A Step Apart

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  • Yellowstone ‘Wildlife’ – Hypocrisy Or Dilemma?

    Posted by skyblu on March 18, 2007


    While preparing for my fishing weekend, (report tomorrow,) I stumbled across a post about WOLVES = TROUT.

    Tdan-hartman-uc-berkeley-elk-huddle.jpghe point it made was that by removing the overpopulation of elk in Yellowstone Park, the wolves had protected trout stream banks from the depredations of the grazing elk. Thus, more stream side willows, cottonwoods and aspen trees can now survive and reduce erosion.

    This allows the streams to remain clear and the trout to hang around. What a great idea. Manage specific wildlife species for the good of the whole ecosystem – (as we understand it.)

    The truth, on the other hand is not nearly so clean. Today each group of animals has cheerleaders, and may the best squad win. Take the case of the bison. bison-cross-river.jpgThey are every bit as detrimental to the environment as the elk – perhaps more so in their current numbers. These are invasive species, (in their current numbers,) every bit as much as the New Zealand Mud Snail. Yet, they have a cheering squad that includes the fly fishing public. Why is that?

    There are numerous eroded banks and mud pits, and incised crossings on the Yellowstone River, The Madison River, The Lamar River, The Firehole River, and Soda Butte Creek – all caused by habituated bison, that are maintained at artificially high numbers by the National Park Service, and cheerleader squads of various stripes. Trout Creek is so degraded by the bison and their denuding of the landscape that it sends a load of silt into the Yellowstone River that can be seen for more than a mile.

    There are islands in the Madison River that are eroding away because there is no vegetation at all – only buffalo wallows. And fly fishermen talk about the spirituality of fishing where the buffalo roam, as silt inundates redds and banks wash away.

    buffalo-ranch.jpgThe current herd of bison was artificially propagated by the National Park Service at Buffalo Ranch in order to feed staff, tourists, contractors, and to provide a curiosity for rich visitors. Their mixed gene pool combines imported woodland, plains, and forest sub species of bison.

    They were ranched and treated like domestic cows. For many generations; the less docile were shot and the more docile were fed during the winter for the next season, (just like they do today with the crowded & diseased herd of elk in Jackson, Wyoming.)

    The Jackson Elk, on the hilariously named “National Elk Refuge,” are nothing more than ‘welfare elk,’ fed as incubator stock for tourists, brucellosis, and a reservoir for lazy hunters. In the National Parks it’s illegal to feed the wildlife – well, sister, that’s exactly what Yellowstone National Park has been doing for 60 years. The big herbivores have been fed the beauty and ecology of the park in the name of protection. No stress, no hunting pressure. Nothing ‘natural’ about that! And, it’s certainly not how they survived and adapted and evolved during the previous 13,000, or so, years.

    The national Park Service is fond of the saying “A Fed Bear Is A Dead Bear.” What about a fed bison, or marmot, elk, pronghorn, cougar, deer, bobcat, or ground squirrel, or . . . . . ? This is not wilderness – no matter what your friendly interpretive ranger says.  This is not wilderness despite what the cheerleaders scream. As Alston Chase has observed, “Interpreters exist only to apologize for Park Service mistakes.” So too, the cheerleaders.

    Now then, it’s granted that the last few decades have been warmer, than before – but just look at the grasslands that were once the Lamar Valley, (now so pocked with sage they look like southern Idaho,) or read the early explorers accounts. Wall to wall bison? wolf-watch_yup.jpgCa’mon! Elk and wolves aplenty though! (See: U.C. Berkeley Article, “Wolves Alleviate Impacts Of Climate Change.) Is this just another form of trophic cascade? Stress the elk, expand the bison population? Wolves = Bison? Wolves = Yellow Buses? Wolves = Swarovski? Wolves = $1,145/ 4 days + $55/night! Wolves = Fantasy Land?

    The wolves have done wonders with the elk in the last few years. The herd has been reduced to the point that the wolves are now fighting for prime territory – losers die or leave. Now then, what about the bison? The wolves have made little impact on the bison herd. Despite annual winnowing, (under the guise of brucellosis control,) the bison herd is at or beyond carrying capacity each year. With no serious predators of bison in Yellowstone how are they to be controlled?

    The Cheerleaders want ‘more range’ to allow the bison to truly be free. Such a sweet thought. Why do they need more room if there are not too many? Ladies, I tell you, given the chance,  those critters would rapidly leave the park in such numbers that a new cheerleader squad would be required to ‘bring back the buffalo.’

    Native Americans such as the Nez Perce, Northern Shoshone, Northern Paiute, Bannock, and others regularly hunted bison. blessing-wolves.jpgThey blew right through Yellowstone to where there were herds of the critters – not strays or marginal populations of stunted creatures. They went to Sioux Country, Blackfeet Country, Crow Country, etc.

    If the truth be told, (yoiks, not that,) there are probably more bison in bb-nez-perce.jpgYellowstone today than there have been for at least 6,000 years and maybe more. Jeeeze, girlfriend, look at the pictures and read the accounts of Nez Perce hunting buffalo: see any high mountains and pine trees? Yellowstone was hundreds of miles closer. Did they go to the Great Plains just looking for a fight? Even Buffalo Bill had bison much more wild than those in currently in Yellowstone.

    So where are the cheerleaders for balanced management? Let the buffalo roam. Send them to Roundup, Sheridan, Cody, Malta, or even Bismark or Deadwood or Lead. Give them the choice and, while you’re at it put a predator on their heels, say a human. On horse back? With a lance? With a bow & arrow? With a Sharps rifle? On foot, under a wolf skin that the bison don’t fear? Whatever! Make them as wild as the elk are now becoming. Yellowstone National Park would be so much the better for it.

    Of course, there could be no pretending about them then. The National Park Service could quit pretending that they were “natural” in such numbers. The poor rich people that can afford the air conditioned yellow buses would have to quit pretending that they were a nuisance, delaying their trip to a genteel luncheon at Lake Hotel – it would be a real thrill to see a genuinely wild creature rather than an habituated tourist attraction

    Bison and elk were “HUNTED” prior to their domesticated habituation in Yellowstone and other places of refuge. Hunting implies stealth, technique, and the ability to approach the prey to within killing range. It is one of the stress factors that bison evolved with. It does not mean trying to put your fish-in-water.gifgrandchildren on their back, (true,) nor does it mean that you don’t have to work to shoot an elk, either.

    It’s possible to get closer to a bison, or an elk at Mammoth, (where they feed on invasive grasses,) than it is to a cutthroat trout on Slough Creek in August: or any fish in lower Biscuit Basin in late June. Winter stress and predation are constraining factors in population dynamics in the park and elsewhere. With ameliorating climate and the possibility of gentler weather there is a real need for the enhancement of stress to maintain viable and healthy wild herds. This would simply be responsible holistic management.

    There are several studies that suggest that motorized travel in winter – particularly snowmobiles and old Bombardier snow coaches – add stress to bison and elk and wolves. Does this mean that we should encourage this added stress at a time that other stress factors are being removed? DON’T SCOFF TOO QUICKLY!

    kill-wolves.jpgThe folks that hate wolves and love elk and bison don’t really want wild animals. They want cute pictures, and simple encounters, and cheap thrills. This is not experiencing “NATURE.” This is cheapening the Yellowstone experience to the level of a bus ride through the ‘wild animal park’ in San Diego. Score a point for the cheerleaders.

    These people don’t want to hunt wild animals, they want to drive a gravel road and shoot one. Visitors to Yellowstone too, are being cheated by cheerleaders and the National Park Service. They are being sold shadows of a false reality. They are being sold a wilderness that never was, and certainly should not be! Bring on the cheerleaders.


    Some other reading:
    The exotic species war | Genetic reservoir / invasive or natural? | Competing Government Perspectives | Insane bison genetics | Sane bison genetics | The inevitability of introgression

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    6 Responses to “Yellowstone ‘Wildlife’ – Hypocrisy Or Dilemma?”

    1. Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t more pretending going on, per-capita, in a “wilderness area” than in a movie theater.

      Not that any of it answers what we do about wolves and elk and bison and cheatgrass and spotted knapweed, but it might be nice if we all fronted up to it from time to time. Thanks for the post.

    2. skyblu said

      The thought of “wild” & “wilderness” is appealing to most Americans. The NPS and their cheerleaders have used the words to battle straw men and ‘sell’ a phony concept.

      Very little of Yellowstone could qualify as wilderness. Parts of the Bechler region, and Parts of the Thoroughfare are good candidates. This is one place that our government has gotten it right, (even if the interpreters and cheerleaders haven’t.)

      The Frank Church Wilderness is just that. No cute buses, no “back country” campsites, no roads, no rangers on horseback checking your bear bags and latrines, trails made by critters, and truly dangerous, etc. The public doesn’t want this in Yellowstone – they just pretend it’s wilderness.

      The subtle tyranny of the vocabulary is nothing less than the old ‘bait & switch’ gambit. Bait them with the idea of wilderness, then switch to an air conditioned visitors center with two movie theaters and a rack full of coffee table books.

      The management decisions about wolves, bison and elk, (among others,) would be easier if the NPS admitted what Yellowstone is – – and isn’t! Each National Park, at the local level should first define what it is, sans input from retired park service employees, bloggers, sled heads, concessionaires, etc. Then defend it in the public arena and the courts if necessary.


    3. Carter said

      Hi SkyBlu~

      Just curious…do the wolves in yellowstone prey on the bison at all?? spring calves?…or just winter kill? Has bison behavior changed in any way because of the presence of wolves?

      Is there an accurate count for the number of bison- if any- in Yellowstone prior to 1805? or 1872?

      Surely, bison wallowed and eroded stream banks before the NPS came on the scene…??

      “wilderness” is a word. a concept- a value judgment even.. that means different things to different people…

    4. be said

      we’ve got some interesting “wilderness” proposals re-emerging in idaho… they use the term to sneak a bunch of public land handouts to industry through the backdoor in the name of “compromise & collaberation” –

      my cousin’s in-laws own a couple of snowmobile/outfitter shops in west yellowstone – diirty…

    5. skyblu said

      Well now, Wolves do kill bison; the young most certainly seem to be the first choice, old and infirm adults close behind. Big bulls will succumb to a large and well organized pack.

      The very high numbers of elk, on the other hand, made them the targets of choice – but wolves are good at finding food. Perhaps we will see more predation on the bison now.

      One of the main reasons that there is such a clamor from the BFC, is that they know that the bison would be better suited to a steppe or grassland prairie. This is why they need to roam, (and there would then be fewer in Yellowstone.)

      There are only observations and rough estimates of the number of bison in the proto-historic and early-historic times. This habitat is marginal and has been since Hypsithermal times. It would be hard to find an accurate statement that showed 3,600 resident bison for any length of time.

      (Although currently unpredictable, I would suggest that the not too distant future would see a bit more bison friendly habitat due to warming – precipitation being the main constraint, along with altitude.)

      Yes buffalo wallow. Always have. But it’s the artificially high numbers that cause the problems. The matriarchs determine the migrations, and the comings and goings. Where there are a few tight matriarchal groups the same trails and incised paths are used. Where there are many tight clusters of competing matriarchies – diversity of pasture preference and migration routes is one outcome of the competition. Such a quagmire.

      I prefer to believe that wilderness lacks solar toilets, designated campsites, well worn trails designed and maintained by humans, orange arrowheads telling me where to go, and certainly no tacky etched metal signs at “intersections of trails.” Certainly permits for llamas; and their coming and going on a weekly basis is antithetical to my concept of wilderness. That’s just personal.

      I don’t see Yellowstone admitting that the park is not wild – however if we retreat to the solipsisms that allows each of us to define wilderness in our own way we can never enjoy nor differentiate what should be protected and how.

      Some sleds are dirty, some less so, and some cleaner per passenger mile than the tanks and buses currently used in the park. Just as there is a difference between various motorcycles there is also a vast difference in sleds. The generalized “snowmobile” is no more a monolithic entity than is the “car,” or for that matter “American.”

      Perhaps more cheerleaders are needed.

      ….. skyblu

    6. heavenabove said

      Excellent post. I enjoy going to the Park regularly but all these things have crossed my mind also. There will always be pros and cons to everything. Nature hasn’t been “natural” for a long, long time. In reference to Carter’s question-wolves do eat bison, although it is not as prevalent as them taking elk. Last year, the Hayden Pack-a relatively newer pack- had finally learned to take down bison in Hayden Valley.

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