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The New West: Greater Yellowstone isn’t just any other winter playground

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Wandering bison in Yellowstone. PHOTO BY JIM PEACO/NPS
CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST

For winter travelers making a play-vacation pilgrimages to one of our region’s world class downhill ski areas, hearing the term “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” may attract only passing interest.

Yet when one informs them that they’ve arrived in a place that, because of the congregation of native large mammals, is home to an American version of the African Serengeti, their attention is more likely to alight.

What even many local denizens of Greater Yellowstone don’t realize is how special and uncommon the ecosystem is, not just for being unparalleled in the Lower 48 but it is largest remaining still-intact ecosystem in the temperate zones of Planet Earth.

There are plenty of destinations to ski or hike or mountain bike or cast a fly line but there are none with the number and diversity of large predators and prey moving across the landscape of Greater Yellowstone.

That’s because they still can and the reason is that not only is the habitat unfragmented or overrun like so many other places are by hordes of people, but the animals have room to roam between the high country and lower elevation, between birthing grounds in the mountains during spring and summer and winter ranges in the valleys.

“Greater Yellowstone” is neither a mere slogan nor a geographical accident. Recognition of its uniqueness has been evolving, and deepening with more understanding, and with this has come the realization that unless smart, conscious human efforts are taken to protect it, the health of the ecosystem can easily be lost.

Greater Yellowstone has helped pioneer the concept of island biogeography—the notion that wildlife disappears faster if it is forced to exist inside a geographically-isolated box of living space cut offer from other populations of its own kind.

In 1985, a young ecologist from the University of Michigan named William Newmark undertook a novel examination of national parks in the West, including Yellowstone, and arrived at the following conclusion. As big as they are, they are not big enough by themselves to sustain viable populations of grizzlies and elk, bison and other species.

Further, given human development on private lands just outside parks and natural resources extraction activities happened on adjacent public land like national forests, the process of ecological unraveling happens faster.

Some 35 years ago, in his examination of trend-lines (this was at a time before the onslaught of climate change was even being discussed), Newmark predicted ongoing irreversible declines of species. 

Around that time, government entities, spurred by conservationists and supported by members of Congress, were forced to consider managing Greater Yellowstone not as a constellation of differing jurisdictions but with common goals, aimed at preventing the ecosystem from suffering the same plight as most everyplace else.

At the same time, the study of conservation biology, driven by ecological thinking at the landscape level, gained traction and took off. Along with the Greater Yellowstone concept, there were other ideas such as Yellowstone to Yukon advanced, and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act and plans hatched by a number of groups and leading scientists.

While some dismissed it as radical and concocted half-baked—if not completely wacky—conspiracy theories claiming it was a government land grab, better approaches to landscape protection applied in Greater Yellowstone have yielded huge dividends.

Not only is it vital to protect the best wild country that remains—habitat that is crucial to the persistence of species that need room away from large numbers of people in order to survive—but conservation biology has touted the benefits of “rewilding.”

Rewilding involves healing landscapes that were damaged by human activity and having their ecological function restored. Recovering grizzlies, wolves, elk and bison is an example of rewilding, so is restoring keystone habitat creators like beavers, and so is enlisting ranchers, by offering good incentives, to be more wildlife friendly.

Wild places with healthy wildlife populations do not remain so by accident. They persist only because of conscious self-restraint embraced by people—permanent residents and visitors who realize that in order to save America’s version of the Serengeti we need to consider the needs of wildlife survival versus our short term desires just to have another place to play. And builders who understand that putting up another subdivision that will destroy fragile habitat.  And citizens who do not put their yen for turning a profit over the priceless value of an international treasure like Greater Yellowstone that belongs to all American citizens.

The question facing all of us is: what are we willing to give up, which within the larger context of our lives really isn’t very much, in order to insure this ecosystem can persevere through tectonic shifts—growth and climate change—already underway? 

If you’ve only come to Greater Yellowstone to ski or snowmobile or snowboard and you don’t have the wherewithal to reflect on the natural novelty of this place on Earth, you probably should have gone to Aspen or Vail, Squaw Valley or Park City and Sun Valley where the experience is all about you.

There, the concept of wildness is only a fractional afterthought and an ongoing sacrifice to human indulgence.  What we have here they will never know again.

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