Yellowstone Preservation A Balancing Act

Last of a five-part series.

Bison graze on high school football field. i i

Bison graze on a high school football field in Gardiner, Mont. Harsh winters in Yellowstone drive the animals to more suitable winter habitats, where they can find food. In many cases, those areas are being lost to development. Jim Peaco/National Parks Service hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Peaco/National Parks Service
Bison graze on high school football field.

Bison graze on a high school football field in Gardiner, Mont. Harsh winters in Yellowstone drive the animals to more suitable winter habitats, where they can find food. In many cases, those areas are being lost to development.

Jim Peaco/National Parks Service
Crowds stand on the boardwalks near Old Faithful Geyser. i i

Crowds stand on the boardwalk near Old Faithful Geyser. Yellowstone gets millions of visitors each year, which makes preserving the park more challenging. Liane Hansen/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Liane Hansen/NPR
Crowds stand on the boardwalks near Old Faithful Geyser.

Crowds stand on the boardwalk near Old Faithful Geyser. Yellowstone gets millions of visitors each year, which makes preserving the park more challenging.

Liane Hansen/NPR

More From The 'Soapbox'

Read more blog posts about Yellowstone.

A Series Overview

Paul Hansen, director of the Greater Yellowstone Program for The Nature Conservancy. i i

Paul Hansen, director of the Greater Yellowstone Program for The Nature Conservancy, says he's concerned about the fate of wildlife in the park. Laura Krantz/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Laura Krantz/NPR
Paul Hansen, director of the Greater Yellowstone Program for The Nature Conservancy.

Paul Hansen, director of the Greater Yellowstone Program for The Nature Conservancy, says he's concerned about the fate of wildlife in the park.

Laura Krantz/NPR

The roads in Yellowstone National Park cover only 1 percent of its acreage. They twist and turn along canyons and river beds — narrow two-lane affairs that require slow and careful driving.

The 16-mile drive from Madison Junction to Old Faithful Geyser Basin follows the curves of the Firehole River. There's not much room to pass, especially when a massive bison occupies the center of the road. An ever-growing line of cars backs up behind the shaggy beast as it meanders slowly along. What should be a 30-minute drive takes an hour and a half — but that's normal in a place where animals have the full right of way.

These creatures are some of Yellowstone's biggest attractions. Visitors snap pictures of elk and bison and, if they're lucky, catch glimpses of moose and the occasional bear. But Paul Hansen, director of the Greater Yellowstone Program for The Nature Conservancy, said he is concerned about the animals' fate.

"There's a consensus with all the natural resource professionals in the conservation community that the greatest threat to the park in the next 10 to 20 years is the loss of winter habitat," he said. "Simply put, the animals can't survive without this scarce habitat type and it's disappearing rapidly. Yellowstone can recover from fires, it can recover from a lot of things — it can't recover from permanent loss of winter habitat."

Yellowstone's wildlife and habitats are well protected within the boundaries of the park. But the winters in Yellowstone are long and cold, and the animals often migrate outside the official boundaries to more suitable seasonal homes, mainly the lower-elevation river valleys. But development is causing that habitat to rapidly disappear.

According to Hansen, only about 10 percent of the greater Yellowstone area, almost none of which is in the park, is suitable for wildlife during the winter. Of that percentage, a third is already developed and another third is slated for development. The Nature Conservancy is advocating for the last third — about 1 million acres — to be protected under some kind of conservation status. Hansen hopes that the spirit of conservation that led to the creation of the park will prevail.

"This place has inspired the best out of people since 1872," he said. "The original explorers could have claimed this for themselves and made a bunch of money off of it and instead decided that this needed to belong to all people. And in just two years, [they] convinced Congress to make this the nation's and the world's first national park."

A Loving Public

Yellowstone now has millions of visitors each year. The future of the park depends on striking a balance between preserving the ecosystem and allowing visitors to get the most they can from their time there.

Lee Whittlesey, Yellowstone's official historian, said that achieving that balance is exactly what was originally intended in creating the park.

"When the [National Park Service] was established, Congress told the rangers, 'You will conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife in the parks, and you will manage them in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for future generations,'" Whittlesey said.

Yellowstone National Park is now 136 years old. It has survived earthquakes and massive fires, like those in 1988. Paved roads have replaced stagecoach routes. Modern tourist centers grew out of the original, rustic hotels.

Despite these changes, much of the park remains as it was first established in 1872. But as more people visit and develop the land around the park, officials say, the need to preserve it will become even greater — to allow Yellowstone's rugged beauty, geologic wonders and wild animals to capture the imaginations of generations to come.

Written and produced by Laura Krantz.

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