Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Yellowstone As Metaphor

Because I am representative of both sides, I am eager to read a book due to be released this summer entitled, The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict.

It is a study of old west belief systems such as those held by my great grandparents, grandparents and parents who forged ancestral ranchland where I was born along the Idaho edge of Yellowstone.

It also concerns the overlapping “new west” concern for protecting and restoring habitat and wildlife.

But while the data is both quantitative and qualitative, Yellowstone is used as a spiritual metaphor for how Americans approach moral disputes overall.

My Idaho roots stretch back to territorial days a dozen years before the creation of Yellowstone as America’s first national park, straddled a few decades later, when my my ancestors who began settling the Rockies in 1847, forged the horse and cattle ranch of my youth along the park’s western border.

By the time I came along the Bowmans had pushed large populations of Grizzlies back into the park and equally proximate Targhee National Forest, almost eliminating wolves and subduing the resulting over populations of beaver. 

But ranchers back then had an innate grasp of ecological balance, and most were early conservationists, if not considered early environmentalists.  Today those camps have become tribes who see the other as enemies.

In my experience, the battle there is not between old west and new west but sterilized, extremist versions of each who refuse to listen to one another.

In other words a microcosm of what’s gone wrong with America.

In a quote in The Economist recently, Dr. Jeff Hardin a devout Christian and zoologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison put it succinctly while noting that “Many partisans subscribe to the post-Enlightenment idea that giving people lots of facts ought to be enough to convince people.”

Guilty as charged.

But today and maybe always according to Hardin, “most of us hold our beliefs in a tangled ball of yarn.”  “Tug on one thread, and people fear that their very identity is under attack.”

I don’t have much patience for some of today’s ranchers who see the rebalancing of populations of wolves, Grizzlies and bison as surrogate agents of the federal government.

But environmentalists can also fail to accept or inform opinions with new information, such as this report in High Country News, revealing that reintroduction of wolves is not a panacea in Yellowstone and that some ecosystems once altered may never recover.

Last month, a jury in my native Fremont County, Idaho convicted a hunter of illegally killing a Grizzly bear and it reminded me that in the 1840s when most of my ancestors settled in the Rockies, the historic population outside of Alaska of 50,000 Grizzlies between the Pacific coast and the Mississippi River had already been pushed back into what are now the plains states.

Settlements back then required hunters such as my great (x3) grandfather Thomas Graham to protect against Grizzlies.

He was killed by one in November 1864 while protecting another ancestor and livestock in Northern Utah about 28 miles from the Idaho border.

But until recently, the last known Grizzly in Utah were seen in 1923, the year my father was born.  Today, they no longer exist in six western states, including California the “Golden Bear” state, where they had been driven out by 1922.

By the time I was graduating from BYU in 1972, only a few hundred were in existence with a concentration in and around Yellowstone including Targhee National Forest near our ranch.

There were several hundred verified sightings in our nook of Idaho between 1965 and 2000.  Male Yellowstone Grizzlies can range more than 300 square miles, far more widely than other populations.

Between 1974 and 1979 when I was marketing Spokane, scientists tracked Grizzlies in and around my native nook of Idaho along the border of Yellowstone to document clashes with livestock such as cattle and sheep.

It was a lot less than ranchers believed but it only takes one encounter to inflame fears.  The truth is that raising livestock on rangeland is inherently risky for many reasons and predators such as wolves and Grizzlies are easy scapegoats as is the fear of disease from bison.

But thanks to endangered species protection, Grizzlies in and around Yellowstone are now back to a sustainable high of 700 or more Grizzlies.  Nor do they stay put, ranging five times the distance our ranch was from Yellowstone.

It may be time for delisting and based on the recent conviction turning the species over to state management, at least in Idaho where a management plan has long been in place.

In my native Fremont County nook of Idaho, ranchers, farmers, conservationists, settlements and sportsmen also have a proven track record of reaching compromises to protect the famed Henry’s Fork River, from which Grizzlies scoop up their share of native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout.

But environmentalists are distrustful, giving too much credibility to the relatively small group of vocal ranchers who refuse to accept the importance of ecological balance or even sit down to listen even if to agree to disagree.

There are solutions but just as with the innovations of the Affordable Care Act, they come from admitting that some parts of alternative views are with merit, while acknowledging that something one might have disagreed with is actually working.

Our way out of gridlock is to put those with extreme either/or views on the sidelines and to return to the practical middle ground that is part of what made this country so exceptional.

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