Yellowstone National Park was established 150 years ago in 1872. The creation of the park marked a significant break with public land policies of the time. Instead of promoting settlement, mining, logging, ranching, or any other development, the park was designated to protect natural features such as thermal features.
Yellowstone was also set aside to protect public access for all citizens, an act of democracy. In the post-Civil War era, where the country fought a fierce battle over the civil rights of all citizens, Yellowstone was open for entry to all Americans. It was an important step towards recognizing that all peoples had certain “inalienable rights”, including access to natural landscapes. In retrospect, Yellowstone has also become a place where the “inalienable rights” of non-humans are accommodated and protected.
In recognition of its global heritage significance, Yellowstone is a designated World Heritage Site and International Biological Reserve. But it is doubtful that these attributes will continue to function unless we recognize that Yellowstone’s boundaries are insufficient to preserve its ecological integrity into the future.
One of the lessons we have learned from studies around the world is that parks and nature reserves, if properly funded and large enough, are the best conservation strategy to protect biodiversity. We know of Island biogeography principles that species residing on larger “islands” of habitat are less likely to suffer from inbreeding or extinction.
It may be time to consider expanding Yellowstone to incorporate much of the surrounding public lands under one agency – the National Park Service.
From its inception, park advocates recognized that Yellowstone’s legislative boundaries were insufficient to protect all wildlife and other natural values.
In the 1880s, General Philip Sheridan advocated the expansion of Yellowstone east and south to protect migrating wildlife like elk and bison which in winter sought low-lying land. Today we recognize this animal migrates from Yellowstone to other public and private lands outside the park.
When he was president of the Boone and Crockett Club, future president Teddy Roosevelt also championed the expansion of Yellowstone. These efforts led to the establishment in 1891 of the Yellowstone Forest Preserve, the first forest reservation (precursors to today’s National Forests). In addition, other national forests have been created to surround Yellowstone and provide protection against over-exploitation of resources and bans on settlement.
By the 1970s, it was apparent that the creation of national forests and other public land designations (such as wildlife refuges) were intended to protect the natural values of the Yellowstone region, but were inadequate to meet the challenge. growing development pressures. Biologists Frank and John Craighead, studying grizzly bears in the park, noted that many bears roam beyond Yellowstone’s protective borders. They began to refer to the larger landscape as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Ecologist Rick Reese developed this broader concept when he published a book with this title.
An analysis by myself and several colleagues has identified the most threatened biological hot spots of the ecosystem – all were outside of Yellowstone Park.
However well-intentioned the idea of a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is in terms of getting people thinking about larger conservation efforts, in reality it hasn’t changed the management of public lands outside of the park.
Wolves and other predators are routinely killed beyond Yellowstone’s borders. Bison are shot by hunters as they stray from the park. Forests are logged and exploited for “forest health” or “fuel reduction.” The increase in recreation, especially mechanical vehicles ranging from mountain bikes to more powerful snowmobiles, is reducing wildlife safe zones. Livestock in National Forests and BLM lands outside the park are grazed in critical wintering areas, consume forage that would support native herbivores, and trample riparian areas. New mines are sometimes proposed which can threaten watersheds with pollution. Wildlife migration corridors are compromised by new subdivisions.
Conservationists continually fight these resource extraction proposals and their impacts on wildlife outside the park boundaries. It may be time to consider expanding the boundaries of Yellowstone to end this endless rearguard action to preserve the ecological integrity of Greater Yellowstone.
With the Biden administration’s goal of protecting 30% of American landscape by 2030, a positive vision and contribution to this goal would be to expand Yellowstone National Park to include much of what we call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Indeed, we should have a Greater Yellowstone National Park.
While some lament that Yellowstone is “loved to death,” most of these criticisms are based on social, not ecological, views. Most human use is concentrated on the 1% of the park landscape accessible to vehicles and occupied by lodges.
Sometimes you can’t find a parking spot in Old Faithful, or you can be stuck in a buffalo traffic jam for a long time. However, most of the park (about 99%) is essentially managed as wilderness, with limited human intrusions. There are few places in the United States with such large areas under such strict management.
In truth, Yellowstone is one of the best-protected landscapes in the lower 48 states, even with millions of visitors.
Most of the park (about 99%) is essentially managed as wilderness, with limited human intrusions. There are few places in the United States with such large areas under strict management.
Yellowstone is still home to every species of wildlife that existed at the time of its creation, and in some cases has undergone species recovery, such as the reintroduction of wolves, a focus on fish restoration natives and better protection for grizzly bears. .
This is partly explained by the mission of the agency. The Park Service is generally inclined towards the protection of natural values. An example of this policy is the Bear management units in the park that are closed to human entry to protect grizzly bears, limiting backcountry camping to specific sites to reduce impacts, strict enforcement of food storage in campgrounds and the hardening (i.e. paved paths) of heavily trafficked areas like the Old Faithful Geyser Pool.
Of course, there is no cattle grazing, logging, hunting, trapping and mechanical intrusions in the backcountry. As a result, compared to even vast wilderness areas, Yellowstone is, ecologically speaking, one of the most protected ecosystems outside of Alaska in the United States. For example, 21 wolves in Yellowstone National Park’s packs were killed last year, mostly in designated wilderness areas adjacent to the park where hunting and trapping are permitted.
A Greater Yellowstone National Park could counter some of the many threats, gradually diminishing the ecological integrity of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The current park boundaries are expected to be expanded to include most of the adjacent National Forests, including lands that are part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. For example, the boundaries would be expanded to include the Upper Green River, Gros Vente Range, Mount Leidy Highlands, Absaroka Mountains, Beartooth Mountains, Gallatin Range, Madison Range, Teton West Slope, Palisades , the Centennial Valley, etc.
All roadless land not currently in designated wilderness under the 1964 Act Wilderness Act would be covered in a wilderness overlay, including the 99% of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks that currently have no wilderness designation.
Extractive uses such as livestock grazing, logging, oil and gas, mining, and other activities that compromise the ecological function of the landscape would be prohibited. Purchase of grazing permit would be used to remove cattle grazing from the landscape. Recovery areas with an extensive forest road network like the Targhee National Forest adjacent to Yellowstone could be restored. Some of the lands could be designated as national reserves as exists in Alaska and elsewhere to allow limited but strictly controlled hunting as currently in Grand Teton National Park.
Communities and private lands within the boundaries of the expanded national park would be encouraged to follow the pattern of land use we find in places like New York’s Adirondacks State Park and would receive the financial funds necessary to implement implement such planning and application. In addition, funding to acquire private lands with critical habitat would be available.
Creating a Greater Yellowstone National Park would preserve the region’s wild and scenic waters under National Park Service protection, help maintain migration corridors such as the Pronghorn Trail in Wyoming, expand areas where species natives have priority in the landscape, such as the migration of bison to other public lands, and protecting biological hotspots.
Additionally, expanding the park by eliminating oil and gas development, logging, and cattle grazing on adjacent public lands would increase carbon sequestration.
A Greater Yellowstone National Park would likely cover 20 million acres or more (about the size of the state of Maine) depending on the exact boundaries and would easily be one of the largest reserves of temperate ecosystems in the world. Such a large reserve would be our best protection against species extinction due to climate change. Furthermore, it would ensure that biodiversity and ecosystem function have their best chance of being maintained in the future.
If a Greater Yellowstone National Park was combined with the NNorthern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) that would protect much of the rest of the Northern Rockies region as designated wilderness, the United States could do much to ensure the long-term ecological health of the Northern Rockies.
A Greater Yellowstone National Park would maintain the park’s reputation as a model of ecosystem integrity and protection and its role in the world’s heritage.