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August 1999

Yellowstone Preservationists Aren’t Crying Wolf


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. The experience was both sublime and surreal—sublime because of the quiet and our intense focus, the light changing, and us watching and wanting more—surreal 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 nature—alive, not dead.

Yellowstone is a place of contradiction—in 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 Park’s 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 most—the 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 Bozeman’s 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 don’t 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 industry still keeps a strong hold on Western politicians. This persists even though the cattle industry’s contribution to the region’s 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 Park’s most demanded sighting, and dominant image—on mugs, fridge magnets, caps, T-shirts, postcards and guide book covers.

In the Yellowstone story, the beef industry is not the only villain. Politicians regularly inveigh against the wolves and argue for more or better roads in Yellowstone, or more access for snowmobiles—all 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 Ecosystem—building vacation homes, starting businesses, and transforming more plains and forests into shopping malls, Starbucks, McDonald’s, the Gap, and vegetarian-friendly restaurants. The super-rich have discovered Montana. As such development continues, wild nature is destroyed and what remains becomes more and more segmented. Islands of wilderness are emerging, between which animals have to cross highways or travel through human settlements 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 rarely win.

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 doesn’t 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? It’s a complex question. Humans—particularly Americans—have been incredibly disdainful of the idea of limits. The reign in the 1990s of gas-guzzling SUVs shows how far we haven’t 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 over—paving 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 complexity—an 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 he’s originally from Connecticut, Tom really “gets” the West, with all its complexity and contradiction—the ravages of beef (which he doesn’t eat) on the ecosystem, as well as the pervasive Western mythology of the cowboy. He understands the need 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. That’s a pretty good thought for a cynical, millennial America, where big money rules campaigns, where our leaders can’t bear to trouble us with, or even understand themselves how complex things are, and where we often simply choose to dodge what’s 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.

Mia MacDonald


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