Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yellowstone and Wilderness

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of my blog series on the Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, I have been enamored with the west since childhood. I think a lot of kids are, at least my generation and older. The "wild west", cowboys and Indians, home on the range, vigilante justice, the OK Corral, when men were men and women were, well, mostly prostitutes but we'll look past that for now. Vast prairies and soaring mountain ranges, raging rivers and deep forests, wildernesses long gone here in the east.

The problem, of course, is that the wilderness is also long gone in the west. Sure, there are vast stretches of uninhabited lands, mostly owned by our government and corporations. The largest National Parks and Monuments in the contiguous US are out west, thanks in large part to the fact that a handful of folks, after seeing wilderness disappear within a century of our country's establishment in the east, had the foresight to preserve some of it. But uninhabited lands and National Parks are not wilderness. Much of the land is mined, logged, or grazed by cattle. The rivers are dammed to provide electricity and drinking water for people who have settled in arid regions where no sizable cities could naturally exist.

As for the National Parks, they too are not wilderness. Let's look at Yellowstone specifically. Sure, this is largely undeveloped land, set aside before it was logged or mined, although there was some cattle grazing going on inside what are now park boundaries. But there are miles and miles of paved roads, restaurants, gift shops, hotels. In many cases you can see the best "sights" by walking only a half mile or less. When we were there in 2007, there was a huge debate over cell towers within the park--I am happy to say that they are looking to limit cell service and are also looking to remove a cell tower near Old Faithful. Really, they put a cell tower near Old Faithful?

Even the wildlife is not wild. There have been disputes for years over park animals who leave the park boundaries. Wolves and brown bears often harass and kill livestock on neighboring ranches. Hungry bison leave the park during harsh winters looking for food. Biologists intent on gathering information radio collar wolves. There was some talk among the dissenters of this practice that the heavy (and no longer functioning) collars several members (including the alpha male and female) of the Hayden Valley wolf pack were wearing may have put them at a disadvantage in a fight with another pack and could have contributed to their demise.

For all the seemingly wild beauty of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, not a whit of it is truly wild. Those animals who venture outside the park boundaries are often killed as threats to cattle and their grazing lands. Wolves have been removed from the Endangered Species list in the region. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana all allow ranchers to shoot on sight any wolf, as they may threaten their herds. In addition, all three states have enacted hunting seasons for wolves. It doesn't seem to matter to the states, the Federal government or certainly to the ranchers that wolves are highly social animals whose pack function will be altered with each removal of a pack member. Add to that the loss of genetic diversity, and we could possibly be looking at a complete collapse of the wolf population in Yellowstone region in the future, one that we (since it was all funded by the Feds) worked so hard to reestablish. Woe to any wolf who does not understand the artificial boundaries of the park.

Bison too are managed. Not only do they sometimes compete with cattle on nearby grazing lands, but they can carry bovine brucellosis, a disease that can cause spontaneous abortions and ultimately sterility in cattle. Biologists say that bison are unlikely to pass this disease on to cattle, but that doesn't mollify the cattle industry. And so, over the past several decades, over 6,000 of the park's bison have been either shot in the park or rounded up and sent to slaughter. Elk too are a target, although it seems that they have not yet been culled in the Greater Yellowstone area. One website I was on was wondering if elk were as "charismatic" as bison and whether the public would freak out as much over elk as they did bison if they wanted to begin managing elk populations too. So, what, if elk aren't as popular as bison it will be more acceptable to kill them?

I have only recently begun to read about the debate regarding our parks, public lands and wilderness--what it is, how it should be managed, or if it should be managed at all. Are they solely for recreation, for beautiful scenery, for scientific study? How can scientists get any sort of reliable data studying a population that is artificially managed? Should lands be set aside to protect biodiversity, to offer the other creatures we share the world with a buffer from mankind? Should there be places where we just don't go?

Jack Turner, in his book of essays titled "The Abstract Wild," started me down this path of really questioning what our wild lands are or should be for. Edward Abbey's book "Desert Solitaire", which I just finished reading, was outstanding in its joyful reverence for wilderness and its disdain for the way in which our government--and the public--perceives and treats it. I would recommend both books to anyone interested in exploring how they feel about wilderness, and ultimately the role nature plays, or should play, in our lives.

I try not to think about Yellowstone in terms of it being a giant, drive through zoo, but that's kind of what it is. That fact does not diminish the experience of actually being there and making eye contact with a pronghorn antelope. It is a stunning, magical place in spite of its tourist plazas, and I am eagerly awaiting the day when I can return. But the more I read the more I hope that we can someday set aside un-managed, untrammeled wilderness lands, lands that we simply leave the hell alone, wherever we can find tracts left that are large enough to function as a healthy ecosystem. Canada's boreal forests , the jungles of Borneo, the Mongolian Steppes. Even if I never set foot in these places, there is some part of me that will rest easier knowing they are there. For now I will have to be satisfied with our parks and other public lands. As beautiful and inspiring as they are, they are far from natural, and no where near wilderness.

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