Wild Things

April 04, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

OFFSPRINGOFFSPRINGYellowstone National Park, Wyoming This being National Wildlife Week, I thought it appropriate to shine a spotlight on some of the animals who call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem home: my backyard, so to speak.

The GYE is one of the largest nearly-intact temperate zones on the planet. While massive Yellowstone National Park forms its core, the ecosystem is much larger than that. Also included are Grand Teton National Park, portions of five national forests, three national wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management acreage, tribal lands, and privately-owned land across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. This represents millions of acres.

Within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem you'll find one of the largest elk herds in North America, the largest free-roaming bison herd in the United States, and one of the few grizzly populations in the Lower 48. 

Other resident large mammals include black bears, moose, gray wolves, mule deer, pronghorn, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, lynx, bobcats and cougars. Gray wolves were restored to the area about 30 years ago. More on those later.

Smaller mammals include wolverines, otters, beavers, coyotes, weasels and foxes. 

There are several native fish species, including cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish, and several hundred native birds have been sighted and catalogued over the years: both year-round and migratory species.

And yes, there are snakes, even rattlesnakes. 

The list goes on, but this gives you an idea of the abundant and diverse wildlife living here. autumn pastoral Grand Teton National ParkAUTUMN PASTORALLate in the day, a family of moose feeds near the Snake River. The father is nearby, just outside of the frame.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Many people who visit the parks come specifically to see animals. One would hope those who witness these magnificent creatures in their natural element would walk away with an even greater respect for them - maybe even a sense of responsibility for the stewardship of both the animals and their habitats. 

Unfortunately, there are always some bad apples: people who ignore regulations regarding maintaining safe distances from wildlife, endangering both themselves and the animals in the process. It's amazing how generally tolerant wildlife is of this behavior. I'm thinking specifically of bison which are big, extremely agile, can jump over fences, and can run at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour - yet some knuckleheads are determined to pet the fluffy cow, or try to get a selfie with it.

Bison can hurt you if they want to.

As Grand Teton and Yellowstone break visitation records, one of the challenges for the park service is how to manage all those people while protecting the animals from more disruption. Not an easy task. 

There are also stresses on the ecosystem due to this region's population growth and associated habitat loss. 

Species within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem which are considered either endangered or at risk are grizzly bears, Canada Lynx, the yellow-billed cuckoo and greater sage grouse.

Gray wolves and bald eagles, both once protected but now delisted, are regarded as species of concern. These are two good examples of the way history seems to repeat itself in terms of wildlife management. Various species are threatened to the point they're identified as at-risk; if circumstances further deteriorate they might go on to be listed as endangered in an attempt to save them. Sometimes these efforts are successful enough that protections are eventually lifted. Then all too often the same mistakes are made and the animals are once again threatened. 

Déjà vu all over again. 

Maybe we're not so lucky the next time. Maybe the species is lost to extinction.

Grizzlies, which had been completely extirpated from Grand Teton National Park and nearly eliminated from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, made a comeback thanks to federal protection: an amazing achievement which has taken many decades to accomplish. Sadly, this success story may soon be turned into a tale of woe as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are waging court battles in an effort to delist the bears. 

If what has happened to gray wolves in the GYE is any indication, there is every reason to fear what lies ahead for the grizzlies.

Wolves, which once roamed North America, were nearly driven to extinction in the 1930s due to Federally encouraged annihilation. They were classified as endangered in the 1970s and reintroduced to Yellowstone and remote areas of Idaho in the 1990s. The presence of the wolves positively impacted the biodiversity of Yellowstone National Park in a big way and was considered a resounding success. The wolves were then delisted, in spite of the fact that they've failed to re-establish sustainable populations in many areas of the country.

Guess how Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are managing their delisted wolf populations? They're killing them - aiming to eliminate 50-60% (or more) of the animals. In most of Wyoming, wolves can be shot on sight: no permit required. 

This is what the grizzlies have to look forward to.

Grizzly bears, like wolves, are often demonized - painted as evil predators lurking in the shadows with their sights set on livestock. Maybe Fluffy and Fido, too. Or you. In the clash between rancher and wildlife, it's the livestock lobbyists who wield the power. They tend to find friendly ears at state houses in this part of the country; the Governor of Idaho is a former cattle rancher and the Governor of Wyoming owns a cattle breeding operation.

Happily, many ranchers are successfully adopting practical solutions which minimize conflict and enable cattle, wolves and grizzlies to coexist. Zero acceptance, though, is a common attitude i.e. the only good wolf (or grizzly) is a dead one. 

There are no white knights in the continuing saga of wildlife's relationship with humans, and it's not always the states who are perhaps a bit too trigger happy. The roles can just as easily reverse. Just last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the killing of up to 72 bears on public land just outside of Yellowstone National Park. This violated Federal Law, meaning the Feds were found guilty of sidestepping wildlife habitat commitments required in their own plan

You'll also occasionally hear about grizzlies on private property, or maybe a bear will ramble through a campsite. Often these situations result from improperly stored trash or food. Usually it's benign, with no human-to-bear encounter, but allowing bears to become habituated to human/pet/livestock food is dangerous: typically more dangerous for the bear, because the animal will often pay for human carelessness with its life. 

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a treasure and a precious wildlife refuge, but that doesn't mean the animals who call it home aren't under pressure. It might take a little more effort, and it requires a respect for wildlife and their habitat, but it's possible to coexist with them. Encounters will occur, yes. But these can be the exception rather than the rule.

Not only is wildlife intrinsically valuable, it's also critical to maintaining ecological balance. Here's to my neighbors - the many species that populate the GYE. 


In Local News

Yellowstone National Park yesterday opened 49 miles of roads to bicyclists. Now cleared of snow, the roads from West Yellowstone to Madison, Madison to Norris, and Norris to Mammoth are ready to be enjoyed. The park opens to vehicles on April 19th, weather permitting. 

In Grand Teton National Park, the Inner Loop is cleared of snow and open to non-motorized travel between the Taggart Lake Trailhead and Signal Mountain Lodge. The road opens to vehicle traffic on May 1st.

At the ski resorts, more snow has fallen and another storm is on the way. Grand Targhee probably isn't going to make its "500 inches of Champagne Powder" this year but 414" at the summit for the season (and counting) isn't too shabby. Jackson Hole's season-to-date summit total is 437". Both resorts are scheduled to end their winter seasons on April 14th. 


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