The Yellowstone Country Page
A Page Devoted to Yellowstone Country Policy Issues
The Pinnacle Buttes from Bonneville Pass. In the backcountry, about
25 miles SE of Yellowstone Park
Copyright © Ralph Maughan
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK AND THE GREATER YELLOWSTONE ECOSYSTEM-
It is extremely important to understand that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), or just the "Yellowstone Country" as many call it, is much larger than Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone Park was created in 1872 -- a square piece of land with its boundaries surrounded by wilderness. The states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana didn't even exist. The Park's boundaries did not correspond to any identifiable features on the ground, but at first that didn't matter, but it wasn't long before some of surrounding land was settled and the migration of wildlife out of the Park to its traditional wintering range became an issue. Over a hundred years later it is still an unresolved issue.
Map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem 133K
ORIGIN OF YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK'S BOUNDARIES
The Park's boundaries were adjusted once to add some geographic rationality. The Norbeck Act of 1929 revised the Park boundaries on the northwest, northeast, and east. According the classic book by John Ise Our National Park Policy (John Hopkins, 1961), the additions were 43 square miles on the NW to protect the petrified forest in the Gallatin mountain range; 4 square miles on the NE to include the headwaters of Pebble Creek; and 110 square miles on the east to put the boundary on the watershed divide of the Absaroka mountain range. Settlers in Jackson Hole to the south of Yellowstone occupied the winter range of a huge elk herd. Efforts to solve this problem began in 1912 when Congress appropriated $45,000 to buy 2000 acres near Jackson, Wyoming. This became the core of the National Elk Refuge, upon which 5000 to 14,000 elk now winter each year. The Refuge now abuts the small city of Jackson. With the real estate prices prevalent in Jackson Hole today, the Refuge lands would be worth a 200-million plus dollars on the market.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
The Grand Teton (center)
Grand Teton National Park
copyright © Ralph Maughan
Rainbow at Sunrise- Grand Teton National Park
Copyright Ralph Maughan
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK-
The Park's Creation and controversial Enlargement-
A tiny Grand Teton National Park was established by Congress in 1929. It included just the east slope of the Teton mountain range. Today's park was created after a lengthy battle wherein John D. Rockefeller Jr. established the Snake River Land Company 1927 and purchased 35,000 acres of private land in Jackson Hole (the name of the valley on the east side of the Teton mountains). He wanted to give it to the U.S. government to enlarge the national park. Opposition to the park from Wyoming Stockgrowers was intense, but in 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt took Rockefellers land, combined it with scattered public lands in the valley and proclaimed Jackson Hole National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906 -- the same act President Clinton used in 1996 to proclaim the Escalante Canyons/Grand Staircase National Monument in southern Utah. The reaction in both cases was similar. Just as the case now with Utah, Wyoming went to court to try and the President's action declared invalid. Wyoming lost. Wyoming Representative Frank Barrett and Senator Frank Robertson (both stockgrowers) introduced legislation to prohibit further presidential proclamations of national monuments. The bill was debated with heat in Congress. Representative Barrett said that the President was "worse than Hitler" (the United States was in the middle of World War II, fighting Hitler's forces in Europe). The bill passed the House and Senate, but the President pocket-vetoed it.
Special privileges for a few built into the expansion of Grand Teton-
Barrett continued his efforts as well as a much bigger attempt to give most of the public lands of the United States to the western states, and from there to the stockgrowers for a nominal fee. Finally a compromise was reached in 1950. Senators O'Mahoney and Hunt of Wyoming sponsored a bill that would create an enlarged Grand Teton National Park which included most of the lands in the national monument. In turn, certain stockgrowers were allowed to continue grazing livestock in the Park, there were generous leases granted to those with summer homes in the Park, and elk hunting was permitted each fall when Wyoming hunters were permitted to be "deputized" as Park rangers and hunt the elk.
Grand Teton still has cows today and as recently as 1997 grizzly bears were killed by the federal government because they attacked a few cow calves in the Park. Some folks say the Act that created the Park conveyed too great a privilege on a few prominent Wyoming citizens. Others see it as a necessary compromise. Still others see it as a shining example of the distant federal government respecting local customs and culture. Recently a bill passed Congress and was signed into law further extending the grazing privileges of the few remaining families. The extension lasts until the Park Service does a study on how grazing in the Park helps maintain open space in Jackson Hole. The theory is that were it not for these grazing permits, the ranchers' base property (private land) would be sold for subdivisions.
It is highly unlikely these grazing permits will protect the ranches from subdivision because private land in Jackson Hole sales for $20,000 an acre or more.
DESIGNATED WILDERNESS AREAS IN THE YELLOWSTONE COUNTRY-
Further alterations of Yellowstone's 2.2-million acre size are not politically feasible in the brown politics of today's Rocky Mountain West. However, during the greener years of the 1960s and 1970s, many of the Park's boundaries received additional legal protection when Congress made large reservations of adjacent national forest lands by designating them as units of the new "National Wilderness Preservation System."
Go to my Yellowstone Country Wilderness Page.
The Wilderness Act provides that roadless portions of lands of the United States can, by Act of Congress, be reserved as Wilderness. Such lands are then permanently protected from logging, mining (except for valid previously established claims), the construction of buildings, roads, and dams; and from use by recreational motor vehicles (such as dirt bikes and ATVs).
USE OF THE PUBLIC LANDS ADJACENT TO YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK (other than Wilderness Areas)
Targhee National Forest (link to gov't web site)
Other U.S. public lands adjacent to Yellowstone and the Tetons didn't see much intensive development because the poor quality of the timber made logging economically infeasible. Eventually, increasingly generous government subsidies for logging led to large scale clearcutting, particularly to the west of Yellowstone Park on the Targhee National Forest, with which the Park still shared an irrational straight line boundary. The boundary has become easily visible, however, even from space. The Targhee National Forest, under strong bureaucratic and political pressure, clearcut almost all of its Island Park and Ashton Ranger Districts -- the Targhee's forest subunits adjacent to Yellowstone Park.
The timber program was created to salvage hundreds of millions of board feet of dead and dying lodgepole pine, killed by an epidemic of the mountain pine bark beetle.
Today the logging has mostly ceased because there few trees left large enough to cut, although conservation groups such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition were able to greatly reduce the logging before every stand of trees was cut. Fortunately regeneration of the clearcut forest is now excellent in most areas, but in many places the regeneration consists of trees just a couple feet high. This lack of forest cover still disrupts elk migration and, perhaps, wolf recolonization of the area. The adverse effects of the excessive logging were, and remain, especially harmful to the grizzly bear because of the high density of logging roads and the destruction of huckleberry patches during the logging. The excessive logging also was harmful to local communities.
History of the Targhee Timber Salvage Program.
There are 18 grizzly bear management units (Called BMUs) in the Yellowstone "Grizzly Recovery Area" -- places where grizzlies have historically lived. Two of the BMUs (Henry's Lake and Plateau) have no grizzly bear populations today, and both of these are largely on the Targhee National Forest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Grizzly Bear recovery plan states that the Yellowstone grizzly population cannot be declared "recovered", and, therefore, from the threatened species list, until 16 out of the 18 BMUs have grizzly bears (this means grizzly bears that live in the BMUs produce cubs). Moreover the two BMUs without reproducing populations of bears cannot be adjacent to each. Because of the Targhee, they are adjacent.
Despite widespread criticism of the Targhee, the land is recovering. In my mind some of clearcuts are quite pleasant to look at with the young lodgepole pine and numerous wildflowers. Things will get better if American citizens act to prevent the Targhee from sliding back to old non-sustainable practices. . . and there are folks around who believe there is still a timber bonanza to be made in the area. I wish it was 1898 instead of 1998 at times myself.
The Controversial Revision of the Targhee Forest Plan
After years of lawsuits by conservationists as the Island Park and Ashton Ranger Districts were turned from forests into grasslands (with plenty of signs saying "new trees planted 1986, etc."), the Targhee decided to revise their forest plan. Scores of meetings, field trips, preliminary public involvement, and work by Forest Service staff resulted in a draft of the new forest plan in 1996. It had a number of improvements.
The final version of the Targhee forest plan revision was released in May 1997. Unfortunately, the changes made from draft version were to increase timber harvest, although not as severely as many environmental groups feared. Nevertheless it is doubtful if the forest can find the volume of harvestable trees they say they are going to offer for sale, especially without great damage to the other more valuable resources of the national forest. Most of the logging is slated for the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho /Montana border, which is the biologically richest place on the Targhee NF.
The plan offered some improvements in terms of regulating off-road vehicles (such as they will no longer be allowed to drive "willy nilly" cross country where there are no roads or trails). However, the existing rules, weak as they are, are widely flouted, especially by snowmobiles. The new plan did offer one additional area as a recommendation to Congress for wilderness designation -- that part of the Diamond Peak roadless area in the Lemhi Mountains, which is administered by the Targhee National Forest. Unfortunately the plan also opened up the Palisades proposed wilderness to snowmobiles. The wilderness recommendation for Diamond Peak is just something on a piece of paper, but the intrusion of snowmobiles into the Palisades is real.
On August 29, 1997 the Greater Yellowstone Coalition formally appealed the forest plan. Unless its legal deficiencies are corrected, the GYC will eventually sue the Targhee in federal court. As of November 1998 the Chief of the Forest Service had not acted on the appeal.
Meanwhile, the Targhee National Forest has been under increasing pressure as the forest that is holding up grizzly bear recovery. The only two of 18 grizzly bear management units without reproducing populations of bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem are on the Targhee. As a result the Targhee recently began a problem to obliterate unneeded timber access roads on parts of its Island Park, Ashton, and Teton Basin Ranger Districts. Most of these roads were already closed by regulation, but riders of all terrain vehicles treated these closures with scornful disobedience. As a result, the Targhee used machinery to destroy the road surfaces and dig trenches on routes were off road vehicle riders had been especially lawless.
Effective closures outraged Teton and Fremont County commissioners, and they reacted by harassing the Forest Service, and off-road vehicle groups held a rally near Henry's Lake that attracted 100-200 road obliteration protesters. The Blue Ribbon Coalition, a front group for the off-road vehicle manufacturers, filed a lawsuit saying the Targhee needed to issue an environmental impact statement before obliterating the roads. Fortunately most were obliterated before the harassment and lawsuit shut closed a temporary shutdown of the road reclamation program.
Other Greater Yellowstone National Forests:
These are not links to official sites. There are my interpretative pages of these national forests
- Bridger-Teton National Forest
- Caribou National Forest
- Custer National Forest
- Gallatin National Forest
- Shoshone National Forest
The relationship of Yellowstone to the politics of the three states in whose boundaries it lies.
Yellowstone predates the formation of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, but many politicians in these states have always seen the Park as an unfortunate federal enclave in their midst, standing in the way of economic development, even though the Park is the biggest money maker for the economy of these three states within a hundred miles of its boundaries. Most Americans, however, value Yellowstone far above the desires of local political elites. High Country News recently had a good article on this -- "Yellowstone at 125: The park as a sovereign state."
Of the three states, Yellowstone has the greater portion of its area in Wyoming, "the Cowboy State." Wyoming has the smallest population of any of the 50 states of the United States. Despite rapid population growth in northwest Wyoming in the Yellowstone Country, the state of Wyoming is economically stagnant and may actually be losing population. Much of Wyoming resents the prosperity and different culture of Northwest Wyoming. The state produces politicians with very brown political views. They are adept at scapegoating, but bad at providing jobs or protecting the natural environment.
Paul Krza gives an explanation for Wyoming's sick economy in While the West booms, Wyoming Languishes in the High Country News. It turns out Wyoming isn't the Cowboy State after all. It's the mining state and despite the vaunted independence of its cowboys, Wyoming is controlled from the outside. Note to readers of the article: Gov. Geringer recently fired Jim Magagna, the state lands commissioner.
CONSERVATION ISSUES IN THE YELLOWSTONE COUNTRY
- The Fires of 1988. This was a burning hot issue at the time ;-)
In the summer of 1988, lightning and human-ignited fires covered 40% of the Yellowstone National park, plus hundreds of thousand of acres more in surrounding areas -- mostly wilderness. The federal government spent over $120-million dollars rying to fight the fires, but the most that was accomplished was to alter the direction of the fires a bit. As a comparison, Yellowstone annual budget at the time was about $17-million. Cold rain and snow in mid-September finally brought the big blazes to an end. However, when I toured in early October 1988, embers still smoldered and small fires continued to burn on.
At the time most political opinion weighed heavily against the staff of Yellowstone and the National Park Service under the assumption that the Park has just let the fires burn and the Park was destroyed. Ten years later Yellowstone is covered with billions of small lodgepole pine, meadows have been renewed, visitors enjoy vistas that were formerly hidden by dense forests. Except for moose, wildlife populations have grown and with the restoration of the wolf, the Park is in the best ecological health in a hundred years. The fallacies of the politicians at time are so clear in reterospect, that they can serve as a guide to the present statements of these politcians -- many of whom are still in office. Some local people still think the fires could have been put out. They are wrong. Fires over 50,000 acres can at best be steered. Only a change in the weather can stop them.
The Post Register newspaper in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has a great on-line archive of articles about the fires. The stories were written by Rocky Barker, a noted Idaho reporter. It is fascinating to read the descriptions of the events during the fires as well as the interpretations made during and after.
I should note that now that the political heat has died down, Yellowstone has returned to its natural fire policy, although with modifications. I think they have done the right thing.
- Oil and natural gas exploration and development. The Shoshone, Beaverhead, and Targhee National Forests have recently urged large-scale exploration of parts of the forests for oil and/or natural gas. Now the Bridger-Teton is evaluating a big key of important grizzly bear and elk country to oil and gas leasing. Story on this threat from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Snowmobiling inside Yellowstone Park has grown at a rate much faster than predicted. Any human activity in wintertime Yellowstone has more impacts on wildlife than during the summer. Snowmobiles have great impacts because of their speed, the packing of the winter road surface, and extraordinary amount of air pollution they put into the cold winter air.
The Yellowstone country has some of the cleanest air in the United States during the spring, summer and fall, but in the winter, the area around West Yellowstone often has filthy air due to snowmobiles coupled with strong temperature inversions. Several single location air quality readings near the Park's west gate in the winter of 1995-6 registered the dirtiest air anywhere in the United States for that year. Scientific studies show a single snowmobile emits from several hundred to a thousand times as much air pollution as the average new automobile.
Here is a recent editorial about snowmobiles in Yellowstone from the Idaho Falls, Idaho newspaper, the Post Register. The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee issued a report in June 1997 saying snowmobiles in the GYE dirty the air and pose a danger to automobiles and cross country skiers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting a study of wintertime air pollution from snowmobiles in West Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park and surrounding lands. There is little systematic data about this pollution and exactly what its constituents are. The study is slated for the winter of 1997-8.
Off-road vehicle are also a major problem. They scar the landscape, cause erosion and consequent sedimentation in streams, disturb deep wilderness species like grizzly bears, and provide poachers easier access.
Four wheel drive ruts at timberline on the
Beartooth Plateau. © Ralph Maughan
While most of the GYE is public land, upon which homes and businesses generally cannot be built, about 18% is private land. Most of the private land is in the valleys, along major streams, in the flat, easier-to-build on areas. After many years of slow development on scenic private lands, development has exploded during the last 20 years. The population in the Greater Yellowstone area is among the fastest growing in the United States. Much of the growth has taken place with little forethought, lack of infrastructure, and is located in areas where buildings are esthetically unpleasant and detrimental to wildlife. Wildlife is harmed because much of the building is on their winter range or in riparian (streamside) areas.
I am not far wrong to say that sub-divisions are taking place and being built upon in every valley within 75 miles of Yellowstone. The closer to Yellowstone or Grand Teton, the more expensive the land. Recently the last large ranch in Jackson Hole (just over 1000 acres), the Crescent H, sold for $51-million. That's about $50,000 an acre. The new owners aren't going to be running livestock. The escalation in land prices has extended far beyond Jackson Hole, however. Of the three states in Yellowstone Country, so far Wyoming seems to be the only state with political officials that are interested in protecting open space from sub-divisions that spring up as fast as knapweed.
- Air quality
Wintertime air quality is severely damaged by snowmobiles in localities such as West Yellowstone. Of greater regional impact, however, is the massive development of natural gas fields in SW Wyoming -- 20,000 gas and coal bed methane wells! Sulfur emissions from these and the cynically-named "Jim Bridger" coal-fired power plant are beginning to damage the ecosystem during the entire year, especially places like the famous Wind River Mountains which are made of granite and, therefore, have little buffering capacity to withstand the resulting acid rain.
- "Improvement" of highways
U.S.Highway 89 from Utah, through SE Idaho, and along the western boundary of Wyoming is being "improved" piece-by-piece with no consideration of the cumulative effects of all of these highway projects. Particularly sore spots are:
1. the widening of the US 89 in Logan Canyon, Utah;
2. widening of US 89 through Montpelier Canyon, Idaho;
3. widening of U.S. 89 through the Grand Canyon of the Snake River between Alpine and Hoback Junction, Wyoming.
In southeast Idaho, where I live, we fought but lost the Montpelier Canyon project, which wasted $40-million of the American taxpayers' money to turn a pretty canyon with a 45-mph highway into a dangerous (due to rockslides) 65 mph canyon.
Wyoming DOT is did a poor job "improving" U.S. 14/16/20 through the east entrance of the Park, prompting a lawsuit by environmental groups. Now they are setting their sights on U.S. 26/287 from Dubois, Wyoming over Togwotee Pass to Grand Teton National Park. Even at the slower speeds of the present highway, there are numerous collisions with animals. Every year people die as they hit elk, moose, grizzly bears, deer, and cattle. Most of the accidents are at night. After talking with the Forest Service, I have some hope that this project may not amount to much more than the widening of the highway's shoulders.
- Non-native species
The infiltration of non-native species into the ecosystem is one of the most insidious and destructive of the many threats. It is also a threat that has not, in my opinion, received the attention it is due from environmentalists. This is especially true for invasive non-native plants.
- Non-native Plants
This is probably because in many areas the first and only response by local people is to pour on herbicides -- usually when the flowers appear (which is too late for that year anyway). Integrated pest management is the method for effective control.
Some of these weeds simply occupy disturbed ground. Others, like spotted knapweed, displace healthy intact, native vegetation. I have observed the following invasive non-native plant species in the GYE:
- Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). This thistle is a problem where there has been logging because the tractors and trucks bring the seeds in and grind them into the ground, planting them. It is also a problem along many trails where horse packers have used hay with the thistle seeds as a contaminant. It is a long-standing pest in the GYE and many other places. The extensive root system aids proliferation and retards control. I get a few of these every year in the same place in my lawn despite the fact that I dig them out when I first notice them. This year the extent of Canada thistle in the Lamar and Soda Butte valleys really bothered me.
- Dalmatian toadflax (Linaria genistifolia ssp. dalmatica). This is a great problem near Mammoth Hot Springs and along the South Fork of the Shoshone River. Toadflax is a tall plant with flowers that resemble yellow snapdragons. Biological control of this pest is being tried in Park County, Wyoming (where the South Fork of the Shoshone River flows).
- Dyers woad (Isatis tinctoria). From its initial escape at Brigham City, Utah, Dyers woad is moving slowly up into the GYE from the south. It has become very common in southeastern Idaho. It is a tall yellow-flowered plant that blooms in late May.
- Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula). Nature Conservancy's site on Leafy spurge. It seems to be moving in on the GYE from all sides. For many people leafy spurge is the most hated alien -- people have their favorite pests ;-)
- Musk thistle (Carduus nutaans). This tall, very prickly thistle forms dense stands though which people, large animals, and livestock cannot penetrate. Musk thistle is invading from the south. It is common on the Caribou National Forest and has now moved into the Targhee and Grand Teton National Park. In fact, the Jackson Hole News reported that in 1997 musk thistle infestation had grown to cover 4000 acres of Grand Teton National Park. Musk thistle blooms in late July/August. It was a number of large disk-shaped, purple flowerheads. Biological control of musk thistle is undertaken on the Caribou National Forest. Unfortunately the weevils that eat out the thistle heads (rosettes) seem to spread more slowly than the thistle. Some also attack native thistles such as the valuable elk thistle.
- Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa). This is the one I fear the most. Spotted knapweed first escaped in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana and has become a scourge throughout Montana, much of Wyoming, northern and central Idaho, and British Columbia. It has not invaded the GYE yet except in a few isolated instances. Unfortunately, I will now have to modify this. This year there is a great deal of knapweed present near Red Lodge, Montana. On September 14, I found the first I had seen in the Lamar Valley. I pulled up three plants right at Rose Creek. Sadly, they had gone to seed. This weed has three closely related species, all of which have become problems -- diffuse knapweed (centaurea diffusa), Russian knapweed (Centaurea repens), and yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis).
Biocontrol of spotted knapweed has been used with beetles, weevils, seedhead fly larva, and moth larva. These have been released at many sites with some success.
- Non-native fish
Yellowstone Lake is one of the world's greatest cutthroat trout fisheries. It harbors as its native trout the appropriately named Yellowstone Cutthroat, a sub-species. The cutthroat in deep Yellowstone Lake and its tributary streams grow large and fat, providing a tremendous fishery for human visitors and much wildlife including grizzly bears, osprey, eagles, pelicans, and many more.
The cutthroat spawning runs go up the tributary rivers and creeks in May and June, providing a very important source of protein for the threatened grizzly bear. Yellowstone grizzlies rely on the cutthroat runs in manner similar, but on a smaller scale, to the giant brown bears of Alaska.
Unfortunately at some time in the recent past -- ten or twenty years ago -- someone planted the non-native lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. The lake trout is a voracious predator of other fish, including the cutthroat once it reaches three or four pounds. After remaining invisible for a number of years, the lake trout population is now expanding rapidly. Its presence greatly threatens the cutthroat, and this has serious ramifications for the entire ecosystem because the lake trout, unlike cutthroat, spawns in the lake and generally remains very deep. Its protein is unavailable to the mammals and birds of Yellowstone.
The Park Service is trying a number of methods to keep the lake trout population in check, but as with almost all Park Service operations, it is underfunded by Congress.
I attended a recent forum on the matter and found the fisheries biologist to be pessimistic about the future of this vital ecosystem food link.
- New Zealand Mud Snail
It is not known how it arrived, but the New Zealand Mud snail has become established in the Madison River. It has now spread to the Madison's headwater tributaries, the Firehole and the Gibbon River. This snail is covering the stream bottoms in concentrations of several million per square meter. Its effects are not known, but one would predict a significant change in the ecology of these famous fishing streams.
- Whirling Disease. This is a parasitic disease of trout, and it is spreading rapidly throughout the trout waters of the Western United States. Unfortunately it has now shown up in both the Upper Green River and in Yellowstone Lake. Whether it will spread and decimate the Yellowstone cutthroat trout or remain at levels that have scant biological effect, is not known.
Check the latest on Yellowstone Earthquakes. Seismic Server at the University of Utah.