For many people, the idea of Yellowstone National Park as an inviolable, unchanging wilderness sanctuary was shaken by the fires of 1988, which torched one-third of the park. The fires made national news – and painted West Coast sunrises purple and red – for weeks.
But wildfires are natural – a necessary part of the Yellowstone ecosystem. The irony is that while the park is, in many ways, now flourishing because of the much-lamented burns, it is imperiled by threats largely unknown even to park visitors.
I just returned from Yellowstone, where my wife and I were among the three million who’ll visit that northwestern corner of Wyoming this year.
We spent 10 days hiking, camping and sightseeing, experiencing everything from backcountry rainstorms and bison herds browsing on green-gold meadows to the frantic displays of the geysers. I left not only awed, but also deeply concerned about the park’s future.
We flew into Cody, Wyo., and one threat the park faces was evident immediately on our arrival at the park’s east entrance. There, the hillsides are canopied by white-bark pine. But many of the trees – almost all of them, in some places – are needle-less, their bark ashen as driftwood.
The cause isn’t fire; the lodgepole pines that make up most of Yellowstone have reseeded themselves and are recovering nicely. Rather, it is a beetle whose breeding cycle has been hastened by a warming climate. The white barks of Yellowstone are decimated and possibly doomed – and with them their seeds, a prime source of fat and protein for critters including grizzly.
Unlike the emerald ash-borer that’s killing trees in states including my own Pennsylvania, the beetle isn’t one of those invasive species you hear about. But such exotics are no less a danger to Yellowstone as we know it than is climate change.
Most of these species were of course introduced by humans, starting with game fish like the lake trout, which were dumped into park waters starting not long after the park itself was created, in 1872.
The introduced species have crowded out natives like the cut-throat trout (which is also grizzly fare). The new species eat different things (plants, bugs, other fish) than do the species evolution selected. The new inhabitants thus alter the very habitat (potentially down to to the oxygen content of the water). Ultimately, they reduce the genetic diversity on which a healthy ecosystem depends.
While park administrators no longer knowingly introduce exotic species, human traffic allows the incursions to continue willy-nilly. Newer exotics include the tiny New Zealand mud snail, which has already taken over dozens of miles of creek and river. Another threat is the microorganism which causes “whirling disease” in fish. It most likely came to the U.S. in frozen fish products, and was first detected in the park in 1998.
While aquatic systems seem especially vulnerable to exotics, the land is not immune. Terrestrial invasives include the mountain goat, which competes for food with the native mountain sheep.
Yellowstone touts itself as the largest intact temperate ecosystem in the lower 48 states, but this is a half-truth (and maybe a quarter-truth). In fact, its survival depends on what’s called the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a much larger, multistate region that impacts the cleanliness of the park’s water and air, and provides the unbroken habitat needed by large populations of wild animals, especially migrators like elk and bison and wide-ranging foragers, like grizzly.
The threats to Greater Yellowstone from farming, ranching, urban sprawl, oil and gas drilling and mining – in Montana and Idaho as well as Wyoming – are almost too numerous and too obvious to mention.
It seems remarkable that Yellowstone was created in 1872. The Civil War was over, Manifest Destiny was becoming more manifest daily, and settlers, soldiers and railroads were barging Westward, killing pretty much anything on two legs or four in their path.
Yellowstone was surely saved at least in part by both the very size of the new nation’s landmass and by Americans’ failure to locate precious minerals in the proposed park. President Grant’s signature on the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, after all, still left plenty to exploit.
But the longer I stayed in Yellowstone, with its lodgepoles and least chipmunks, its hot springs and magpies, elk and sagebrush, thunderclouds and juniper, the more the decision to create the park came to seem not only prescient, but plangent.
It was as if, at the very dawn of the modern industrial revolution, we were admitting to ourselves that we could no longer live with nature, let alone within it.
To save a little piece of what was left — to save it in a patch we arbitrarily boxed and labeled “Yellowstone” — we first had to save it from us.
So, lest we destroy what lay inside this box entirely, we surrounded it with a metaphorical fence. With both a certain helplessness and a certain tragic nobility, our nation of “doers” acknowledged that we could no longer even conceive of living with nature. The best we could hope was to live beside it.
And now, threats to Yellowstone as small as a mud snail and as large as climate change suggest we are learning that perhaps we cannot do even that.
Bison photo by Renee Rosensteel