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The New West: Yellowstone’s Dan Wenk prescribes courage if we want to save our wild ecosystem

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Yellowstone National Park is what gives the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem its centrifugal force.

While the 22.5-million-acre region is indeed the sum of all parts, absent the presence of America’s mother national park and, by dint of miracle, the long list of bio-geological wonders that still transcends its borders, this part of the country would be just like everywhere else.

We have grizzly bears, wolves, geysers, migrating big game herds, mystical trout waters, unblemished views and plenty of terrain to explore.

But conspicuously missing is leadership to deal with mounting problems being explored in depth at Mountain Journal (

There’s no true galvanizing presence among Greater Yellowstone’s conservation community; no vision coming from land management agencies arrayed together in the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee.

And there is little elected political leadership rising from the federal, state and local levels to formulate a cohesive strategy for dealing with issues such as growth, climate change, rising recreation pressure, chronic wasting disease and wildfire.

Thus, it makes dynamic figures stand out all the more. Last weekend, the most obvious in that category, Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk, received an honorary doctorate from Montana State University in Bozeman.

Wenk gave a rousing acceptance speech, demonstrating courage that is now exceedingly rare.

“We are at a crossroads in our decision making as a community, a region and a nation in our attitude about protection of wild places,” he said.

In 2016, I wrote a column in which I cited Wenk’s former colleague, David Hallac, who served as Yellowstone’s science chief. He warned that while the ecosystem’s health is remarkable, it’s facing unprecedented converging threats that, unless confronted, will cause it to unravel.

Wenk picked up the theme, noting that it comes down to human decisions and a will to do the right thing by giving back more than we take.

“The least studied species in Yellowstone is the human. We don’t yet understand the affect of record visitation on either the visitor experience or the resources we protect,” Wenk said. “If we don’t understand these interrelationships, we may diminish, perhaps irreparably, the very things that attract people worldwide to this one-of-a-kind national park.”

Wenk ended his advice to college graduates that applies equally to everyone in the ecosystem who care about its exceptional character.

Said Wenk:

°“Tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear”;

° “Contribute to things bigger than yourselves”;

° “It’s easy to make decisions when you know what your values are”;

° “When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect”;

° “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu”;

° “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it’s the only means”;

° “Misery is optional.”

For Wenk, the latter point means this: Let adventure in nature inspire you to be a better, more compassionate, sensitive and humble person who delights in the possibility of saving a place unlike any other.

Find levity in moments of intense gravity; ferret out reasons to have hope when all is thought lost; think beyond your own generation, as previous conservationists did for you; and step up and be counted in advocating for wild places and wildlife that do not have their own voice.

Wenk quoted a woman rancher from Belgrade who told him we must all sacrifice to save the character of the land. “It’s hard to condemn any one sector without acknowledging the warts and complexities of any other, but collectively we are degrading the magic that makes this region unique,” she told the newly-minted Dr. Wenk. “Can we slow down, scale back, and proceed with less of an air of entitlement?”

Finally, he noted, “Protection and management of public lands has never been more important than it is today. It is as simple and as complex as providing a place to disconnect from our daily world and reconnect with the environment and nature, a place for emotional and, if we are lucky, spiritual renewal.”

Finally, a note to all you great readers: Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and here’s to an inspiring new year ahead. 

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (, is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

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