Yellowstone Preservationists Arent
It is an amazing thing to see a wolf in the wild,
even from a paved road and through the long lens of a telescope.
was both sublime and surrealsublime because of the quiet and our
intense focus, the light changing, and us watching and wanting moresurreal
to then eat dinner under a host of stuffed wildlife mounted
on restaurant walls. Still, what remains with me from four days in Yellowstone
National Park is naturealive, not dead.
Yellowstone is a place of contradictionin some places, like Old
Faithful, the Park is a Swiss Family Robinson-themed Disneyland. In others,
it is unmanaged nature (albeit with roads), as wild in some
ways as the African Serengeti plain. Most visitors to Yellowstone come
hoping to see animals. The serious ones get up at 4 a.m. (as
we did), put on layers of clothes and rain gear, and wait. At lunch time,
they might grill hot-dogs in one of the Parks picnic areas (barbecues
provided), or order beef for dinner. This in spite the fact that cattle
ranchers in Montana and Wyoming are nearly always at odds with, or waging
low-level war against, the very wild animals people have come to Yellowstone
to see mostthe wolves and the slow-moving bison. Complexity is
often hidden in Yellowstone, or, perhaps ignored.
In Bozeman, Montana, the booming town Yellowstone visitors often fly
in and out of, the New West has arrived, seeking a place in the
midst of the Old. The image of the cowboy eating beef for breakfast is
giving way to a busy natural foods co-op, a street-front yoga studio,
and a cell of Seventh Day Adventists with a tall sign on Bozemans
main street: Do something bold. Go vegetarian. Many restaurants
in and around Yellowstone have the V word on their menus.
But there are also steak houses, the hunting and fishing supply stores,
and a Montanan on the plane, who said to me after some time, And
I bet you dont eat meat either, right?not as a compliment.
Despite the arrival of a new West, more urban and more affluent, more
interested in having wild animals alive rather than dead, the cattle
still keeps a strong hold on Western politicians. This persists even
though the cattle industrys contribution to the regions economy is
tiny and shrinking, as the tourism and high tech industries grow. However,
tourists love the wolves. They have only been back in the Park since 1995,
but theirs is already the Parks most demanded sighting, and dominant
imageon mugs, fridge magnets, caps, T-shirts, postcards and guide
In the Yellowstone story, the beef industry is not the only villain.
Politicians regularly inveigh against the wolves and argue for more or
in Yellowstone, or more access for snowmobilesall at the expense
of wildlife. Development also plays a large part. Lured by the quality
of life and natural beauty, people are relocating to the Greater Yellowstone
Ecosystembuilding vacation homes, starting businesses, and transforming
more plains and forests into shopping malls, Starbucks, McDonalds,
the Gap, and vegetarian-friendly restaurants. The super-rich have discovered
Montana. As such development continues, wild nature is destroyed and
remains becomes more and more segmented. Islands of wilderness are emerging,
between which animals have to cross highways or travel through human
to get to food sources, water, or breeding and birthing areas. Such journeys
increase the likelihood of conflicts with humans that the non-human animals
In the town of Big Sky, a controversial, multimillion dollar ski resort
is planned with membership fees of $3 million, plus $250,000 each year.
Whoopi Goldberg has already signed up. The resort will effectively close
off a critical corridor for migrating ungulates...maybe she doesnt
know or care.
Can development in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem be stopped or scaled
back? Perhaps the better question is can we, as a species, accept the
idea of limits to growth within a complex and essential part of nature?
Can we who love wolves not build huge houses so close to where they hunt
and breed and raise their young? Its a complex question. Humansparticularly
Americanshave been incredibly disdainful of the idea of limits.
The reign in the 1990s of gas-guzzling SUVs shows how far we havent
come since the 1970s call to conserve energy. As a species, we have become
highly successful at reproducing ourselves and exterminating nearly everyone
and everything else, while we excel at building and paving overpaving
over large swaths of nature including the remaining areas that we have
come to treasure so much.
However, a few of us can still understand complexityan increasingly
rare skill in late 20th century America. One of these people is Tom Skeele,
Executive Director of Predator Project, who led the trip Satya editor-at-large
Martin Rowe and I took to Yellowstone (see articles in this issue). Although
hes originally from Connecticut, Tom really
gets the West, with all its complexity and contradictionthe
ravages of beef (which he doesnt eat) on the ecosystem, as well
as the pervasive Western mythology of the cowboy. He understands the
to revel in wildness by spending time in it while also advocating forcefully
with human policy-makers on behalf of species and their habitat.
Tom says that more of us need to be heard in debates on wildlife and
conservation if this democracy is to survive as such. Thats a pretty good thought
for a cynical, millennial America, where big money rules campaigns, where
our leaders cant bear to trouble us with, or even understand themselves
how complex things are, and where we often simply choose to dodge whats
murky or complicated. However, what Yellowstone said to me is that we
need to tackle complexity-engage with the issues and enter debates-as
well as accept and advocate for some simple certainties. Those wolves
whose lives I encountered, and whom I think about nearly every day, have
a right to exist and thrive in nature that is theirs. Not a very complex
thought. But to make a difference in this complex and maddening world,
not all thoughts have to be.