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Biennial Scientific Conference takes a look inward

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Scientists, managers consider the human impact

By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – During an era of explosive growth in the Greater Yellowstone, managers and researchers are further embracing science, ecosystem economics, tourism and conservation as a means for resource protection.

This was evident during Yellowstone Forever’s 14th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem held at Big Sky Resort on Sept. 11-14. The first time it’s been held outside of Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks, this year’s conference was held in Big Sky to highlight the region-wide impacts of increasing visitor use.

Approximately 300 scientists, researchers, managers and conservation advocates gathered for the discussion about “Tracking the Human Footprint,” with an emphasis on social sciences and community development.

Breakout sessions explored traditional topics like wildlife migration and carnivore ecology, while other sessions considered the impacts of recreation, strategies for collaboration, and the ways science informs management decisions.

“We have to come to terms with visitor use,” said Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk during the final plenary discussion on Sept. 13.

“The least studied species in the ecosystem is the human and we’re changing that,” he added, referring to the numerous visitor-use surveys and studies the park service has initiated in recent years. “We need the social science to tell us how our numbers are affecting visitor experience, how our numbers are affecting the resources in Yellowstone National Park. … We can’t make decisions until we have the science on which to base those decisions.

“I firmly believe, standing here today, that we have to limit visitors to Yellowstone National Park,” he added.

In addition to the growing pains felt in Yellowstone, gateway towns and other Greater Yellowstone cities are grappling with the repercussions of a visitor economy.

“Probably the biggest challenge for the ecosystem in Gallatin County is our growth,” said Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert during a panel discussion with Wyoming House Representative Mike Gierau and commissioners from Park County, Montana; Teton County, Idaho; and Park County, Wyoming.

“Where is the next Hyalite [Canyon]? Where are we going to recreate? It’s our recreational opportunities—that’s one of the things that drives our growth and drives our community and drives our economy,” Seifert added.

Park County Montana Commissioner Bill Berg said Livingston is also feeling the strain.

“In an evolving economy with a larger human footprint and more visitors … we’re struggling to hang on to our sense of community as a lot of housing thought gets put into guest accommodations,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out [how to] maintain a community of locals.”

Other panelists mentioned the challenges of wildlife connectivity, access to public lands, and the overall balance of growth and resource protection.

Jodi Hilty, the president and chief scientist for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in Canmore, Alberta, took up the topic of wildlife connectivity during the Superintendent’s International Lecture, which is an opportunity for knowledge-sharing across borders. Prior to her work with Y2Y, Hilty served as the executive director of the North American Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bozeman.

“‘A River Runs Through It.’ After this movie was made, Robert Redford was recorded to say, ‘I never would have made this movie, had I known what it would do to the mountain West,’” she said. “Today so many outlets are promoting moving here. … We’ve got to do better on coexistence and how we’re doing it.”

Hilty described Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, a worldwide initiative to create large-scale wildlife connectivity. The plan states that by 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial and 10 percent of marine areas are to be conserved. Presented during the 2016 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity this plan has been ratified by every country except the U.S. and Somalia.

“Right now, the world is at about 15 percent [of land conserved]. The U.S. and Canada are both at about 12 percent,” Hilty said. “But is it enough? And is it in the right places? … There are a lot of things putting pressure on our human and natural systems right now so we need to go a little bit further with protected areas.

“If you look at what’s happening around the world, conservation has advanced a lot more in other places,” she added. “So maybe it’s time for us to look up and see what’s happened elsewhere and really try to connect, as Dan [Wenk] said, this amazing place with what’s happening in the rest of the world so we can see it conserved for future generations.”

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