backdrop. With each passing year, more homes are being built making it difficult for animals
like elk to navigate the labyrinth of development.
Salvation for Greater Yellowstone wapiti.
STORY BY TODD WILKINSON
PHOTOS BY HOLLY PIPPEL
The other day while sitting in my living room in Bozeman, I joined a Zoom call with students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies who were taking a class taught by Dr. Susan G. Clark. Clark’s curriculum focuses on how to save some of the last remaining wildland ecosystems on Earth. And, as she noted, one of the greatest is a miracle that still exists in America’s own wild backyard.
Surprisingly, few citizens realize this.
Clark and I have been friends for more than 30 years. When she’s not delivering lectures at Yale, she spends much of her time at her Jackson, Wyoming home located across the street from the National Elk Refuge. She is author of a long-awaited book published this summer, Yellowstone’s Survival: A Call to Action for a New Conservation Story.
Like many of her contemporaries who came to the northwest corner of Wyoming a half-century ago, this septuagenarian has witnessed changes that in recent years have begun accelerating. They’re visible in Jackson Hole and in Teton Valley, Idaho; in Big Sky and the Madison and Paradise valleys. And they are most pronounced, perhaps, in Bozeman—the fastest-growing small city in America and in Gallatin County that surrounds it.
Clark, founder of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, had asked me, as she does each year, to discuss the fate of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in both my work as a writer and founder of the nonprofit journalism site, Mountain Journal. As our readers know, MoJo explores the intersection of humans and nature in a region without parallel in the Lower 48.
In anticipation of a lively exchange with Yale graduate and undergraduate students, I asked them to ponder an amazing map produced by the Wyoming Migration Initiative that illustrates where elk herds move across Greater Yellowstone.
It’s a truly extraordinary thing to have tens of thousands of wapiti migrating seasonally across the tri-state landscape—not only because it still happens at all, but because human development and land-use patterns, including outdoor recreation, have not yet reduced or eliminated such movements of large ungulates, as has happened nearly everywhere else.
Greater Yellowstone is, in many ways, the last great large-mammal ecosystem still standing in the American West. The truth is we are steadily losing this place through a process that Yellowstone’s former chief scientist David Hallac has called “death by 10,000 scratches.”
It’s occurring right now in real time right in front of our noses, and while wildlife experts and land managers concur with this premise, citing accumulating evidence, there is currently no plan or sense of urgency to talk about it, let alone save the country’s most iconic terrestrial ecosystem.
In fact, if you ask people on the street, many longtime local citizens, including young people, be they products of Bozeman, Jackson Hole, Cody, Lander, Livingston, Soda Springs, Driggs or Dillon, don’t even understand how globally special their home region is. Nor do most of the wealthy set who have retreated to their second homes here during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even people who ought to know better.
Supermodel Gisele Bündchen, spouse of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady, has a house in the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky. She is a global goodwill ambassador for the United Nations’ Environment Program. Do she and Brady know how ecologically significant Greater Yellowstone is? Did Yellowstone Club residents Bill and Melinda Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan? Does former Google CEO Eric Schmidt?
Do they care?
They ought to. They ought to be giving back to this wild region that has served as an extraordinary sanctuary for them. And, if they are mildly curious, they would discover things that are profound.
Nearly a dozen major elk herds converge in Yellowstone National Park in summer and then circuit outward in the fall toward winter range. They touch the far extent of Greater Yellowstone and demonstrate why it’s an extraordinary ecosystem of intertwined wildlife populations.
A stark reality is that you can’t protect what you can’t see— or don’t know exists or don’t have the mental wherewithal to understand why it’s important. That’s why the work of the Wyoming Migration Initiative led by USGS researcher Matthew Kauffman is extraordinary.
What I wanted the bright young minds from Yale to ponder— and it’s what I ask here—is to consider not what is illustrated on the elk map, but rather what’s missing.
They, as with all of us, need to let the wonder of Greater Yellowstone enter into their consciousness, consciences and hearts. This isn’t a conservation versus liberal political issue.
Yes, we easily recognize the cartographic boundaries of federal, state, county, local and private property jurisdictions, but elk migrations flow across them like rivers.
What’s absent, I mentioned to the students, is a chronicle of the seasonal migrations and movements of several other species, as in bison, mule deer, pronghorn, moose, bighorn sheep, and wolverines. All of these animals, like elk, migrate, too, and they need spaces and habitat not fragmented or overrun by humans in order to keep doing it. Grizzlies and wolves also peregrinate, as do bald eagles, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, bobcats, lynx, and wild neotropical songbirds.
Greater Yellowstone is a vast remnant symphony of wildlife whose movements are like the melody articulated by notes scrawled across a beautiful, complicated, harmonious masterpiece of sheet music.
This is the reason why Greater Yellowstone warrants rough comparison to the other great wild ecosystem, the Serengeti, in East Africa. This is our still living, breathing version of that. Other regions can only dream of bringing back species that have been lost and some will spend millions of dollars trying to recover them and never succeed.
Greater Yellowstone is the only one of its kind on the planet and it’s every bit as valuable a national treasure as anything else in this country. Yet by neglect, indifference, lack of mass awareness of what we have right before our eyes—and add to that a fragmented way of thinking about it—we are losing this place.
Were one to take the present existing grids of private land development, replete with all of the major and minor roads, homes, fences, commercial or industrial enterprises and the intensive accompanying infrastructure of obstacles, then add in thousands upon thousands of lot lines outside towns that have already been subdivided but which now are invisible to us—and then superimpose them on a comprehensive map of wildlife migrations—it would be obvious, scientists tell me, we are in trouble.
Were we also to include all of the front country and backcountry recreation trails on public lands, and show their rising levels of uses and illustrate the displacement happening with wildlife, even conservation organizations still in denial would be forced to admit there is serious impact occurring and it’s only going to increase.
This is the reality; hope does not reside in wishful thinking or looking the other way, it demands that we actually do something.
Greater Yellowstone is a vast remnant symphony of wildlife whose movements are like melody articulated by notes scrawled across a beautiful, complicated, harmonious masterpiece of sheet music.
Those who are informed know the direction where this is headed. It’s not a mystery because our future has already been written with what’s not present, in terms of wildlife, in other regions. The question is: Are we willing to chart a different course which must necessarily involve each of us giving up a little bit of our personal ambitions to give wildness in Greater Yellowstone as we know it today a chance of persisting in the face of growing human pressure?
Can we reduce our relentless appetite of trying to blindly monetize as much undeveloped private land as possible and scrambling as outdoor enthusiasts to cross (or conquer) every still-wild corner of Greater Yellowstone in order to, instead, leave space for the animals you see represented in the graphic above.
Can we look past the manic focus on rational self-interest no matter what the cost to nature and accept limitations on how we develop and use landscapes? Can we be a lot smarter? If we’re not willing to do that, then let’s just admit publicly that we are consciously choosing as communities to wave a surrender flag and let wildlife abundance wither away.
Unless we get undistracted and change the way we’re doing business, any future SOS distress call—“Save Our Serengeti”—is destined to be too little, too late, and too costly to fix.
Good commendable work is being done, especially by land trust-like organizations, but it clearly isn’t happening fast enough; more crucial land is being disturbed than is being protected. We all have a role in its stewardship. Like the sheet music that speaks to Greater Yellowstone’s marvel of remnant biodiversity, citizen voices who identify as wildlife advocates represent the vital chorus.
Yes, let’s have a serious, heartfelt chat among people near and far who love this place and know that we need a plan—a vision—to safeguard the miracle that is Greater Yellowstone.
Here, I want to amicably lean upon a few people, beyond elected and government officials who can and should be making a difference in elevating ecological awareness at a mass scale. Often absent are members of the business community, including locals and people of means. You know the folks I’m referencing—the affluent from Jackson Hole, Bozeman, members of the Yellowstone Club at Big Sky, Cody, Red Lodge, Paradise Valley, Madison Valley, and the Centennial.
They, as with all of us, need to let the wonder of Greater Yellowstone enter into their consciousness, consciences and hearts. This isn’t a Conservative versus Liberal political issue. It’s an issue of the common values we share surrounding the protection of nature—places where elk and grizzlies can still roam; the persistence of wild bison, bighorn sheep, wolves and, yes, even rural ranchers and farmers who preside over crucial habitat and open space.
Second homeowners who try to isolate themselves away need to know that, yes, money can buy more material stuff than one will ever need, but more meaningfully, it can earn satisfaction, admiration in the eyes of family, community and country for stepping forward to help make a plan for saving America’s last best wildlife ecosystem: Greater Yellowstone.
A version of this article was first published in Mountain Journal. Visit mountainjournal.org to read more from our friends at MoJo.
Todd Wilkinson, a regular contributor to Mountain Outlaw, is a Bozeman-based correspondent for National Geographic and The Guardian. He is the author of critically acclaimed books on Ted Turner, famous Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, and scientific whistleblowers. He is also founder of Mountain Journal, a nationally recognized nonprofit online magazine devoted to exploring the intersection between people and nature in Greater Yellowstone.