Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – the island of hope


I am walking through the Hayden Valley on the Nez Perce trail in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, heading west to Mary Mountain. Or at least I would be if a herd of 150 or so buffalo was not already straddling the trail, forcing me to take a parallel course 100 yards up a slope and along the open forest edge. Even then, I have to monitor the taller sagebrush on the slope as some of the buffalo have ventured up there, and could be crouched down out of sight. The National Park Service warning is not to approach buffalo as many visitors have been gored by them:
”Buffalo can weigh 2000 pounds and sprint at 30 miles per hour three times faster than you can run. These animals may appear tame but are wild, unpredictable and dangerous”

The females seem un-menacing unless their calves are at threat, but I am wary of the bulls – their large, black eye follows every movement until it recedes, and then they can go back to their favourite past time of hunkering down in dust bowls. There is a hierarchy – young males are muscled out of the good ones by the head swinging of a dominant bull.

The trail is flat there, and at only 8,000 feet above sea level in this valley, it is not a strain on the lungs. The mind is the more active, not just in being alert to the presence of the buffalo, but in seeing this trail, the valley and the buffalo as being the essence, the epicentre of a regenerated primal, wild ecosystem that is lacking in but one important component.

A refuge that gives hope

Buffalo, bears, elk and eagles once thrived all over America. Now these and many other species - such as wolves, mountain lion, moose, coyote, pronghorn antelope, pelicans and sandhill cranes - survive in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a roughly rectangular area of 140 miles across by 210 miles deep that has at its centre the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and is surrounded by the Beaverhead, Bridger-Teton, Caribou, Custer, Gallatin, Shoshone and Targhee National Forests; the Red Rocks and the Gray Lakes National Wildlife Refuges; and the National Elk Refuge. Thus the 2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park is buffered by the substantially larger area of the Greater Ecosystem around it, giving true meaning to the concept of landscape scale functionality and the space to spread out, roam and migrate. It is the largest, nearly intact natural area in America if you exclude Alaska. Dubbed the “island of hope” it has a stupendous range of habitat – alpine and tundra, sub-alpine meadows and spruce and fir forest, lodgepole pine forests on glacial moraines, parklands of meadows and scattered trees, sagebrush flats, wetlands of all kinds including lakes, marshes and willow flats, and riparian corridors in arid areas lined with stunning cottonwoods – and it is a home to just about every plant and critter going.

Amongst these critters are the mountain buffalo of Yellowstone, which are not much different from those of the Great Plains -  they were slaughtered just as freely during the Euro-American expansion westward in the nineteenth century. The slaughter continued even after the area was designated the first National Park in the world in 1872. The greedy, mindless poachers proved so hard to eradicate that the population of buffalo fell to only 25 by 1902. Poaching was then stopped by rigid enforcement (there was a military garrison in the National Park) and buffalo from private herds, such as from the Confederated Salish and Kutenai Tribes in north western Montana, were brought in to help replenish the buffalo and reduce the harm from interbreeding. Today, around 3,000 wild buffalo roam Yellowstone National Park.

Buffalo (bison) were among the important sources of food for many Native American tribes. A buffalo kill provided fresh meat for many days, and the rest was dried to make jerky. This could be crushed and mixed with wild fruit berries to make pemmican. Smoking the hides over fires would waterproof them so that they could be used for tipis. Bow supports could be made from the horns, as could ladles, spoons, and cups. Rattles and glue were made from hooves. Gallstones provided yellow pigment for paint, and the dried buffalo chips (dung) were used for fuel.

Yellowstone and Native Americans

While there is plenty of evidence of the presence of Native Americans in the area of the Park dating back over 10,000 years, few appear to have made it their permanent residence in later, historical times. Instead it seems that parties of Northern Arapaho, Bannock, Blackfoot, Northern Cheyenne, Couer d'Alene, Crow, Kiowa, Nez Perce, Salish, Shoshone, and Sioux that lived around the Greater Yellowstone area regularly travelled into Yellowstone to harvest seasonal riches by hunting animals and gathering nutritious plant roots. For the latter, they used pointed and fire-hardened digging sticks, made from strong, elastic woods such as Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) or Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) in prized meadows of blue camas, sego lily, biscuit-root and arrow-leafed balsam. The roots were baked and eaten, or pounded after baking and dried so that they could be stored for consumption in the colder, leaner months. Fire pits have been found with stones that would have been platforms in earth ovens for this baking.

Constructions of V-shaped funnels of stone have been found in sub-alpine areas where elk were driven into traps and onto the spears of waiting hunters concealed behind rocks or blinds. A variation was inward leaning pole or brush fences built from ever-abundant dead or fallen trees, made into sometimes 10 foot high driveways for deer or mountain sheep. Hunters also ambushed their prey at known haunts, such as salt or mineral licks or narrow passages in the landscape through which animals passed. Fish, especially trout, were caught using spears and snares, and the alignment of stones found in some rivers suggests they may have functioned as systems for trapping fish.

The Park area was important to Native Americans in other ways. It was a source of obsidian, a vitrified volcanic black rock that could be flaked to make cutting implements as well as spear and arrow points. Obsidian from Yellowstone has been found to have been traded up to 1,000 miles away. Religious beliefs were not formal amongst Native Americans, but nature was central, and animals with human-like qualities formed the basis of sacred stories. Wolf for instance possessed powers for luck and success in war. Power (poha) could be obtained in dreams while sleeping in sacred places in Yellowstone, especially in the mountains, and would give luck in hunting and guide decisions.

The Tukaduka – literally meaning sheep eaters – were a band of Shoshone mountain dwellers that did make their home in Yellowstone, and who followed bighorn sheep migrations, leaving evidence scattered through the park of their temporary shelters, the brush covered wikiups. While horses gradually spread out amongst Native American tribes from 1700 onwards, especially the tribes of the Great Plains, the Sheepeaters in Yellowstone never harnessed the horse, preferring instead to depend on dogs to transport what belongings they had. Contemporary sightings of Sheepeaters in the early years of Euro-American exploration (1835) describes them as a picture of famished wretchedness:
”they are miserably poor, own no horses, and are destitute of every convenience to be derived from an intercourse with whites”

This ethnocentric view lacked an understanding of the complete and integrated life of the Sheepeaters, the humans-in-nature culture of a people who had found their ecological niche. Several other bands of Shoshone were named for other ecological niches, including Agaiduka (salmon eater) and Kukunduka. (buffalo eater).

The life of the Sheepeaters was irrevocably changed after the arrival of the Euro-Americans in the Yellowstone area. No more so than when it became a National Park, and it’s first Superintendent perceived the Sheepeaters and other Native Americans as a deterrent to tourists. Supt. Norris made it a priority to insure that Native Americans were excluded from the Park, seeking agreement in 1880 with the Crow, Bannock and Shoshone (including the Sheepeaters) that they would stay out of Yellowstone.

Ironically, many Sheepeaters, because of their intimate knowledge of the area, were employed after this agreement to be guides for Government trips inside the Park. But it had been the Nez Perce campaign of 1877 that had really set the Park against Native Americans. The Nez Perce, or more properly Nimiipu, were the subject of attempts in 1877 by the Government to get them to confine themselves on a reservation. After hostilities broke out with the military and settlers near the Wallowa Valley, Oregon, five of the Nez Perce bands chose freedom and set off for Montana where they would either seek refuge with the Crows, or flee to Canada.

About 700 originally journeyed eastward, harried by the military. Their route then became far from linear as their leaders showed considerable guile in outwitting the military following on behind. On reaching the boundary of Yellowstone, they sensibly did not use the Bannock Trail, located in the northern part of the Park, which was an easy route through the rugged country of Yellowstone, established much earlier as a throughway to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains. Avoiding detection, they came along what is now called the Nez Perce trail, avoiding confrontation with the military, but coming across and kidnapping (and injuring some of) a group of startled tourists.

They eventually released them all, and came within 40 miles of the Canadian border at Bear Paw Mountain before they were finally confronted by a substantial military presence. The battle lasted six days. The cold and starving Nez Perce decided to abandon the fight, with some 300 escaping to Canada and the rest surrendering, but it would be eight years before they were reunited with their tribe on their reservation in Oregon, being instead shunted around Kansas and Oklahoma.

Exclusion from Yellowstone was only one of the ways that degraded the Native American way of life. Another degradation was the despoliation of their prized root meadows in the greater Yellowstone area caused by the herds of cattle, horses and hogs of Euro-American settlers. The Bannock in particular were incensed by this, especially since they were increasingly forced into being dependant for their food on “Indian Agents” rather than from their former self-reliance of hunting and gathering in rich landscapes. Raiding on settlers broke out in 1878, leading to a bloody war with “renegades” splitting into small groups. One raiding party decided, like the Nez Perce the year before, to flee to Canada, but this time they chose to cross the Park by the Bannock Trail.

Few tourists were in the Park at the time, but Supt. Norris decided to forge a “trail” northwards to provide an easier route for the military to get to the Bannock. This road went past the Obsidian Cliffs, the place where Native Americans had been collecting obsidian for thousands of years. In a thoughtless destruction, the effort to cut a path at the base of the cliff caused considerable damage to the face of the cliff, this rubble being used as the road foundation. Norris boasted that it was the only quarter-mile stretch of road in America to be laid with native glass. This amount of obsidian probably represented many more thousands of years of use as knives, and spear and arrow points by Native Americans.

Restoration of wolves

With the Native Americans gone, it then became the turn of the wolves for concerted persecution. Killing wolves amounted almost to sadism, suffering from fear, hatred and ignorance. First it was the military that killed wolves in Yellowstone, but after 1916 the newly created National Park Service took over the slaughter, the rangers killing 136 wolves so that by 1926, the predator control program had eliminated them from Yellowstone. Later they killed 229 grizzly bears having started off feeding them as a public spectacle for tourists. White pelicans were killed, presumably because fisherman complained at how many cutthroat trout they took. And then they killed elk because there were “too many” – the stupid consequence of killing the wolves and the bears.

Wolves were persecuted all over America, perceived as threats not only to the livestock of farmers, but also to the elk and deer of game hunters. Unsurprisingly, the latter argument never seemed to be tested by the logic that prey and predator evolved and coexist in wild nature. Government finally terminated its national wolf-eradication in 1941, but it wasn’t until 1967 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed grey wolves as an endangered species. In the years after that, wolf hatred was countered by efforts to reintroduce wolves where they had been lost. Thus National Park Service policy became a restoration of native species when sufficient habitat exists to support a self-perpetuating population, that management can prevent serious threats to outside interests, that the restored subspecies most nearly resembles the extirpated subspecies, and that extirpation resulted from human activities. This policy is very similar to the EU Habitats directive that obliges Britain to restore species such as beaver, wild boar, lynx – and even wolves.

The policy culminated in action in January 1995 with 14 Canadian grey wolves being brought to Yellowstone, and released into the Lamar Valley, a location that then and now is teeming with buffalo, pronghorn, mule deer and elk, as well as grizzlies and coyotes that salivate over all that food, making it the "Serengeti" of America. The following year another 17 wolves were released in Yellowstone, and others at locations in Idaho. On three separate occasions in the Lamar Valley about an hour before dusk, I watched the offspring of those wolves, now forming the Druid Peak Wolf Pack that is named for the location of their den nestled in this mountain peak north of the valley. Other offspring from restoration have spread through Yellowstone, including to the Hayden Valley, forming their own packs and territories. I have to say that observing grey wolves in the Lamar Valley was one of the most elemental and exhilarating experiences of my life.

The aim of the wolf restoration program has been to reach and maintain 10 breeding wolf pairs distributed throughout the Park - equivalent to having about 100 wolves - plus another 20 breeding pairs in the greater area. In the logic of the American system, once that aim has been reached, the threat of endangerment is considered to have passed. It is the case that in late 2002, the recovery overall had reached 663 wolves in 49 breeding pairs. Thus the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sought and was granted in March this year a delisting of the grey wolf from being an endangered species in the whole of the Northern Rocky Mountains. This would have opened the door to slaughter again, and it was keenly contested by advocacy groups who believed that that population size may not be large enough to be resilient in the face of renewed hunting (1). They have been successful - a preliminary injunction was issued in mid-July by a Federal Court to immediately reinstate the Endangered Species Act protections for grey wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains - see (2) and Howls of protest as America declares open season on grey wolves.

To my despair, buffalo are also culled each year from the National Park, and in the wider area of the Greater Ecosystem, with 3,700 being eliminated since 2000 under a publicly funded Interagency Bison Management Plan. It is their natural tendency to roam and migrate that gets the buffalo into trouble. As they leave the protection of the National Park and other designated areas, they become the target for accusations that they transmit brucellosis to livestock. The question is never asked as to how the buffalo were infected with brucellosis in the first place, and there has never been a documented case of transmission from buffalo to livestock. (Shades of tuberculosis, badgers and cattle here.)

The missing element

The history of Yellowstone and its wildlife is often told in terms of the mountain men like Bridger, Colter and Russell, who exploited the bountiful wild nature of the area through trapping and skinning in the nineteenth century, and who passed back east accounts of what they saw. But it is not these men who “discovered” Yellowstone. It is not also the expeditions of the early surveyors like Hayden, the sketches by Moran who came with him, or the later photographs by Jackson that are essential in defining what is the importance of Yellowstone. (All these men are commemorated in the naming of a valley, bay, lake, mountain and forest in the Greater Yellowstone area.) Nor is it the geothermal features of the Park area, sited on top of a volcano as it is, with its geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles that give it its true significance, even though they probably were the real reason why it became the first national park in the world, and may provide the motivation for a substantial proportion of the 2 million visitors that the Park attracts every year. The real significance of Yellowstone is its almost complete and functioning natural ecosystem. It only lacks the Native Americans, who as Joel Janetski rightly points out “knew Yellowstone in a way that no modern man will”

Mark Fisher 5 August 2008

Information for this article comes from the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park, as well as the following books:

Travels in the Greater Yellowstone, Jack Turner (2008) Thomas Dunne Books ISBN 0-312-26672-3

Indians in the Yellowstone National Park, Joel Janetski (2002) Uni. of Utah Press ISBN 0-87480-724-7

(1) Twelve conservation groups challenge federal wolf delisting, Press Release, Defenders of Wildlife 28 April 2008 press_releases_2008/04_28_2008

(2) District Judge reverses gray wolf delisting throughout Northern Rockies, Press Release, Defenders of Wildlife 18 July 2008 press_releases_2008/07_18_2008