The

New West

By Todd Wilkinson

A lone bison in Yellowstone's Hayden Valley. Among all the wonders of Greater Yellowstone, wildlife is what sets our ecosystem apart from the Colorado Rockies, Sierra, Wasatch and everywhere else in the Lower 48. Seldom, however, do we reflect on the reasons why the diversity and health of charismatic megafauna still is able to persist here. Each of us needs to ask yourselves what we'd be willing to do—or do without–to give animals the space they need to survive as epic challenges converge. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS

The New West: What does it say about us when we don’t have the courage to act?

By Todd Wilkinson

Climate change.

More people flooding into our region and exacting a larger human footprint on the land.

Soaring visitation to national parks and developed parts of the national forests.

Rising impacts from outdoor recreation.

The arrival of Chronic Wasting Disease with Wyoming continuing to artificially feed more than 20,000 elk.

Last week there was a provocative and arguably unprecedented conversation about wildlife at the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative’s biennial Wildlife Symposium. Inspiring was the number of younger people making keen observations and sharing their concern.

During the morning session, I gave a presentation as a journalist and NRCC writer in residence, and posing a series of rhetorical questions. Here are some of them:

What does it say about us, living now in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, to see the converging challenges above and yet we behave as if, just by ignoring them, that things will always be the same?

Or worse, what does it say about us when we relegate challenges which make us feel uncomfortable into a category called “inevitable” which lets us off the hook of responsibility?

What does it say about us when we put into office elected officials too afraid to say the obvious, based on the argument that if they do say things that are not “popular” they might never get elected?

What does it say about us to have politicians in Wyoming and Montana continue to defend the burning of coal by trying to glibly deny the evidence of climate change documented by the most distinguished scientists in the world?

What does it say about us when the top manager of the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole—overseeing the most famous elk herd on Earth— faces certain professional reprisal for warning that artificially feeding thousands of elk—as numerous elk refuge managers have also made clear—is setting us up for a disease disaster?

What does it say us and the credibility of the U.S. Forest Service when it disavows the clear science of wildlife diseases and approves the continued operation of state feedgrounds in Wyoming with Chronic Wasting Disease literally on its doorstep?

What does it say about us when we have Teton County, Wyoming, represented for years and today by some of the smartest commissioners in the West—and representing a province operating with a land-use plan that may be the best among all rural countries in the West—yet it is woefully deficient in mitigating the negative development trends sweeping across this incredible place?

A lone bison in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley. Among all the wonders of Greater Yellowstone, wildlife is what sets our ecosystem apart from the Colorado Rockies, Sierra, Wasatch and everywhere else in the Lower 48. Seldom, however, do we reflect on the reasons why the diversity and health of charismatic megafauna still is able to persist here. Each of us needs to ask yourselves what we’d be willing to do—or do without–to give animals the space they need to survive as epic challenges converge. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS

What does it say about us when commissioners from the 20 counties and mayors and council members in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem fail to get together on a regional level to confront growth issues and instead remain stuck in their silos?

What does it say about us when the promotion of conservation, in many places, only exacerbates the social and economic inequity for working class people, meaning places with higher quality of life are accessible only to the rich?

What does it say about us when we frame the cause of affordable housing mostly within the context of giving worker bees a place to lodge so that they can be maids, teachers, firefighters, police officers etc. and not because it is really a fundamental matter of dignity?

What does it say about us when we disparage coal miners and loggers and ranchers for engaging in resource extraction and yet, in many ways, we’re supplanting those users with industrial strength outdoor recreation whose impacts in many cases may be more permanent and negatively landscape transforming?

What does it say about us when we condemn the conservation movement for lacking human diversity in its ranks—which is obviously true—yet its politically correct critics fail to understand why building a movement that counts biological diversity and respect for other sentient species as also being important?

What does it say about us when we starve federal and state land management agencies of the funds needed to do their job and carry out scientific research and then we beat those agencies up as allegedly being inept and uninformed?

What does it say about us when we have a National Park Service that does not end a controversial “an elk reduction” program in Grand Teton even those its justification is obsolete?

What does it say about us when we hear that trophy hunting of grizzlies, after we’ve just brought them back from the brink, is vital to their conservation? If the most compelling argument is that trophy hunting should happen because it generates money and builds more social tolerance, then why aren’t we also sport shooting bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, whooping cranes, and wild horses?

What does it say about us when we know that wildlife watching is central to our $1 billion annual nature tourism industry in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks alone, much to the delight of untold thousands of visitors, yet we allow popular park research wolves to be shot to provide a thrill for individual hunters along national park borders?

What is it saying about us when a state—Montana—chooses to deliberately ignore a report prepared by the National Academy of Sciences that says elk, not Yellowstone bison, represent the most eminent threat of brucellosis transmission to cattle and yet we slaughter bison—more than 11,000 to date— anyway?

What does it say about us when government agencies are not actively coordinating to halt contradictory management practices often operating at cross purposes and negatively affecting the ecological health of the region, such as: feeding wildlife, permitting oil and gas exploration in wildlife migration corridors, and not demanding cumulative affects studies on the total impact of recreation as different national forests assemble their forest plans and admit they haven’t a clue what the impacts are?

What does it say about us when we see something like running down wildlife predators with snowmobiles in Wyoming that is so obviously ethically dubious and runs counter to our beliefs as a society yet, we hear the new head of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department deflect and diminish the taking of professional responsibility?

What does it say about us when journalism is not constantly seeking answers to these questions, or when reporters pull punches with their stories for fear of alienating advertisers, or reporters not wanting to ask tough questions because ironically they’re afraid it might result in having less access to people who need to be held to account?

What does it say about us when we work for conservation organizations and are reluctant to call out a recreation use and the impacts it is having because we engage in that same use on weekends and don’t want to alienate ourselves from our friends?

What does it say about us when we wake up in the morning and consciously decide to “get along by going along” even though we know in our guts that if we’re really going to save this place—if we are sincere in our rhetoric about thinking long-term—that we need to challenge status quo thinking and act soon?

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that we know today is actually the product of individuals who previously were not afraid to tout the enduring value of conservation and smart thinking. We claim to revere them and count them as inspiration leaders, yet we are too timid to emulate them.

One of those leaders, the forerunning ecologist Adolph Murie who spent time defending wildlife and wildlands in Greater Yellowstone and Alaska, once said: “Let us not have puny thoughts. Let us think on a greater scale. Let us not have those of the future decry our smallness of concept and lack of foresight.”

What does it say about us if we’re unable to grasp the meaning of those words?

About The Author

The New West, Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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