.. Genetic Reservoir / Invasive or Natural ?


From The George Wright Forum

Paul Schullery
John D. Varley

The Yellowstone Genetic Reservoir
Quandaries and Consequences of Exotic Introductions
in Yellowstone National Park:
A Conversation Between a Science Person and a Humanities Person

We all know that some of the most satisfying and stimulating considerations
of National Park Service policy take place not in the
pages of our favorite journals, but in hallways, standing next to
coffee machines, or wandering down some trail with a colleague.
In fact, it often has seemed to us that by the time the thoughts of our
various graybeards and sages find their way into print, a lot has been lost. The
spontaneity, the give-and-take, and the creative energy generated by actual
conversations are pared away either by the author, who doesn’t want to sound
too much like a one-person encounter group, or by the author’s various reviewers,
who were trained in the best professional tradition of flat, emotionless
The assignment of a keynote address
at a recent scientific conference
on exotic species in the Greater Yellowstone
Ecosystem gave us the opportunity
to reconstruct elements of
many conversations that we have either
participated in or eavesdropped
on. The following conversation was
delivered at the conference with a fair
amount of dramatic bombast (we
considered wearing costumes, but
couldn’t locate a pith helmet for the
science person), and a gratifying
amount of audience reaction. Maybe
this conversational format is a good
way to explore philosophically messy
issues. Maybe we can start a trend.
Or not. We recognize that though
this argument and others essentially
like it on a hundred other subjects
occur regularly in park office hallways,
we can’t really achieve the
perfect imitation of such talk. For
one thing, people don’t actually converse
like this, in relatively continuous
narrative with complete sentences.
Most of us ramble, edit ourselves
in mid-sentence, hem and
haw, and get distracted by everything
from doughnuts to the latest Superintendent
Joke. But we do think that
this little dialogue creates what we
might call a reasonable illusion of
such conversations. The spirit is
The conversation takes the form
of an exchange between a humanities
person and a science person. As near
as we can tell, the science person has
just launched a little lecture on the
complexities and perils of exotic species
management, but is only a few
minutes into it when he is interrupted
by the humanities person.
They differ, they instruct, they decide
little, but somehow they seem to
have accomplished something.
Or not.
Science Person: “In considering the
fate of places like Yellowstone National
Park, most scientists and conservationists
would likely agree that
the preservation of native species
must be an essential goal. In Yellowstone,
in fact, we like to celebrate the
reality that the park is likely the only
place in the lower 48 states that currently
has all of the known wild flora
and fauna that were here when Euroamericans
began changing the face
of the continent 500 years ago.
“We’re pretty proud of this, but
as a celebratory claim it may be just a
little too simple and a little too pat to
withstand either regulatory or scientific
scrutiny. Consider, for example,
the complications of defining exactly
what a native species truly is. Our
own (NPS Management Policies and
NPS-77) guidance is clear at first
glance—but maybe not:
Native species. A species that occurs
and evolves naturally without human
intervention or manipulation. Species
that move into an area without the
direct or indirect aid of humans are
considered native by NPS definition.
“Notice that this definition is
more or less circular—in order to
define a word, they use another form
of that same word. A native species
results from natural processes. Now
for day-to-day working purposes,
most of us have a pretty good idea of
what a natural process is, but it is just
this sort of imprecise language that
makes our most outspoken critics
froth incoherently, and even makes
our friends uneasy.
“Not that we have any choice but
imprecision when describing these
elegantly complex processes that we
are somehow supposed to be managing.
But we probably are being too
easy on ourselves when we’re this
vague about what we’re doing.
“There was a time when, for
many managers and park enthusiasts,
it seemed adequate to define success
in terms of how well a park replicated
its condition when it was established.
This was the often-misunderstood
“vignette of primitive America” approach,
in which the famous Leopold
Report (1963) was invoked as
suggesting that we preserve biological
snapshots of the parks as they
were when created.
“Of course Starker Leopold and
his colleagues knew it wasn’t that
simple—they made it clear that we
must consider ecological process and
all the change it brings. Starker and
his pals knew that the vignette was a
moving target, never the same from
day to day. The vignette Starker had
in mind was not a snapshot but a motion
picture, continuously playing.
Starker, like all the rest of us, had his
own set of ideas about how freely we
6 The George Wright FORUM
could let it play, but he knew that it
must spend most of its time playing
without our interference.
“But as a management goal, the
vignette of primitive America haunts
us and routinely demands our attention.
How to you reconcile the fluctuations
that characterize wild ecosystems,
especially over the long
haul, with our desire to protect favored
native species?
“Most of us long ago recognized
that there is no magic date at which a
park setting achieved appropriateness.
Even the current policy guidelines,
known confusingly as NPS-77,
admits this. NPS-77, published in
1988, in attempting to define “historic
conditions,” admitted that we
are attempting something very involved
here by saying that historic
conditions are “those ecological
processes for which a natural or historic
area is being managed.” This
helps some, but it still doesn’t clarify
the nativeness question.
“Let’s turn to the opposite of native
and see if there’s help there. According
to NPS-77, the definition for
an exotic is the reverse of native:
Exotic species. A species occurring in a
given place as a result of direct or
indirect, deliberate, or accidental
actions by humans.
“At least this definition has the
advantage of not using the words
“native” or “natural,” but it still ties
managers in some fascinating theoretical
knots. Rhetorical specialists
delight in dismantling this kind of
simplistic statement.”
Humanities Person: “So, the policy
tells us that humans can introduce
exotics, but can’t introduce new native
Science Person: “Right. That’s the
HP: “Well, how about humans who
were here 5,000 years ago? Or 510?
We can only guess what all effects the
Indians might have had, either accidentally
or on purpose, and how often
they moved species around during
their 10,000-year stewardship of
the Yellowstone area.”
SP: “Oh, well, everybody knows that
Indians don’t count in this discussion.”
HP: “Why not? It looks to me like
they might have had some pretty big
effects. That’s what all the environmental
historians and archaeologists
are telling us, anyway. And even if
their effects were small, we don’t
have them any more.”
SP: “No doubt about it. They
probably had some big effects, and
some small ones. But all that happened
before we got here. It’s part of
the deal. Read the policy. Everything
they did before we got here is part of
what’s defined as natural.”
HP: “So Indian influences before
1872 or whatever date you choose
are part of the natural setting?”
SP: “Sure, just as long as their influences
happened before Euroamericans
had any influences on those Indians.”
HP: “But as soon as we Euro-trash
got here, the rules changed, and everything
we did was unnatural?”
SP: “Right.”
Volume 17 • Number 2 2000 7
HP: “But we changed the Indian
cultures too.”
SP: “Oh, it was a lot worse than that.
We didn’t just change them; we
obliterated some of them. It was an
unspeakably brutal destruction of
millions of humans and hundreds of
cultural traditions. It was horrible.”
HP: “So how can you ignore it?”
SP: “I’m not ignoring it. It was humanity
at our most inhumane, and it
destroyed civilizations and ways of
life that had been flourishing for
thousands of years.”
HP: “That’s my point: if we changed
what the Indians were doing on the
landscape, how could the landscape
still be natural? And, what’s more,
once we started establishing national
parks, we removed all the Indians, so
their influences stopped occurring!
How can it be a natural system today
if it lacks those influences?”
SP: “Everybody asks that. They always
ask that like they’ve just discovered
some sinister plot. You don’t
think that’s a new question, do you?”
HP: “Well, maybe I did. But what
do you say when someone asks?”
SP: “I tell them that it’s not a perfect
plan we have going here. I tell them
that it’s not my fault, or the fault of
any modern manager, that we inherited
a landscape and a policy with
that kind of disjunction in it. I also
point out to them that it’s a sure
thing that Indian influences certainly
changed hugely over the thousands
of years they were in charge here,
and that their removal in no way
means that the system must collapse.”
HP: “Well, I guess that might make a
kind of sense. After all, hardly anybody
still believes in the balance of
nature as a steady state any more.”
SP: “Right. It’s always changing
anyway. Just because we removed
the wolves and grizzly bears from
Yosemite doesn’t mean that the park
isn’t still wild. It’s just different, and
a little less exciting to us. It’s still
nature, out there being spontaneous.”
HP: “You’re saying that what we
have is better than nothing?”
SP: “I’m saying that what we inherited
from the first managers of these
parks is kind of a redefined natural
setting. It has pretty much everything
we know how to let it have except
those American Indian influences.
So when people complain that the
parks aren’t perfect, I welcome them
to the real world of conservation.
Then they say—and they always
think they’re the first person to think
of this, too—that maybe we should
restore the influences of Indians to
the parks.”
HP: “Yeah! What’s your answer to
SP: “My answer is more questions. I
ask them which influences, from
when, over the course of the past
10,000 years, are they going to
choose? Do you want people with
atl-atls, or people with bows and arrows?
Do you want hunter-gatherers
or agrarians?”
HP: “I think it’s obvious that you
want the people who are most like
the people who were here when our
greedy ancestors booted them out.”
8 The George Wright FORUM
SP: “Oh, you refer perhaps to the
forty-five different tribes who all
claim some cultural affiliation with
Yellowstone? And how are you going
to decide which of them gets to
have which effects? They have wonderful,
informative traditions, but
they can’t tell you much about how
many of them visited here or lived
here at any given time.”
HP: “We don’t have to be precise
about that, do we? After all, they
weren’t. They didn’t have a game
management manual to tell them how
many elk to kill each year. As you
said, their use of the park probably
changed a lot from year to year.
Some tribes probably preferred elk,
others bison or sheep. Some probably
just gathered plants. It was all
pretty loose.”
SP: “No question about it. But modern
white people aren’t that easygoing
about this sort of thing. Our
friends in the various constituency
groups, including the Indian tribes,
are going to want to know how this is
going to work. What is each citizen’s
fair share of Yellowstone? How many
elk are you going to prescribe for
each of their hunting parties? How
many will be left to migrate out to
where the white hunters are allowed
to shoot at them? And let’s not forget
the atl-atls; what tools and weapons
will these ‘new’ native humans use?”
HP: “Well, obviously we should
have people whose technology is
most like that used by the people
who were occupying the park closest
to our time, like 1872.”
SP: “Ah, yes; what you want is the
American Indian side of the ‘snapshot’
that Starker and his pals were
criticized for.”
HP: “What do you mean?”
SP: “I mean, you’re proposing to do
the same thing to the Indians that the
armchair philosophers want to do to
the rest of the setting. You’re prescribing
how it should be now, based
solely on how we think it once was.”
HP: “But we want the Indian influences
to resemble their prehistoric
influences, don’t we?”
SP: “But the Indians in 1872 weren’t
prehistoric. They were riding horses
they’d only had for a century or so,
and they were using firearms.”
HP: “Okay, then we go back to before
Columbus got here. It makes the
most sense for them to have the same
kinds of influences they had before
whites got here.”
SP: “Maybe to you that makes sense,
but ask some Indians.”
HP: “I would think they’d be
pleased to get back in the area and
resume some of their activities.”
SP: “I imagine they would. I understand
they’ve never completely
HP: “So what’s the problem? Why
won’t that work?”
SP: “Because these aren’t the same
people. These are the great-greatgreat-
of the people you want. The
complaint I hear from them in this
context—and this has come up in
other parks—is that we’re treating
them as cultural artifacts. We’re asking
them to abandon the past cenVolume
17 • Number 2 2000 9
tury’s developments in their cultures
in order to fit into our little wilderness
HP: “How are we asking them to do
SP: “Well, you don’t want them to
come in here with rifles and ATVs,
do you?”
HP: “Of course not; that’s not how it
SP: “Neither are they. Their society,
like every society, has continued to
evolve. In fact, and ironically, they’ve
had to evolve so fast just to survive in
the face of Euroamerican culture.
They have rifles now. Why should
they give them up just to suit some
white guy’s quaint idea of how nature
ought to look? They don’t feel any
obligation to walk around being our
personal museums of how Indians
are supposed to be.”
HP: “Well, then maybe we don’t
need real Indians. Maybe we just
need volunteers who are willing to go
out and pretend they’re Indians.
There are lots of people who would
love to hunt in Yellowstone, and
some of them would do it on whatever
terms were offered. Or maybe
we could use staff professionals
trained in primitive hunting techniques
to go out there and do to the
animals the anthropological equivalent
of what we do to the plants when
we have controlled burns.”
SP: “You mean replicating nature
because we aren’t patient enough to
wait for nature to act?”
HP: “Sure! The goal isn’t so much to
restore Indians to the landscape as it
is to restore some semblance of their
influences on the landscape.”
SP: “Are you sure about that?”
HP: “Well, I thought I was, but I
suspect I’m about to be told why I
shouldn’t be.”
SP: “Well, by your line of argument,
we don’t need wolves, either. We just
need a bunch of trained professionals
to go out there and replicate the effects
that wolves would have by
hunting elk. You know—whacking
the old and the young, leaving some
carcasses around for grizzly bears
and ravens, digesting a lot of elk meat
and defecating here and there on the
landscape to recycle the nutrients.”
HP: “That’s absurd.”
SP: “So are your artificial Indians.”
HP: “It’s all academic anyway.
When people ask about restoring the
influences of Indians to Yellowstone,
I tell them there’s no chance. However
intriguing or appealing it may be
to discuss the possibility of restoring
such influences, there isn’t the faintest
chance that we could convince
the park’s horrendously divisive and
litigious constituencies that such a
thing should be done.”
SP: “Are you really sure? Sounds to
me like with a little salesmanship, the
re-enfranchisement of American Indians
into these last parcels of
American wilderness would have
vast romantic appeal to the public.”
HP: “Could be, but when that EIS
appears on the horizon, I’m taking
early retirement. It’ll be in court for a
hundred years.”
SP: “Well, let me continue. The
complications of dealing with exotic
10 The George Wright FORUM
species extend far beyond the quandaries
of historical definition and
cultural evolution. Though most legal
authorities, conservationists, and
conservation biologists agree that
exotic species (by almost anyone’s
definition) are inappropriate in national
parks, past management actions
have resulted in ‘gray areas’ that
occasionally confound current park
“Let us consider what we think of
as the ‘accidental museum effect’ that
has arisen repeatedly in Yellowstone,
and will no doubt surface more in the
“For the past few years, Yellowstone
has been the site of one of
many pitched battles against nonnative
species. These are battles that
never made The New York Times the
hundreds of times they have occurred
somewhere else, but that became
international news when the
word ‘Yellowstone’ could be attached
to the story. The Yellowstone
battle is our attempt to save the native
Yellowstone cutthroat trout in
Yellowstone Lake from an introduced
population of lake trout. Lake
trout had been in other lakes in the
park for a century or so without
arousing much hostility, but the day
they were discovered in Yellowstone
Lake, our outrage knew no bounds,
and war was declared. Some of us
still harbor hopes of finding the vile
miscreant who did this awful thing.
The tendency among many of us has
been to treat the lake trout as the villain,
when it is only the tool of the
real villain. In fact, the lake trout is
one of the park’s most valuable nonnative
species. While we would give
almost anything to get them out of
Yellowstone Lake, there are other
park waters where we would probably
not get rid of them if we could.”
HP: “Wait a minute. National Park
Service policy is pretty clear on this.
It says: “Control or eradication will
be undertaken, where feasible, if exotic
species threaten to alter natural
ecosystems; [or] seriously restrict,
prey on, or compete with native
populations.” That sounds exactly
like what lake trout are doing. If we
could get rid of them, we would.
Wouldn’t we?”
SP: “You’re right, but, as the saying
goes, something has come up. The
lake trout in other park lakes, such as
Lewis Lake, were put there a long
time ago, and left alone. Meanwhile,
back in the Great Lakes where they
came from, fisheries managers and
fishermen have suffered through a
century’s worth of disasters that
pretty much ruined their lake trout
populations. A few years ago they
looked around and discovered that
out here in Yellowstone we had this
nice, safe little population, museumpure
just like they’d left it a century
HP: “I doubt that.”
SP: “You doubt what?”
HP: “That the Lewis Lake population
is museum pure. It’s had a whole
century to adapt to a new environment:
different water chemistry, different
food, different everything. It
can’t possibly be the same fish it was
100 years ago.”
Volume 17 • Number 2 2000 11
SP: “Well, okay, it’s not perfect.
Welcome to the national parks. But
it’s a really good imitation of perfect,
by the standards of fisheries managers.
In fact, it’s terrific.”
HP: “So? What’s the problem? We
give these Great Lakes guys some
fish to solve their problem, and as
soon as we have the technology, we
nuke the rest of them. The policy
says that Lewis Lake should be restored
to its pristine condition.”
SP: “I don’t think you’re embracing
the spirit of this enterprise. As with
so many complex management situations,
we don’t know enough to
know what we don’t know. The
Lewis Lake population of lake trout
is now a unique genetic resource.
There were any number of isolated
plantings of fish in various park waters
in the early days. Several species
were involved, and they’re still out
there cranking along in remote little
populations. We don’t know how
many of them may turn out to be significant
to fisheries managers somewhere
else. It’s hard to find a pure
‘original’ strain of rainbow trout in
the lower 48, and it’s getting pretty
hard to find a pure strain of brookie.
Right now in Yellowstone, we may
have some of the purest distinct
strains of the legendary Loch Leven
and Von Behr brown trout, both
European and not at all ecologically
appropriate here.”
HP: “So you’re saying that we don’t
dare get rid of any of our exotics, just
on the off chance that someone back
home may need them? That’s mighty
generous of us.”
SP: “No, I’m just saying that if we
ever get the technology to wipe out
some of these non-natives, we’d better
ask around and make sure that
what we have isn’t irreplaceable. One
man’s pest is another man’s treasure.”
HP: “By that line of thinking we
might as well put up a sign that says
‘Yellowstone National Species
Stockpile,’ and just take everything
anybody offers us.”
SP: “Don’t joke about it; there are
actually people out there who think
that’s a good idea. Yellowstone isn’t
the only place this sort of thing goes
on, and sometimes policy actually
makes allowances for it. Some good
examples in this regard are historic
cultivars—varieties of domesticated
ornamental or crop plants that may
be genetically or morphologically
distinct from contemporary varieties.
Antique apple trees still growing at
historic homestead units of the national
park system come to mind.
Our policy also makes allowances for
‘minor breeds,’ as they are
called—rare genetic variants of common
domestic species of very limited
population size or range. The Assateague-
Chincoteague ponies may
fall into this category.”
HP: “But they’re exotic. It would be
like introducing pandas to the Great
Smoky Mountains.”
SP: “That’s been talked about, too.
Some people would argue that if the
United States has one really good
piece of habitat that might ensure the
survival of a genuinely threatened
species somewhere else on the
12 The George Wright FORUM
planet, we’d be selfish and parochial
not to adapt our policy a little bit and
do the right thing on a global scale.”
HP: “But where would it end? Once
you break your own rule, you’ve got
no standard left. Anybody could get
away with anything. How will you
know right from wrong?”
SP: “Who said we ever did?”
Paul Schullery and John D. Varley are both at Yellowstone National Park.
Reminder: this column is open to all GWS members. We welcome lively,
provocative, informed opinion on anything in the world of parks and protected
areas. The submission guidelines are the same as for other GEORGE WRIGHT
FORUM articles—please refer to the inside back cover of any issue. The views in
“Box 65” are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official
position of The George Wright Society.

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