Wednesday, October 19, 2016

COTW: Greater Yellowstone, America's Wild Heart

This chart of Yellowstone National Park shows what the actual boundaries of the protected area should be. Biologists know now that its resident large mammals utilize an entire ecosystem larger than the man-made boundary lines encompass. The migration of elk and buffalo and their closely associated predators are naturally related to an entire ecosystem enclosed with the dotted line. This is why US Person advocates expanding the Park's boundaries, or at least establishing adjacent buffer areas to allow for full habitat utilization by resident animals. {22.06.16}The Yellowstone ecosystem is still largely intact and deserves this added protection if man is to fulfill his duties as a careful steward of Earth's natural resources.

The Park was established in 1872 and its boundaries largely set to protect the geothermal features found in the collapsed caldera of an ancient shield volcano. Yellowstone was the first national park in the world; our national park system is now referred to the "Great American Idea".  Yellowstone's boundaries were later expanded somewhat to protect the headwaters of several park streams.  But even General Phillip Sheridan, the hero of western expansion, knew in 1882 that the Park was not big enough to protect the herds elk.  He advocated against stiff political resistance for expanding the Park; his efforts failed. To this day there are powerful economic interests that object to any expansion.  Conservationists argue that adding protected territory is needed to conform to the biological realities of the Yellowstone region.  In their landmark study of grizzly bears, the Craighead brothers documented the fact that bears roam five million acres of Yellowstone country, far more than the 2.2 million acres now protected.

In fact the term "ecosystem" came into widespread popular use because of the Craighead study. The great bear needs an entire functioning ecosystem with its myriad intertwined species of plant and animal life, to thrive. In turn, these species depend on the presence of a predator at the top of the food web. As an example of these complex relationships, wildlife biologists have determined that it is the return of the wolf to Yellowstone with man's help that is responsible for the rebirth of aspens, willows and cottonwood trees that were slowly disappearing from the landscape because the seventy year absence of wolves allowed herbivores to proliferate. These over grazed the young tree shoots literally to death.

The noted naturalist Aldo Leopold told us several decades ago that preserving remaining wild areas require the presence of predators. Yet we still fund government policies and agencies who do nothing except remove predators at the request of special interests. As Leopold, who was once one of the men entrusted with this misguided task, said I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.”  NOT. Incredibly states which border Yellowstone want to reintroduce trophy hunting for bear once the Yellowstone grizzly is de-listed from the Endangered Species Act. This is because trophy hunting represents revenue for the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. It is definitely not good biology since Yellowstone is now a genetic island, cut off from other scattered populations of bears in the Northern Rockies.  Hunting would only worsen the overall health of the species.

There are efforts on an official level such as the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, to address the needs of animals living in America's wild heart, but it is enfeebled by bureaucratic in-fighting and jurisdictional disputes. The health of wildlife is now dependent on the existence of a few million acres of private land as the Park is increasingly engulfed by tourists eager to glimpse some of this continent's natural past.  Unless we develop the political will and change our distorted concept of stewardship we will loose what little is remains of our wild heritage.  No comprehensive strategy exists for dealing with recreation impacts, wildlife diseases, or human development eating away at the Park's boundaries. Yellowstone’s former chief scientist, spoke to the dangers of apathy: “I think we’re losing this place. Slowly. Incrementally. In a cumulative fashion. I call it sort of a creeping crisis.” In short, damn the ecosystem and politics as usual.

Essentially, Yellowstone is a living museum. We cannot replace it if it is lost. Yet we insist on "management" that requires wild creatures to conform to artificial restraints.  Every year a portion of the wild buffalo herd is slaughtered to make it "fit" within the Park. Every year wolves are killed because the prey on a cow that is subsidized and whose owner is compensated for the loss of property.  This is not management, it is a form of genocide. If we deprive wild animals of their rightful place, the museum will be left empty, and we will have to visit our local taxidermist to see what a cougar, wolf or bear resembled. We will have failed in our God-given duty to be good stewards of his bounty.