Can Greater Yellowstone’s Wildlife Survive Industrial Strength Recreation?
by Todd Wilkinson
Mountain Journal
March 6 ,2019

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting with a large group of young people, women and men, interested in writing for Mountain Journal. They varied in ages from 22 to 35. For the record, I have a son and daughter who fit in the same range.

One and all, they impress me. They are enthusiastic about living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and recreating in the outdoors. They are conscientious, devoted to eating healthy food and promoting sustainable agriculture, staying fit, doing good by their community and generally making a positive ripple.

As contemporaries of MoJo’s associate editor for content, Gus O’Keefe, it’s going to be a joy and honor getting their essays into our free online publication that now has readers in 190 countries. People around the world are watching what we do in Greater Yellowstone.

At the humbling get-together, something extraordinary, something inspiring and indicative of a true shift in thinking occurred. It happened almost spontaneously, and it gives me hope.

Following the requisite introductions made around the table and listening to their personal interests, I posed this question to my Millennial guests: “What is it that makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem a one-of-a-kind region in the Lower 48 states, extraordinary in the world, a national treasure, and a place that will, when you are my age (30 years from now) serve as a reflection of your own values and legacy?”

One aspiring scribe quickly raised a hand and astutely replied, “There aren’t a lot of people here compared to other places.” Another said, “It’s a fun place to play.” A third added, “The land is still pretty much pristine.”

Each of those insights is true today. Then I added this perspective: I’ve been fortunate to travel around the world on writing assignments. But the significant thing that sets Greater Yellowstone apart is the abundance, diversity and scale of wildlife that still exists here and nowhere else.

I saw some furrowed eyebrows with the twenty- and thirty-somethings. I then elaborated with a rhetorical prompt: Compared to the Sierra, Colorado Rockies and Wasatch, I asked the young people, why have these high wildlife values in Greater Yellowstone been able to persist when they’ve been severely eroded in those other mountain ranges and valleys?

Every large mammal species present here prior to Europeans arriving in North America still endures in Greater Yellowstone, including grizzly bears and reintroduced wolves. Some of the longest known wildlife migrations left on Earth—ancient pathways involving elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bison—still endure here because habitat fragmentation has not yet destroyed them.

Besides playing a vital role in the conservation of grizzlies and wolves, Greater Yellowstone has been foundational in the preservation of bison, elk, trumpeter swans, black-footed ferrets, endemic Yellowstone cutthroat trout and, in recent years, one could add wolverines, bighorn sheep and mountain goats to the mix.

A few of the young writers who had grown up in Bozeman and identify as avid outdoor recreationists, said they weren’t aware just how special Greater Yellowstone is. Stunning to me is that their stewardship of wildlife had never been presented as a responsibility and opportunity. They also had never thought to ponder the landscape, they said, as if through the eyes of a bear or wapiti confronting, each year, more people.

One replied, “We have just not given it much thought, but when it is presented, like it was tonight, as a challenge for our generation to do what we can to make sure wildlife survives, it forces me to reflect on my own impacts and I’m going to think about the backcountry differently than I did before. There are a lot of places where I can play; there aren’t a lot of places where wildlife can be.”

° ° °

Following the group conversation, I thought about the Jackson Hole SHIFT Festival. Its motto: “Where Conservation Meets Adventure.” The foundational premise is that simply by being an outdoor recreationist, focused on personal physical fitness, it automatically equates to promoting conservation.

But how exactly does that work for wildlife that needs secure habitat, which is finite and threatened by growing numbers of humans invading the front and backcountry?

I’ve never seen SHIFT organizers reconcile this paradox nor have any of their previous conferences emphasized wildlife ecology, giving wildlife advocates only token representation on their agendas compared to a widening array of recreational users.

Let’s follow the line of thinking: is the mere act of fly-fishing tantamount to delivering clean water into a stream? How does riding a mountain bike, or applying political pressure to undo wilderness protection in order to achieve greater human access, translate into better survival prospects for grizzly bears and solitude-seeking cow elk in their calving grounds?

To simply recreate is not inherently an act of conservation any more than downhill skiing at a mountain resort, climbing the Grand or playing pond hockey is an expression of activism to confront climate change.

In autumn 2019, the theme of the Jackson Hole SHIFT conference is: “Outside Rx.” Rx stands for “prescription.” SHIFT says it’s all about “establishing a stronger connection between, and thus a stronger argument for, outdoor recreation, public lands and public health.”

I am curious to know how many residents of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem aren’t already abundantly aware that spending time in the outdoors, immersed in nature, is good for us. Isn’t that why most of us live here? One doesn’t need a team of medical professionals to tell us that.

So, why does the SHIFT conference need to fly people in from around the country and the world to Greater Yellowstone to discover this obvious fact? Every attendee, one could argue, can find compelling evidence of nature as a balm for our bodies, minds, and spirits within miles of their homes.

Or they can read Florence Williams’ excellent book, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier And More Creative.”

The real question is why host a conference at great expense in remote Jackson Hole unless one is emphasizing the incomparable, superlative attributes of the setting—the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem— which gives Jackson Hole its novel conservation context?

Doing that would necessitate that SHIFT do more than make superficial reference to Greater Yellowstone’s incomparable wildlife. Yet, if one is only promoting the benefits of outdoor recreation, such a conference can be staged practically anywhere else and probably far more cheaply.

As one prominent, nationally-renowned Greater Yellowstone conservationist told me recently, “SHIFT is emphasizing outdoor recreation as a prescription for achieving better personal health, but what is it prescribing to the impressionable, diverse young people attending its conference about the prescription necessary for maintaining a healthy world-class public lands ecosystem and the health of Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife?”

Despite what it’s prescribing, no amount of sugar will help the medicine of what SHIFT needs to digest go down any easier. Again, let us state what ought to be self-evident even to those consumed by self-absorption: In order to safeguard the rarest of wild places that still remain on Earth, those places need to be treated with care, sensitivity and reflection, not merely to dress up tourism campaigns.

Unfortunately, discussions of limiting human use, or calling upon people to change their behavior, or challenging conference attendees to become more ecologically literate and aware—from a wildlife perspective—has been treated as a “no-go” zone. As in, don’t bring up talk of limits because it allegedly dampens the enthusiasm of outdoor recreationists.

Peruse the SHIFT website and while the word “conservation” is widely invoked, there are scarce references to the cause of wildlife which is strange because when you protect habitat that wildlife needs, you end up with cleaner water downstream, cleaner air downwind, healthier soils and more inspiring human vistas. Click here to review the 2017 conference report to see how wildlife is seldom mentioned. In what was supposed to be a bold landmark document called "The Principles For Advancing Outdoor Recreation and Conservation" crafted at the 2014 Shift Festival and evolved over a few years, wildlife was barely mentioned or pathetically treated as an afterthought.

Why is that?

More space, in fact, is devoted on the SHIFT website to how many calories one burns in a work-out and how much money is generated by monetizing outdoor experiences than to preserving Greater Yellowstone’s epic wildlife migrations, which are natural wonders of the world. Perplexing is how organizers of a conservation conference seem to have so much difficulty grasping what is so readily apparent to so many in our region and beyond.

Were SHIFT interested in advancing a truly dynamic discussion about the essence of wildlife conservation, organizers wouldn’t have to look far to find exceptional experts who have devoted their careers to pondering it and who, in growing numbers, have become deeply concerned about the impacts of industrial-strength recreation; not only where use levels are today, but where they will be if not mitigated in the years and decades ahead.

Greater Yellowstone has a deep pool of globally-respected ecologists—all of whom are outdoor recreationists—who would be ever so happy to regale SHIFT organizers and attendees with examples of how fragile and sensitive to human intrusion different species of wildlife in this region are.

If SHIFT wanted to have a real, far-reaching impact that benefits its home region, it could help its out of town attendees (most of whom come from urban areas) realize why Greater Yellowstone is different and how they can help protect it.

SHIFT could help fuel the necessary awakening which involves real, not make-believe, conservation, engendering broader respect for inclusivity and empowerment. It could help champion the truth that the universal cause of diversity also ostensibly means being sympathetic/empathetic to the needs of other diverse life forms—creatures that exist here and only in few other places because we humans have consciously given them space.

SHIFT and its sponsors could actually be turning people into wildlife advocates and stakeholders, empowering them to become ambassadors for Greater Yellowstone back in their local communities.

Like the writers for Mountain Journal I met with in Bozeman, it’s not that young people don’t care about the needs of wildlife. Just the opposite. They’re already altruistic in a number of admirable ways. It’s that they’ve seldom been encouraged to reflect on the importance of secure unfragmented habitat for wildlife or how industrial-strength recreation has seriously compromised wildness (as demonstrated by the ability of sensitive wildlife to live there) in most every other ecosystem in the West.

In contrast to SHIFT, this week the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative is hosting its biennial Wildlife Summit at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts. There, big questions centered on our region will actually be discussed. There, you’ll find an incredible lineup of speakers, punctuated with a keynote address Friday night by recently-retired Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk who, after 43 years with the National Park Service, is full of insights about the impacts that swelling human presence, development trends and climate change are having on wildness in our first national park.

There, you’ll hear from noted author Amanda Lynch who co-wrote the critically-acclaimed 2018 book “Urgency in the Anthropocene” that champions better approaches to human co-existence with nature in a time of climate change and rapidly expanding footprints of civilization.

A central theme is that status quo thinking, unchallenged mythology and business as usual approaches, which emphasize consumptive uses over more enlightened approaches such as human self-restraint, are insufficient to save wildlife at risk

There is also a related workshop, sponsored by NRCC, titled “Strengthening Education for Conservation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” at the Teton Public Library.

Part of that discussion will explore this reality that organizers have identified in writing: “It is a widely held belief that nature-based education promotes conservation goals. However, decades of research on the connection between education and behavior change in the environmental arena has shown that the connection is indirect at best. Education may lead to awareness, but even heightened awareness of threats to species and ecosystems does not necessarily lead people to take actions to support conservation.”

Yes, the very same premise could be applied to SHIFT’s mantra that promoting rising levels of recreation use, by itself, advances wildlife conservation.

The issue before us is not how much more recreational habitat we can create for ourselves but how are we going to protect this place and not use it up?

Building a new recreation trail is not, by itself, an act of conservation. What takes courage, conviction and forward-thinking vision is consciously choosing not to blaze a trail out of respect for animals that have limited home ground to inhabit, and far fewer options to survive than we do to play.

Young people are smart no matter what their socio-economic-ethnic-gender identification-geographic backgrounds are. When empowered with knowledge about wildlife, they get infected with biophilia. They are willing to sacrifice, to do with less, if it means they can help ensure we’ll still have grizzlies and elk and bighorn sheep and uncrowded places as their legacy.

Building a new recreation trail is not, by itself, an act of conservation. Ironically, wildlife conservation—the kind that has given us the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem— happens only when we acknowledge what we are willing to live without.

It is the easiest, most unimaginative and unconscious thing in the world to argue that there should be greater human access to public lands or to assert that nature is “underutilized” and needs to be filled to its human-engineered carrying capacity. The latter is why wildlife disappears. What takes courage, conviction and forward-thinking vision is consciously choosing not to blaze a trail out of respect for animals that have limited home ground to inhabit, and far fewer options to survive than we do to play.

Honorable adventure that delivers durable conservation outcomes involves promoting not what we can take, exploit, exhaust, extract or monetize, it is having the wisdom of knowing that some places are best when they aren’t treated like everywhere else.

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition.

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