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Playing nice in the Greater Yellowstone

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Community conservation emerges in this wild region

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – How many places in the lower 48 can you hike 60 miles and not see a single other person; drive dirt roads spotted with free-grazing cattle and horses; witness a grizzly bear sauntering through a meadow; hear the sound of a wolf’s howl; and stare into a dark, starlit sky?

Many consider the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem the wildest corner in the lower 48, containing the largest concentration of wildlife, half of the world’s active geysers, and amounting to 20 million acres that span three states and two national parks. The area is a hotspot for recreation and many outdoor enthusiasts have relocated to the wildland that is the Greater Yellowstone.

With a passion for this place they call home, many scientists have devoted their careers to researching the region. However, according to some, the results of years-long studies may not effectively be reaching area communities.

In a December presentation for Montana State University’s Western Lands & Peoples speaker series, MSU Department of Ecology professor Andrew Hansen alluded to this.

“On the science front,” he said, “I would suggest we could do a much better job of just taking the pulse of the ecosystem … and then most importantly, to communicate these results to the wide variety of people that live and work in the system. To communicate in ways that resonate not with the scientists, but resonate with the business community and the ranchers and others.”

Hansen is the director of MSU’s Landscape Biodiversity Lab and has worked in collaboration with the National Park Service, NASA and other academics in order to develop ways of assessing the vulnerability of ecosystems to climate variation, population growth and land use change—a health assessment for the ecosystem.

“The issue is there’s so much data available for land managers,” Hansen said. “There’s a huge amount of information, but it’s not used. … We need these types of simple do’s and don’ts, for backcountry recreationists, fly fishermen [and] homeowners.”

Hannah Jaicks, a program manager for the nonprofit consulting team Future West, works independently of advocacy groups in order to facilitate projects and provide technical assistance, training and information about conservation.

“[Conservation scientists and researchers] have this awareness of what’s needed,” said Jaicks, who is an environmental psychologist. “But the on-the-ground implementation of that gets muddled.”

When everything you believe in, everything that is important to you, is challenged, that hurts, she explained, whether you are a fourth-generation rancher who shoots wolves that prey on your cattle, or a conservation scientist who’s compiled data from NASA’s satellite instruments.

“It’s a false dichotomy that you’re right or wrong, or good or bad,” Jaicks said. “Conservation is not just a data problem, it’s a people thing. … Conservation, like anything else, has a lot to do with relationships. Facts don’t get people’s behavior to change.”

According to Jaicks, community is what makes people change. “It comes down to understanding how people think; it comes from a place of understanding and non-judgment. You have to show up as a person. You have to treat people like people.”

Jaicks is the first to admit she has anxieties over the future of the region, though she does remain hopeful. She knows that relationship building doesn’t always work. “But I also know sometimes it does,” she said.

Both Jaicks and Hansen are calling for the community to identify shared values—whether we prioritize river flows, native species, planned development or others—as a first step in developing ways to reduce negative impacts for the future.

“We want a silver bullet for issues,” Jaicks said. “We want a thing that we can do to solve the problem, but this is not conducive to a set of 10 items that are going to solve conservation. … We’re not going to get rid of our livelihoods [such as ranching or farming], that is a disrespect to our own species. We’re not going to stop people from having babies.”

But, Jaicks said, community members have to play nice. “You have to come from a place of knowing yourself and knowing your values and beliefs, but also of being in a place where you can communicate with other people. … It’s called being a decent person, judging people by their character.”

Brooke Regan, a project manager for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, has been working on just one avenue for developing shared values. In a partnership with MSU, the organization is planning a symposium in April entitled “Our Shared Place: The Present and Future of Recreation” that will highlight what we know about recreation and what we can do about the added pressures recreation places on the land.

“The Greater Yellowstone is becoming an increasingly popular place to visit, to live, to play,” Regan said. “How do we balance recreation with conservation? We’re really interested in getting a diversity of perspectives to the table to start to figure out what other people’s ideas are and what solutions there could be.”

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