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What's Our Role In Saving Greater Yellowstone?

Every one of us, who feels connected to America’s ‘wildlife Serengeti’ needs to rally or the wildness we treasure here will be lost

A map prepared by the Wyoming Migration Initiative showing the movements of nine major elk herds in the -state Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, all which have direct or indirect connections to Yellowstone National Park; every single one of them still exists only because their migration corridors have not yet been blocked by development or displaced by human presence.
A map prepared by the Wyoming Migration Initiative showing the movements of nine major elk herds in the -state Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, all which have direct or indirect connections to Yellowstone National Park; every single one of them still exists only because their migration corridors have not yet been blocked by development or displaced by human presence.

by Todd Wilkinson

The other day I was on a Zoom call with students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies who were taking a class taught by Dr. Susan G. Clark. Her curriculum focuses on how to save some of the last remaining wildland ecosystems on Earth. And, as she noted, one of the greatest is a miracle that still exists in America’s own wild backyard.

Surprisingly, few citizens realize this.

Clark and I have been friends for more than 30 years. When she’s not delivering lectures at Yale, she spends much of her time at her home in the town of Jackson, Wyoming, which is located right across the street from the National Elk Refuge. Like many of her contemporaries who came to the northwest corner of Wyoming a half century ago, this septuagenarian has witnessed changes that in recent years have begun accelerating.

Clark, founder of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, had asked me, as she does each year, to discuss the fate of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in both my work as a writer and founder of the nonprofit journalism site, Mountain Journal. MoJo, as readers here know, explores the intersection of humans and nature in a region without parallel in the Lower 48.

In anticipation of a lively exchange with Yale graduate and undergraduate students, I asked them to ponder an amazing map (see above) produced by the Wyoming Migration Initiative that illustrates where elk herds move across Greater Yellowstone.

It’s a truly extraordinary thing to have tens of thousands of wapiti migrating seasonally across the tri-state landscape—not only because it still happens at all, but because human development and land-use patterns, including outdoor recreation, have not yet reduced or eliminated such movements of large ungulates, as has happened nearly everywhere else.

Greater Yellowstone is, in many ways, the last great large mammal ecosystem still left standing in the American West. The truth is we are steadily losing this place through a process that Yellowstone's former chief scientist David Hallac has called "death by 10,000 scratches."

It’s occurring right now, in real time, right in front of our noses and while wildlife experts and land managers concur with this premise, citing accumulating evidence, there is currently no plan or sense of urgency to talk about it, let alone save the country's most iconic terrestrial ecosystem.

In fact, if you ask people on the street, many longtime local citizens, including young people, be they products of Bozeman, Jackson Hole, Cody, Lander, Livingston, Soda Springs, Driggs or Dillon, don’t even understand how globally special their home region is.  Nor do most of the wealthy set who have retreated to their second homes here during the Covid pandemic. Even people who ought to know better.
In fact, if you ask people on the street, many longtime local citizens, including young people, be they products of Bozeman, Jackson Hole, Cody, Lander, Livingston, Soda Springs, Driggs or Dillon, don’t even understand how globally special their home region is.  Nor do most of the wealthy set who have retreated to their second homes here during the Covid pandemic. Even people who ought to know better.
Supermodel Gisele Bündchen, spouse of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady, has a house in the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky. She is a global goodwill ambassador for the United Nations' Environment Program. Do she and Brady know how ecologically significant Greater Yellowstone is?  Do Yellowstone Club residents Bill and Melinda Gates? Does former Google CEO Eric Schmidt?

Do they care?

They ought to.

Nearly a dozen major elk herds converge in Yellowstone National Park in summer and then circuit outward in the fall toward winter range. They touch the far extent of Greater Yellowstone and demonstrate why it’s an extraordinary ecosystem of intertwined wildlife populations.  

A stark reality is that you can’t protect what you can’t see—or don’t know exists or don’t have the mental wherewithal to understand why it’s important. That’s why the work of the Wyoming Migration Initiative led by researcher Matthew Kauffman is extraordinary.
Every year elk from every direction in Greater Yellowstone make dramatic seasonal pilgrimages in and out of Yellowstone National Park. It's something that is considered a national wildlife treasure and something ever-rarer on the planet. A photographer who has chronicled Greater Yellowstone's migrations is Joe Riis. To see more of his amazing collectible work, go to joeriis.com
Every year elk from every direction in Greater Yellowstone make dramatic seasonal pilgrimages in and out of Yellowstone National Park. It's something that is considered a national wildlife treasure and something ever-rarer on the planet. A photographer who has chronicled Greater Yellowstone's migrations is Joe Riis. To see more of his amazing collectible work, go to joeriis.com
What I wanted the bright young minds from Yale to ponder—and it’s what I ask here— is to consider not what is illustrated on the elk map but what’s missing? 

Yes, we easily recognize the cartographic boundaries of federal, state, county, local and private property jurisdictions but elk migrations flow across them like rivers.

What’s absent, I mentioned to the students, is a chronicle of the seasonal migrations and movements of several other species, as in: bison, mule deer, pronghorn, moose, bighorn sheep, and wolverines. All of these animals migrate, too, and they need spaces and habitat not fragmented or overrun by humans in order to keep doing it. Grizzlies and wolves peregrinate too, as do bald eagles, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, bobcats, lynx, and wild neotropical songbirds.

Greater Yellowstone is a vast remnant symphony of wildlife whose movements are like the melody articulated by notes scrawled across a beautiful, complicated, harmonious masterpiece of sheet music. 

This is the reason why Greater Yellowstone warrants rough comparison to the other great wild ecosystem, the Serengeti, in East Africa. This is our still living, breathing version of that. Other regions can only dream of bringing back species that have been lost and some will spend millions of dollars trying to recover them and never succeed. 

Greater Yellowstone is the only one of its kind on the planet and it is every bit as valuable a national treasure as anything else in this country. Yet by neglect, indifference, lack of mass awareness of what we have right before our eyes—and add to that a fragmented way of thinking about it—we are losing this place. 

How?

Were one to take the present existing grids of private land development, replete with all of the major and minor roads, homes, fences, commercial or industrial enterprises and the intensive accompanying infrastructure of obstacles, then add in thousands upon thousands of lot lines outside towns that have already been subdivided but which now are invisible to us—and then superimpose them on a comprehensive map of wildlife migrations—it would be obvious, scientists tell me, we are in trouble. 

Were we also to include all of the front country and backcountry recreation trails on public lands, and show their rising levels of uses and illustrate the displacement happening with wildlife, even conservation organizations still in denial would be forced to admit there is serious impact occurring and it’s only going to increase.   

This is the reality; hope does not reside in wishful thinking or looking the other way; it demands that we actually do something. 

Those who are informed know the direction where this is headed. It’s not a mystery because our future has already been written with what’s not present, in terms of wildlife, in other regions. The question is: are we willing to chart a different course which must necessarily involve each of us giving up a little bit of our personal ambitions to give wildness in Greater Yellowstone as we know it today a chance of persisting in the face of growing human pressure?
Why it's a national treasure and the last one standing: No other ecosystem in the Lower 48, beyond Greater Yellowstone, still has healthy populations of all of these animals.  While national parks  provide habitat, these species cannot continue to persist based on terrain in parks alone; in fact, studies show that fragmentation caused by human pressure beyond park boundaries jeopardizes the ability of these animals to persist in viable numbers. Graphic courtesy NPS
Why it's a national treasure and the last one standing: No other ecosystem in the Lower 48, beyond Greater Yellowstone, still has healthy populations of all of these animals. While national parks provide habitat, these species cannot continue to persist based on terrain in parks alone; in fact, studies show that fragmentation caused by human pressure beyond park boundaries jeopardizes the ability of these animals to persist in viable numbers. Graphic courtesy NPS
Can we reduce our relentless appetite of trying to blindly monetize as much undeveloped private land as possible and scrambling as outdoor enthusiasts to cross (or conquer) every still-wild corner of Greater Yellowstone in order to, instead, leave space for the animals you see represented in the graphic above.

Can we look past the manic focus on rational self-interest no matter what the cost to nature and accept limitations on how we develop and use landscapes? Can we be a lot smarter?  If we’re not willing to do that, then let’s just admit publicly that we are consciously choosing as communities to wave a surrender flag and let wildlife abundance wither away. 

Unless we get undistracted and change the way we’re doing business, any future SOS distress call—“Save Our Serengeti”—is destined to be too little, too late, and too costly to fix. 

Good commendable work is being done, especially by land trust-like organizations, but it clearly isn’t happening fast enough; more crucial land is being disturbed than is being protected.  All of us have a role in its stewardship. Like the sheet music that speaks to Greater Yellowstone’s marvel of remnant biodiversity, citizen voices who identify as wildlife advocates represent the vital chorus.

On Thursday, March 4 at 6 pm, you are invited to join a discussion with prominent scientists about Greater Yellowstone, helping all of us comprehend that what sets this region apart is not its stature as a human playground, or the next real estate play, but it’s wildlife. 

Wildness From the Heart of the American Serengeti: How Are We Gonna Save This Place?” is a virtual Zoom chat and free to attend.  The event is being sponsored by the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, the Teton County Library and hosted by the library's public events dynamo Leah Shlachter. 

Matt Kauffman
Matt Kauffman
I've invited some world-class landscape conservation specialists to join me:  
Matt Kauffman, co founder of the Wyoming Migration Initiative; Gary Tabor, founder and president of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation; and Brent Brock, landscape ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. I promise you will find it engaging.  You can access remotely by clicking here. 

Let’s have a serious, heartfelt chat among people near and far who love this place and know that we need a plan—a vision—to safeguard the miracle that is Greater Yellowstone.

Gary Tabor
Gary Tabor
Here, I want to amicably lean upon a few people, beyond elected and government officials who can and should be making a difference in elevating ecological awareness at a mass scale.  Often absent are members of the business community, including locals and people of means.  You know the folks I am referencing—the wealthy from Jackson Hole, Bozeman, members of the Yellowstone Club at Big Sky, Cody, Red Lodge, Paradise Valley, Madison Valley, and the Centennial. 

Brent Brock
Brent Brock
They need to educate themselves and let the wonder of Greater Yellowstone enter into their consciousness, consciences and hearts. This isn’t a Conservative vs. Liberal political issue. It’s an issue of the common values we share surrounding the protection of nature—places where elk and grizzlies can still roam; the persistence of wild bison, bighorn sheep, wolves and, yes, even rural ranchers and farmers who preside over crucial habitat and open space. 

Second home owners who try to isolate themselves away need to know that yes, money can buy more material stuff than one will ever need, but more meaningfully, it can earn satisfaction, admiration in the eyes of family, community and country for stepping forward to help make a plan for saving America's last best wildlife ecosystem, Greater Yellowstone, a reality.

NOTE: Below is a video of the event at the Teton County Library featuring the three prominent landscape ecologists.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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