Yellowstone's Future Hangs on a Question: Who Owns the West?

Part three of our series on the park explores the region's most difficult management problem—people.

Dave Hallac stood in his office at the Yellowstone Center for Resources, the park body charged with science and resource management, in a rambling old clapboard building amid the formidable stone structures of Mammoth Hot Springs. A candid man with an oval face and thinning hair, Hallac was serving his last day as chief of the center—and head scientist at Yellowstone Park—before departing to a promotion elsewhere. His office had the look of farewell when I found him there, between final tasks, his shelves and desk already bare, his books and reports and photographs packed into boxes awaiting removal. He closed the door, which was a little unusual on that open-doored corridor, and as we sat amid the boxes, he repeated to me something he had said passingly a couple months earlier, something so arrestingly blunt that I had asked him to elaborate. “I think we’re losing this place,” he said. “Slowly. Incrementally. In a cumulative fashion.” He hesitated. “I call it a sort of creeping crisis.”

Hallac ticked through a list of interrelated concerns, nagging issues in Yellowstone familiar to us both: bison management, elk migration, grizzly bear conservation, private land development in the region surrounding the park, human population growth driving that development, invasive species and their impacts on native species, water use, climate change, and finally the overarching problem that exacerbates all these others—an absence of coordinated, transboundary management. “We go around telling everybody this is the most intact ecosystem in the lower 48,” Hallac said. “Well, if it’s that important, that special, it’s time for us to do a lot better when it comes to protecting it.”

This concern about the broader wholeness of the Yellowstone ecosystem, which others share (though not enough others to leverage vigorous action), is now urgent but has been a long time coming. The word “ecosystem” itself didn’t appear in the 1872 act establishing the park, and probably not, either, in any of the emendations or directives about Yellowstone Park that followed for much of a century. The phrase “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” may have been first used in Frank Craighead’s 1979 book Track of the Grizzly, an account of the pathbreaking 12-year field study of bears led by him and his twin brother, John. The Craigheads had absorbed, and stated pointedly, a crucial fact: that Yellowstone’s grizzlies live not only within the park’s boundaries (which are unfenced and, throughout most of the landscape, unmarked) but also across a wider terrain that includes Grand Teton National Park, parts of adjacent national forests, and other surrounding lands.

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