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The New West: Will human growth sink Yellowstone’s golden age?

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

National Geographic magazine has now given Greater Yellowstone its greatest captive audience ever.

In the yellow magazine’s May 2016 edition—a special issue devoted entirely to Yellowstone National Park and environs—science writer David Quammen called attention to the natural amenity that distinguishes our region from almost every other on earth.

That amenity: a still largely intact and functioning ecosystem, supporting not only abundant populations of wildlife but in terms of megafauna, every major species that was here prior to the arrival of Europeans on the continent, including grizzlies and wolves.

It’s a swath of terra firma still holding geothermal phenomena, which haven’t been ruined by reckless human development; a sweep of the northern Rockies still containing unfragmented landscapes that accommodate long-distance elk, deer and pronghorn migrations; wild rivers that haven’t been destroyed by water diversion and pollution; an expanse of mostly public land covering 22.5 million acres that miraculously escaped the wreckage and taming of Manifest Destiny.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem stands alone and apart. Thriving by protecting nature, it’s a paradoxical hard-won feat Quammen celebrates, and yet he touches upon a third-rail issue almost no one wants to talk about.

Certainly, not federal and state land managers, nor business leaders, nor elected officials in the 20 counties comprising Greater Yellowstone (now among the fastest growing rural areas in America), nor conservation groups, recreationists, hunters, anglers and private property owners, nor, quite frankly, most of us who live here.

The Nat Geo Yellowstone edition already ranks among the hottest selling editions of the magazine in years but it is, in many ways, a shot across the bow of our own denial. And this is precisely what makes it an opportunity to ignite a regional discussion that may never come around again.

The sobering, almost stupefying truth is we don’t want to confront the very reality staring us in the face: Unless we think and behave differently, unless we force ourselves to embrace self-restraint, personal sacrifice in how we live and play, and adopt regional transboundary strategies for land management and growth, much of what defines Greater Yellowstone today will be lost.

Greater Yellowstone, as we know it, cannot withstand rising population pressure, being exerted in the form of record visitation to the national parks and unprecedented waves of migrants moving to the region.

Although the public landscape is vast, the health of wildlife populations depends upon habitat that resides on a few million acres of private land.

Some leadership ostensibly is supposed to come from the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee composed of senior managers from the main federal land agencies in the region—national park superintendents, Forest Service supervisors, and senior officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Confidentially, GYCC members past and present tell me GYCC lacks both the spine and vision to spearhead the kind of ecosystem-minded conversation that needs to occur. Instead, it is dominated by short-term thinking bureaucrats who are either incapable or unwilling to broker serious discussions with state agencies, city and county commissions.

Critics believe the GYCC is a waste of money and should be disbanded, forced to start over. Similarly, and sadly, there is a serious lack of leadership among the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s national, regional and local conservation organizations. The regional director of one national group long synonymous with wild lands protection not long ago told me, “We don’t do Yellowstone anymore.”

I was not only shocked, but flabbergasted.

There is no regional dialogue occurring about wildlife diseases and the root causes of them; no strategy for confronting the impacts of population growth, no strategy for dealing with the effects of rapidly expanding outdoor recreation on wildlife and habitat; no strategy for addressing energy development and expansions of road and powerline grids; no strategy for thinking regionally about the effects of climate change on water availability, rangeland and forest health, and the rising incidence and costs of wildfire.

In the absence of coordinated strategies informed by science and smart people, landscapes will unravel; scattershot development will continue to whittle away at the fabric of wildness that defines the region.

We may very well be enjoying the Golden Age of Greater Yellowstone—or at least its last gasp. Today is as good as it ever will be? Is that acceptable? To most of us, certainly not, but what are we willing to do to change the trajectory?

In his Nat Geo story, Quammen interviewed David Hallac, Yellowstone’s former chief scientist, who spoke to the dangers of apathy: “I think we’re losing this place. Slowly. Incrementally. In a cumulative fashion. I call it sort of a creeping crisis.”

Now that it’s visible, how can it be stopped?

Columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly 399 and featuring photos by Jackson Hole photographer Tom Mangelsen (Autographed copies of the book are only available at Wilkinson also penned a feature story on Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine, distributed free throughout the Greater Yellowstone region.

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