CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

As Greater Yellowstonians, there is much we take for granted, especially if one has never dwelled beyond the provincial bubble. We often forget that 99 percent of humanity does not have it as good as we do here.

Wealthy or poor, few remain against their will, which is not to say there isn’t a lot of suffering and material inequality going on.

But in so many ways we’re spoiled by an abundance of riches: Yellowstone and Grand Teton, crown jewel national parks, invite us from just beyond the figurative back door; an equally-inspiring tapestry of national forests and wildlife sanctuaries rim these parks; breathtaking peaks rise above unmarred pastoral river valleys; and migratory native animals, from bears and wolves to elk, bison and pronghorn, flow between these elements, moving across the landscape unlike anywhere else in the Lower 48.

The vast majority of the 22.5-million-acre ecosystem belongs to us, held in trust, as citizens; the rest, huge expanses of it, belongs to private ranchers and other entities, many of whom know they play pivotal roles in keeping the wildness of Greater Yellowstone intact.

But this is a column about another kind of national treasure, often overlooked, not only by the people dwelling here permanently, but by millions of travelers coming to snatch glimpses of lobos, grizzlies and geysers. World-class museums—we have a surprising diversity of them too.

Over in Cody, Wyoming, there’s the Buffalo Bill Center of the West complex holding the Whitney Western Art Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Cody Firearms Museum and the Draper Museum of Natural History. Bozeman has the Museum of the Rockies with its astonishing trove of dinosaur bones and paleontological exhibits. A little further east in Billings, there’s the Yellowstone Art Museum, which is showing a Yellowstone National Park-specific exhibit through early August. Down in Big Horn, Wyoming, the Brinton Museum often features works by the region’s finest landscape painters.

Yet in a class by itself is the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole. As many readers know, I’ve written extensively about “nature art” for three decades. On several occasions, I’ve also explored the role of art in advancing conservation.

Were it not for Thomas Moran’s paintings and William Henry Jackson’s photographs on display for Capitol Hill lawmakers, Yellowstone, America’s first national park, might have never been set aside in 1872.

While some in the academic Ivory Tower evince a patronizing attitude toward “wildlife art”—equating it to bad duck and deer paintings—it has in fact been explored throughout human history and reflects an evolution in thinking about our species’ place in the natural world that sustains us.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art, which on May 16 officially commences its 30th anniversary festivities with a public get-together, is the only museum of its kind in the world. It is unsurpassed in its assets—much like Yellowstone and Grand Teton are.  

It still astounds me how little Greater Yellowstone’s residents actually know about the museum, including the fact that people around the world make pilgrimages just to see the art, which includes pieces by some of the most famous painters and sculptors who ever lived.

It’s been a great thrill to watch it attain global distinction, moving from its original location along the Jackson Town Square to its striking edifice north of town, with architecture that’s equal parts ancient cliff dwelling and Scottish castle.  

In a world otherwise dominated by digital distractions and throngs of summer crowds, the museum is a cathedral of quiet peaceful respite where you’ll find priceless, historically-significant paintings and sculptures worthy of display at any fine art museum in the world, including the Louvre in Paris.

Just how relevant is wildlife art? “Wildlife art is embedded in this zeitgeist of this ecological age. Artists today are doing all kinds of things using animal imagery. It doesn’t have to be a naturalistic portrayal,” said museum curator Adam Harris. “You can make a political point or engage in humorous satire. Or it can make people think about our own role and what we’re doing to nature and the environment. We are in an amazing era right now of worldwide concern for the earth. You see it being expressed in a multitude of ways.”

Two new exhibitions are opening this summer. One features Pop art portrayals of endangered species by Andy Warhol and another titled “Exploring Wildlife Art” displays pieces in the museum’s permanent collection dating from 2500 B.C. to the present. Visitors can savor works by Carl Rungius (widely considered the best painter of North American megafauna who ever lived) to pieces by Thomas Moran, Robert Bateman, John James Audubon and Georgia O’Keeffe.

There is no such thing as a bad day at the National Museum of Wildlife Art; in fact, if you’re having a bad day and need an escape, you can find solace here and come home inspired by depictions of nature that have left others spellbound across the ages.

Todd Wilkinson is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the West for more than 30 years and his column the New West has been widely read in the Greater Yellowstone region for nearly as long. He writes his column every week, and it’s published on explorebigsky.com on EBS off weeks. You can also read and get signed copies of his latest book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” a story about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly 399 featuring photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.