One crisp June morning in Montana’s Big Sky country, I rode on horseback through the Centennial Valley with Bryan Ulring, manager of the J Bar L Ranch, a working cattle operation 45 miles west of Yellowstone National Park. The valley, which looks much as it did several hundred years ago when Native American hunters chased after herds of bison, is part of the migratory route for wildlife in the northern Rockies. As we rode, I asked Ulring to help me imagine the landscape as it might have looked on a day like this 200 years ago.
There are bison—hundreds, perhaps thousands, moving in to graze on the tall, rough grass emerging from melting snow. Elk herds follow, eating the tender shoots. The hillsides are covered with mule deer and pronghorn browsing on sagebrush.
A pack of wolves emerges from the shadows. Most of the bison escape them, but the wolves chase and pull down a straggler. After the wolves have eaten their fill, ravens and eagles settle on the carcass to scavenge the remains. The air is full of sounds and smells. It is a primal picture of abundance that, then and now, depends on the interconnectedness of the 22.6 million acres of land that make up the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We know about this interrelation—how Yellowstone National Park is part of a larger entity that encompasses Grand Teton National Park and more—because of the work of ecologist Arthur Middleton and other scientists who have studied this landscape and understand its intricacies and patterns.
The contributions of scientists like Middleton and ranchers like Ulring were invaluable in shaping this month’s issue. Our Geographic team spent three years reporting, photographing, and creating this special edition. It’s our way of commemorating the centennial of the National Park Service and of honoring Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. It’s also our way of showing what we have to gain by preserving the grandeur of this unique ecosystem and what we have to lose by neglecting it.
“Yellowstone retains more abundance than many places,” Middleton told me. “It still offers us this ability to imagine—and remember.”