Back to Stories
We Are Transforming Yellowstone And Only Hard Human Choices Will Keep Ecosystem Intact
March 22, 2023
We Are Transforming Yellowstone And Only Hard Human Choices Will Keep Ecosystem Intact
In this guest essay, Lance Olsen notes that our best hope of safeguarding America's first national park and its natural character rests with our species consuming less land. Can we tame our appetite?
A bull elk roams a mosaic of evergreen forest and meadow near Yellowstone's Fawn Pass Trail. With places like Yellowstone National Park, we think of them as constants, changeless and permanent—what's there now is as it always will be. But humans in a variety of ways are doing things in mass that are bringing a transformation of nature. The native meadowy grasslands, which feed wildlife, are threatened by invasions of exotic plants and the forests face fire in the coming decades. How will this landscape appear in 2050? Will the flow of wildlife movement still be functional? Experts say it won't be unless we plan ahead by thinking across invisible human-made boundaries. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
By Lance Olsen
A recent Financial Times review describes a new book as “an epic and spellbinding story,” and “an epic survey of our relations with the environment." Much the same could be said for the transformation of Yellowstone.
The reviewer noted the book’s emphasis on how we “got to the point that we now face such a perilous future.” That question is entirely apropos to the future of Yellowstone.
But this epic story of a perilous future isn’t about Yellowstone. The title and theme of the book is The Earth Transformed, and the epic, spellbinding story that author Peter Frankopan tells us is that “our species has transformed the Earth to the point that we now face a perilous future.”
Can the transformation of Yellowstone be understood as something separate and apart from the transformation of Earth? I don’t think so.
Is Yellowstone facing a perilous future? I don’t doubt it.
Might the broader view of a transformed earth lend understanding of Yellowstone’s own transformation? I’m certain that it can, but understanding has never been enough, and we’re left with the question of what to do once we understand.
Understanding is not enough
The plea for more understanding is ubiquitous. In conservation, wildlife, and other sciences, we hear it in terms of need for more research, but the need of that is disputed even amongst the scientists. An example of that showed up plainly enough in the October 11, 2016 issue of one of the world’s most distinguished journals of science, Nature.
In a gritty, pithy, stinging piece titled “It’s time to get real about conservation,” scientist Aaron Ellison lays it on the line in his first two paragraphs : “How can scientists protect biodiversity? In the wake of August’s Great Elephant Census, which revealed a precipitous decline in numbers throughout Africa, there were the usual calls from researchers for more and better data. Only if we know where and how many of each species there are, this argument goes, can we hope to conserve them. This is nonsense."
Ellison goes on. "Better data will not save elephants, rhinos or any other species," he argues. "An enormous number of individuals, academic institutions, local, state and national governments, and multinational and non-governmental organizations have been collecting, assimilating and organizing such data for decades, essentially fiddling while our biological heritage burns."
Just look at what’s been happening to Yellowstone’s own biological heritage, and what we see is what’s been understood and predictable for decades. For example, no less than Chris Servheen, the decades-long federal grizzly recovery coordinator, already knew that housing development could be the worst thing that could happen to the bear, and said so in print, in the early 1980s.
While this certainty helped our understanding of an important proximal force of transformation, that very force — housing — has nevertheless sprawled across Yellowstone acreage, and across very much of the planet, all but unstoppable.
We know how it happened. More and more people arrived, more and more houses got built, more and more trails filled, etc, etc. We don’t need more data to state a case for how Yellowstone is being transformed. But knowing the how of it leaves the why untouched.
The intractable problem
Do we have an intractable problem here? It’s a question that has to be asked, if only because if some trend is intractable, it’s going to persist. There can be massive uncertainty about how long it might persist but not much uncertainly that it will.
I don’t expect to find many who argue that Yellowstone’s transformation will screech to a halt anytime soon.
Containing nature in a box? The human attitudes and values toward land, which dominate conversations outside Yellowstone, are sealing the fate of the national park and larger region. Are we willing to consume less habitat in order for wildlife to have enough to survive? Graphic courtesy Lori Ryker
I had my first encounter with the topic of intractable problems when I sat down with the April, 1978 issue of American Psychologist. The table of contents included an article titled “The Nature of Problem Solving in Social Action,” by Seymour Sarason.
At the time, I was a member of the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, so Sarason’s article might have been the first of the articles I read in that long-ago issue. In the reading, I found this: "How does one justify trying to cope with what may be intractable problems? The very nature of the question belies its origins in the assumption of science that one has to believe that all problems are solvable."
Mountain Journal’s very recent articles related to the transformation problem imply an assumption that the problem and its solution are local, in turn implying that the transformation problem is solvable locally. Indeed, Todd Wilkinson has asked how we can become more sensitive to what’s happening under our noses, and followed up with examination of the Bozeman mayor’s ghosting of wildlife. Another very recent analysis draws attention to the Teton County Commissioners.
These are valid and necessary to understanding the transformation. In truth, they serve understanding of the transformation’s persistence, and in that way point to its intractability. That said, however, understanding the why of what’s happening under our noses requires attention to more than what’s happening under our noses.
Understanding the why of what’s happening under our noses requires attention to more than what’s happening under our noses.
I’m almost certainly not the only one who would find an answer to the transformation in a question—how much of Yellowstone’s transformation could have happened if the total human population worldwide was 10? Specifically, how many people could have flocked to the area, and how many homes could have been built, and how many trails could have gone crowded if the total human population was 10? Yes, the why of Yellowstone’s transformation can be explained by the region’s attractive appeal, but how much would that matter if the grand total human population was 10?
Yes, I agree that10 is a ridiculously low number. But it has the advantage of cutting to the chase, and, to borrow a phrase from Todd, it takes us straight to a moment of truth for Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Banff and even the whole of Earth, all transformed by the force of an apparently intractable human population boom.
Human population size, “...despite being directly or indirectly linked to the deterioration of ecological systems and a key factor for the success of conserving species and ecosystems, has been rarely considered and in fact 'trivialized or ignored’ by much of the conservation biology community."
That may seem so very obvious that it goes without saying, and maybe the apparent intractability of the problem leaves us stumped. Whatever the reasons, Camilo Mora has reviewed “recent studies showing how the issue of population growth has been downplayed and trivialized among scientific fields.”
He argues that human population size, “...despite being directly or indirectly linked to the deterioration of ecological systems and a key factor for the success of conserving species and ecosystems, has been rarely considered and in fact 'trivialized or ignored’ by much of the conservation biology community."
The valor of holding actions everywhere
If the world including Yellowstone has been, is being, and will be transformed because of a long-booming human population, we have the why of the transformation in hand. So, then, the next question is what are going to do about that?
I concluded decades ago that conservation is a holding action. We do what we can. We try and try again as the great transformation advances stage to stage, step by step. It’s to the credit of everyone involved that the holding has persisted despite seeing so much loss.
Conservation will demand our persisting holding actions until the human population ratchets itself to a bust. Until then, local heroics will have a starring role everywhere.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The talk below was part of the recent Yellowstone Summit and it speaks to why Greater Yellowstone is special in the world and what it will take to save it.