of the ecosystem applied to the habitat needed to support a grizzly bear population.  Since then, as  scientific knowledge has expanded, understanding of Greater Yellowstone has also grown exponentially.
This painted map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, made by Heinrich Berann, was commissioned by the National Park Service in the 1960s. At the time, the concept of the ecosystem applied to the habitat needed to support a grizzly bear population. Since then, as scientific knowledge has expanded, understanding of Greater Yellowstone has also grown exponentially.
Now that you’ve watched Dan Simons’s short videos, reflect on what you didn’t see or, better yet, try to reflect on things that fall beyond the fairly linear scope of your research or personal interest. What are the things you might not be absorbing about the essence of Greater Yellowstone?

At the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative workshop with Dr. Clark, I asked participants to identify one predominant threat that will leave Greater Yellowstone seriously diminished a half century from now—and then to suggest a single solution that, if invoked today could help prevent that inevitability from happening.

A preponderance of the audience identified growth-related issues; too many people doing too many things on a finite sweep of interconnected private and public land. The 22.5-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is actually pretty small. Functionally, it will be made ever smaller, squeezed by climate change altering its ecological carrying capacity because of less winter snowpack, hotter and drier conditions, and further fragmented by a doubling or tripling of the human population likely to occur in just two human generations.

In many ways, my 90-minute collaboration with Dr. Clark was an absolute failure, for we didn’t get into any in-depth discussion with the audience about their conceptions of Greater Yellowstone in the future. We certainly were not going to resolve how we might make better sense of those issues, certainly not in a way that would turn concern into different way of thinking that transcends artificial human boundaries drawn on maps.

If we don’t get the “growth” component of Greater Yellowstone addressed, experts have told me, it won’t matter how fond we are of thinking about ecological processes playing out at the landscape level, like terrestrial migrations of ungulates, protecting wide-ranging species like grizzly bears, wolverines and elk that need escape cover free of intensive human intrusion. 

Some say a simple remedy resides in “collaboration”, i.e. just getting people with differing views to talk more often.  But that assumes there is widespread accepted recognition of what the problems are, acknowledging they warrant attention and believing piecemeal collaboration is adequate to keep up with the accelerated impacts of change. As Clark and others have told me, you can’t begin to imagine averting problems in the future if you don’t understand how, moving forward, one get from here to there.

This is a personal observation as a journalist drawn from writing countless stories about environmental protection here and around the globe: I’ve seen countless meetings where the assertion is “if we only talked and respected each other more”—if only we exchanged more bear hugs, the lingua franca of “collaboration” and “compromise”—then we would save the environment and all be able to pursue our own interests, living happily ever after.  Which, of course, is a fairy tale.

Who would argue with the notion that having respect and listening to each other are good things?

But where things of real consequence are in play, for example safeguarding undisturbed subalpine snowfields for wolverines, or winter range for moose or tens of thousands of elk, “compromise” that results in 50 percent more human incursion for species pushed to the margin of persisteance, the outcome is written in natural history.  In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there are no new wildlands being created; the challenge, a wide variety of scientists working across disciplines say, is holding the line. 

The attributes of Greater Yellowstone will not persist by emulating other regions; safeguarding them here must become its own example of hope for other places seeking signals from us. A major breakthrough in thinking is necessary but before that is even possible, the media must help make visible to the masses what is presently unseen.  And that makes Mountain Journal not an advocate for a specific outcome but a catalyst for bringing public illumination.

The attributes of Greater Yellowstone will not persist by emulating other regions; safeguarding them here must become its own example of hope for other places seeking signals from us. A major breakthrough in thinking is necessary but before that is even possible, the media must help make visible to the masses what is presently unseen.  And that makes Mountain Journal not an advocate for a specific outcome but a catalyst for bringing public illumination.

Prominent ecologists say the only way that the remarkable wild assets of Greater Yellowstone are going to endure—in the irrefutable face of climate change and inundation by more people—is if the region protects as much of the remaining undeveloped public land base as possible and is smarter about how development occurs on private land.

Demographers and planners often hold forth about “growth” in the abstract. They discuss things like the maximum carrying capacity of human infrastructure. So often lacking are discussions of cumulative ecological impacts, both with how macro decisions play out on a landscape and the combined effects of a zillion little incremental ones.

In the late 1960s when this photograph of a Yellowstone grizzly was taken, the bruin population was crashing, necessitating a desperate listing to give bears federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. The state of Wyoming then and still does regard grizzlies as a management burden.  Four decades ago fewer than 140 grizzlies survived in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. While bear numbers have grown so too have the number of significant threats to the survival of grizzlies and large carnivores worldwide.
In the late 1960s when this photograph of a Yellowstone grizzly was taken, the bruin population was crashing, necessitating a desperate listing to give bears federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. The state of Wyoming then and still does regard grizzlies as a management burden. Four decades ago fewer than 140 grizzlies survived in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. While bear numbers have grown so too have the number of significant threats to the survival of grizzlies and large carnivores worldwide.
These are challenging times for scientists, given that some in power believe funding for science ought to be slashed, that gag orders should be imposed upon scientists for speaking empirical truths if they conflict with political agendas, and that trend-lines right in front of our eyes can be simply denied or willfully ignored. Photo by Richard Lake, courtesy National Park Service.

Dr. Clark says elected officials and civil servants in Greater Yellowstone, from city and county commissioners, to the senior leadership of land management agencies and non-government organizations, are afflicted with “bounded rationality”—the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited to confronting only small problems at hand in the moment and unable to contemplate foresighted decisions.

“For high-level leaders, learning and education should be about active reflective efforts on their experiences directed at shaping the future of Greater Yellowstone,” Clark writes in a draft of her forthcoming book, “Greater Yellowstone: Signals from The Future.” “Leadership should be about focusing on putting practices, thinking, organizations, institutions, and society on a trajectory that is sustainable and open to continual learning, reflection, and adaptation. This to me seems to be the needed real mission for all of us who care about the future of this place.”

The role of biological and social scientists, as well as the importance of public interest journalism, has never been greater.

Wildlife veterinarian Thomas Roffe, former national chief of wildlife health for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a longtime former denizen of Greater Yellowstone, once said, “Science doesn’t define what the proper thing to do is. Science helps to define what the conditions will be if you choose one vision or another. Science will help you understand what the advantages or disadvantages are to your perspective. But it doesn’t tell you what’s right or what’s wrong.”

That calculus of that value decision is left up to citizens, who first must choose whether they want to be better informed, shaping their democracy based on actual facts, not alternative ones.  The impetus for Mountain Journal’s creation is to separate reality from fairy tales.

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Painting at the top of this story is Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a work presented to Congress and responsible for helping to convince lawmakers to set aside Yellowstone as the world's first national park in 1872.

Bear photograph on Mountain Journal homepage is Eyes of the Grizzly by Thomas D. Mangelsen (mangelsen.com)

Todd Wilkinson has been a writer in residence at the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and encourages readers to check out its mission and support its commitment to advancing scientific understanding of the region.  
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition of asking hard questions and pressing for honest answers. For more on his career, click below.
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