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What is wild?

What counts as wildness and wilderness is determined not by the absence of people, but by the relationship between people and place.  A place is wild when its order is created according to its own principles of organization—when it is self-willed land.  Native peoples usually…”fit” that order, influencing it but nor controlling it…  Jack Turner

I’ve been re-reading ‘The Abstract Wild’ .  Jack Turner is so eloquent and makes such an impassioned plea for wildness.  Neither does he mince words nor ideas.

I find it interesting to consider once again What is Wild?  Turner argues that it isn’t just about the preservation of ecosystems per se, but what wilderness and wildness does for the soul of people.  People need wildness.  We need it to know who we are.  “Something vast and old is vanishing”

Black grizzly

I live in a beautiful and some say remote, isolated place, right on the border of our largest Park.  Yellowstone National Park, and its surrounding region,  is the only intact ecosystem in the temperate world.   I live bordering the Shoshone National Forest, a National Forest with the most designated wilderness area in the U.S.  Many people would say that apart from Alaska, these are truly the last wild areas left.  To me it has a certain wildness; but truly it is not.

Wolves are captured, collared and sometimes killed under a ’10J’ rule; elk, deer, and sheep are carefully counted to keep track of their numbers, then hunts, seasons and quotas are established; grizzlies are either dropped off here or, if they are ‘getting into trouble’, they are captured and moved; studies are conducted constantly on habitat health for different forms of plants and wildlife; commercial logging goes on.

Elk study expedition

There are the public interests as well.  All Terrain Vehicle owners want more roads and access; ranchers move their cattle onto the public lands, want protection and reimbursement for losses, want fences built and water sources maintained; back country horsemen clear trails; hunters blaze new trails; snowmobilers need their winter access; trappers work their traplines; and in every season people shoot coyotes, ground squirrels,  badgers and other ‘varmints’.

In our National Park next door, there is no hunting, trapping, or ATV’s, but there certainly are snowmobiles and biology studies that include collaring animals.  Trails are ‘managed’ for bears to have their privacy in the spring, and for humans to be safe from bears. Aspen or White Bark Pine studies are conducted.  Fish are monitored. Even frogs are monitored.  Backpackers are assigned to specific campsites on specific days, and reservations can be made in advance. And cell towers must go up to appease tourists who complain about poor coverage.

As remote as my cabin may seem to most of my friends and visitors, it is not wild and this place is barely a direct experience of wilderness.  What makes it different is the presence of top predators, especially the Great Bear.  If it were not for the presence of grizzly bears, there would be many more people hiking these mountains, making it even less wild.  The nearby Wind River Mountains or The Big Horns are a perfect example of beautiful mountains without grizzlies that are full of people.  The Winds are considered a Wilderness area, yet sheep graze there in the summer. And although grizzlies make their way down there as it is good habitat, they are endlessly moved because it’s not part of their sanctioned ‘reintroduction area’.  The Big Horns are full of cattle and ATV’s.

Wildness is determined by the relationship between people and place…where people influence but not control it.  Here is the fine line between ‘influence’ and ‘control’.  In order to understand that difference, one must identify with one’s Place.  That takes living there, watching its order, its seasons, its needs, what a Place wants.  An attitude of service to a Place is necessary rather than exploitation for fun or profit.  If one works the land for a living, then a sensitivity must occur where the entire biotic community is taken into account along with ones’ needs.  That is not an easy task when it comes to growing food–no spraying, no rodenticides, protection from deer and bears, rabbits, and frosts.

And if all this is done properly, I still am not sure that Turner’s definition is complete for wildness.  Wildness as a relationship requires an intimacy that we no longer will know ever again.  There may be a handful, if that many, of tribes in the entire world who still know that kind of intimacy.

Intimacy with elk.  The wild herd of Yellowstone in Sunlight in Winter

Turner pleads for a new tradition of wildness. To create a wilder self, the self must live the life of the wild, mold a particular form of human character, a form of life.  Relics will not do, tourism will not do, books will not do.  He does not look to the past– Native American traditions or African bushmen or Australian aborigine knowledge.  The landscape of the past is gone.  Turner says we must consider what our new intelligence of the wild will be today, in this modern age; and then expound it through art and literature.  Although this ‘rant’ of a book might be considered pessimistic by some, it truly isn’t. Turner has hope that as the emergence of new ‘wild’ spokespeople is taking place, others will seek that wild direct experience too; and they will demand it of our culture.  Turner’s is not a lament, but a plea.  In this complex World where economics is the glue that binds all of us, it is difficult to see where wildness will win out in the end.  Even with the ‘good fight’ that takes place day to day,there is a slow (or maybe fast) erosion of places where direct contact with the wild can even occur.  I, unlike Turner, am not so optimistic.

Cub carves out his space in the forest nearby

What does a wolf den look like?

A friend of mine stumbled upon a wolf den with pups while shed hunting a month ago. The pups were about four weeks old, he said.  Apparently, his inadvertent presence caused the wolves to move their pups to another location, for although I put my trail camera on the den site.

I never saw any activity and only got this one photo of a male wolf returning to the area to investigate.

I waited a month to be sure that the pups were old enough to have left and inspected the site.  What a feat of engineering.  The den was on a hillside in a small drainage.

The den was essentially a tunnel with an entrance above and below.  My dog is 90 pounds and he was big enough to crawl inside the tunnel entrances, but too big to enter the tunnel connector.  Here he is for size at the lower entrance.

Koda for size

Although this site had been abandoned for several weeks with overgrown vegetation, it was perfectly clean inside and out.  I looked around for bones. There were some deer bones but quite a ways down hill from the den site.

Upper entrance demonstrates cleanliness

I tried to shine a light as far down as I could, but the den tunnel made a right turn downhill and exited at this bottom hole.

View of lower entrance. Upper entrance is visible directly above

The chosen site was not near an animal trail.  In fact, the trail made by the wolves going back and forth to the den was now overgrown.  Yet I caught a wide variety of animals on my camera.

Of course, the supercilious coyote appeared several times, even spending a long time peeing nearby on a log.  A young black bear ambled bye.

A blue grouse with chicks appeared;

Find her chick!

a cow elk explored the site; and a yet to be identified weasel-like animal that looks suspiciously like a wolverine–all these animals in just a few weeks visited this den site area.

How lucky we are to have such a wealth of animal life in this special place we call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Also Read:- Sacred Sites and Mountain Lions

Jackson, the GYC annual meeting, and the room to roam

Soon the snows will be upon us but last week I was lucky enough to catch the fall colors in and around Jackson.  I attended the annual Greater Yellowstone Coalition meeting, always informative and fun.  I boarded the dog (no dogs allowed on Teton trails) and left a few days early.  The conference used to be a weekend affair, but the last few years has been reduced to just one full day and evening.

Ah, the Tetons end of sept.

Traveling through Yellowstone on Tuesday, the day was hot and all the wildlife, except a few bison, were well hidden and resting.  Gros Vente campground was one of the few still open, and even about 1/3 of that was closed.  Its puzzling that the two Parks choose to close so many campgrounds as early as September when the weather usually is fairly mild through even mid-October and the visitors are still packing the area.

My friend and I took a short evening walk around the campground and the nearby Gros Vente river. Especially at this time of year, moose abound and its easy to have a sighting let alone one or two running through the campground.  A large bull with a tremendous rack was stopping traffic just a mile down the road by the river.

Tucked among the rocks and willows was a curious scientific set-up:  a microphone with a recording box set up with a solar unit.  Not sure what study they were doing but it looked suspiciously like the ‘wolf howl’ machine I’ve seen in Sunlight.  But maybe they were studying coyotes around the campground, because that night, tucked in my tent around 11pm, I heard howling and response howling really close.  In fact so close, that pretty soon I heard sniffing around the outside of my tent. I figured a coyote was smelling Koda smells (who of course wasn’t there tonight but had been inside of that tent just a few weeks prior).  It was a strange and curious incident.

The next day I took a wonderful hike up to the mouth of Death Canyon from the parking lot of the newish Rockefeller compound.

Phelps Lake, Rockefeller Preserve

About ten years ago Rockefeller donated his home to the Park with the stipulation that only a small parking area be built which would limit the amount of hikers at any one time.  There is no overflow parking.  I’ve been up the one mile hike to where Phelps Lake and the former buildings were, but never past that.  The large and beautiful lake sits at the base of Death Canyon, a steep, massive drainage that is very inviting despite its name.

Looking into Death Canyon from Phelps Lake

We hiked around the lake, up to the canyon entrance, then headed north around the base of outcropping where a waterfall cascaded down.  Huckleberries overflowed and distracted us from the hike.  We ate our fill on the way in and out.  The aspens in this area hadn’t yet begun to change.

The next day I headed up to Taggart and Bradley Lakes.  Just a tiny bit north of Phelps Lake, all the plants including the aspens were aglow in their fall beauty.  I assume there are tiny micro-climates in these various canyons and that was why just a few miles north this area was ablaze in color while Phelps was not.  The hike is a nice 6 mile loop and I made it a bit longer by continuing up towards Amphitheater Lake. Several days later I approached Amphitheater Lake from Lupine Meadows trailhead, a trail more forested with conifers–Douglas and sub-alpine firs–than aspens.

Enjoying the Taggart Lake hike in 80 degree fall weather

The GYC meeting was full of information, focusing on climate change.  Without going into all the details and speakers, you can read the final report here on climate around our area and what’s happening after all the data is analyzed.  This data comes from actual weather stations set up around our area recording climate information for the last 100 years.  As is usual with climate change information, the future for the area looks troubling at best and makes the need for corridors north/south and east/west even more important.  In fact, the keynote speaker, Doug Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way (which explores the research on Wolverines being done in Glacier National Park) called for just that kind of broader coalition between the Crown of the Continent and the Greater Yellowstone Area.  In order for these large predators to survive, they must have room to roam.  The future implores us to embrace new paradigms for the survival of so many species, from the Pika to Bighorn Sheep to Grizzly Bears and Wolverines.  We need to start thinking bigger, much bigger.  Room to roam is the very next step we need to embrace.  The Yellowstone to Yukon idea needs to mature from dream to reality in so short of time.

Can we really Re-Wild?

I just came back from New York where I picked up a few interesting books.   Two of them present similar science on our vanishing wildlife but different approaches.  End of the Wild by the late Stephen M. Meyer  who was a professor of Political Science at MIT, says it is just too late to save the biodiversity on this planet.  It is known that in the next 100 years, more than half the planet’s species will disappear.  Meyer’s says that there will still be plants and animals, but they will be the weedy species that survive more easily around humans–from dandelions to coyotes, mosquitos to corn–species that survive in human disturbed eco-systems.  His is a pessimistic view.

The other book I’m reading, Rewilding the World by Caroline Fraser is a fascinating read, presenting a more hopeful view that will take work, though.  Scientists concur that ecosystems, to remain intact, need three things–Cores, Corridors, and Canines (or translate top predators).  For instance, a Core would be Yellowstone Park; a Corridor would be the Yellowstone to Yukon project; and the Canine would be the wolf in this case.

Y2Y map

One of the most fascinating bits of research Fraser quotes that began this kind of thinking amongst scientists was a study done in 1990 by John Terborgh, a biologist who studied a stranded hilltop ‘island’ created by a new hydroelectric dam in Venezuela that flooded a valley.  As the new lake filled, the predators fled, leaving only smaller creatures behind on the islands.  I quote the book below:

After a team studied the islands, the data painted a horrific picture.  Safe from predators, howler monkeys proliferated on some islands, but they were not enjoying their freedom from fear.  Normally social animals, they were living alone, attacking one another, and killing their own infants.  By denuding trees, they caused surviving plants to protect themselves with toxins, so meals provoked vomiting.  Many plants are capable of deploying extraordinary chemical defenses against herbivory by inducing a rapid rise in levels of toxins that can repel or kill those feeding on them.  On islands with howler monkeys, the instability caused by the absence of predators and superabundance of herbivores set off a vicious chain reaction.  

On other islands, predators of left-cutter ants were absent (armadillos and army ants) and the ants ran amok, carrying everything green off to their underground nests, leaving a…thicket of impenetrable throny vines, destroying all remaining life, plant and animal.  Terborgh and colleagues reported that after a few years almost 75 percent of vertebrate species had been lost from the smaller islands without jaguars or pumas.”

Fraser’s book examines corridor projects around the world, successes and failures.  She looks at central and south America, and large projects in Africa.  Many of the African projects are of interest, not only because of the great diversity of megafauna (particularly elephants which reck havoc amongst farmlands and villages and need very large corridors) but because they are multi-national endeavors–huge corridors that cross nation boundaries. Like the Greater Yellowstone, these Peace Parks (a concept first begun with Waterton-Glacier Park) include protected cores, as well as corridors where people live.

I can’t begin to describe all the different approaches here, but certainly the corridor projects that have been the most successful involve the local communities and take into account their needs.  One of the most botched plans was Paseo Pantera in central America, where good intentions became convoluted by developers getting involved and local peoples weren’t taken into account from the start.  The project degraded into an “integrated conservation and development project”

Large animals need large corridors.

Large Corridor areas for large animals

 And there is also the ‘problem with predators’, a human problem that has been obvious in the GYE since the wolf was eliminated in the 30’s in Yellowstone, and millions of coyotes, bobcats and other predators have been routinely destroyed with tax dollars for decades due to cattle predation.

Yellowstone to Yukon is a corridor concept that has been around since 1997. Its a conservation vision to preserve our North American great animals for future generations and for the earth.  Some work is being done already, like over- and underpasses for wildlife; wildlife friendly fencing, and species reintroduction.  But to be successful, it will take people living within this corridor to be involved and share the same vision, to do their small part whether it be active shepherding their livestock or replacing their fences for pronghorn passage, or saying ‘no’ to intensive housing developments in corridor areas, or as small as bear-proof garbage cans.  People need to realize when they live or move to these areas that they are becoming involved in wildlife corridors, which have special requirements, different than city or suburb living.  And help and education needs to be given to those people, such as ranchers, affected by corridors. Solutions must be community based but with the greater vision in mind.

Fraser states ” ‘Carnivorous animals are important.  We have to stop thinking of them as passengers on this earth and start thinking of them as drivers.’ Inevitably, an ecosystem robbed of its top predators begins a remorseless process of impoverishment.”  If we are truly interested in saving the great animals of North America, from wolves to bison, elk and pronghorn to grizzly bears, we who live here must all become involved in the Vision of Y2Y, stop our regional bickering and look towards the wholistic future.

Fraser’s book presents a glimmer of hope for Rewilding.  We, as a world culture, are fighting a strong current of species loss.  It is a great fight not just for these species, but for ourselves and the future of mankind on this planet.  Meyer’s vision of a world of limited weedy human-adapted species may sound livable, but boring, and missing the richness of magnificent mammals such as tigers, elephants, and crocodiles.  But Fraser’s admonition of the howler monkey hell, a potential future with the absence of diversity and predators, is a world not worth living in.