Is Yellowstone National Park In Danger Of Being 'Loved To Death'? Each year, the park attracts millions of visitors and provides a home to countless animal species. But journalist David Quammen warns that balancing tourism and preservation can be tricky.
NPR logo

Is Yellowstone National Park In Danger Of Being 'Loved To Death'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/474658536/474721105" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Is Yellowstone National Park In Danger Of Being 'Loved To Death'?

Is Yellowstone National Park In Danger Of Being 'Loved To Death'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/474658536/474721105" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's hard to remember when you're surrounded by tall buildings or a suburban sprawl that there's still wilderness in America. Perhaps the best example is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the last unspoiled temperate ecosystems on Earth. It encompasses over 22 million acres. That includes Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and other private and public lands.

Animals that were once threatened, like grizzly bears and bison, now thrive there, and millions of people visit each year. The needs of the wild animals and the needs and safety of the visitors are often in conflict. And that's just one of the many conflicts in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The entire May issue of National Geographic is devoted to Yellowstone and the battle for the American West. The issue commemorates the centennial of the National Park Service. The text was written by my guest, David Quammen. He's a contributing writer to the magazine and is the author of 15 books including "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin," "Ebola" and "The Chimp And The River." He lives in Bozeman, Mont., not far from Yellowstone National Park.

David Quammen, welcome to FRESH AIR. I guess it isn't every day that you get to write an entire edition of a magazine?

DAVID QUAMMEN: (Laughter) No, it's not every day. It doesn't happen very often. It hasn't happened to me before. That's for sure.

GROSS: In your article, there many times you're not referring to Yellowstone National Park; you're referring to the Yellowstone Ecosystem. So what is the larger ecosystem that the park is a part of?

QUAMMEN: That's right. We call it the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is this huge body of mostly wild landscape that amounts to about 22 million acres, and it includes Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, portions of five national forests, several wildlife refuges including the national elk refuge, Bureau of Land Management land - that's federal land - private land, some big, private ranches, a portion of the Wind River Indian Reservation - all of those things, contiguous and mostly wild landscape in the area of Yellowstone Park. It's a huge amoeba within which Yellowstone Park is a rectangle that constitutes about a tenth of the total area.

GROSS: And you're calling it an ecosystem, so I imagine you see this as a very interdependent set of places.

QUAMMEN: Oh, absolutely yes. And that's one of the important points that we try and get across to people in this special issue, that it has been realized in recent decades that Yellowstone Park is not an island. It's part of this larger system, this larger body of wild landscape, and it needs the rest of this wild landscape just as the rest of the wild landscape needs it.

There are animals that are moving across boundaries - the great elk migrations, for instance, move in and out of Yellowstone National Park seasonally. Pronghorn move in and out of Grand Teton National Park. Grizzly bears move across the boundaries. All of these factors are interconnected. All of these species and processes are interconnected in this great ecosystem, and it's very important.

We argue, we think - to the American public, to American history, to modern America - that there is this huge, intact, contiguous ecosystem in the heart of the American West within which live, for instance, all of the original big predator species, all the original great carnivores - the grizzly bear, the black bear, the wolf, the mountain lion, the coyote. They're all there interacting with their prey species, interacting with the landscape. It's part of what makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so special.

GROSS: There's a lot of environmental debates that are kind of crystallized around Yellowstone National Park. And one of those debates has to do with, how do you handle the needs of the wild animals and the needs of the people who are visiting the park? The people coming to the park don't want to be mauled. At the same time, it's part of the goal of the park to have wild grizzlies there. So can you kind of crystallize that debate for us or that conflict between...

QUAMMEN: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...Having a park that's great for the animals and having a park that's great for the humans who visit the park?

QUAMMEN: Yeah. Well, it is a complicated situation. It's what I call - in the issue I call it the paradox of the cultivated wild. It's paradoxical because we're taking a place, and we're saying we want this place to continue to be wild. But in order for it to seem wild, to appear wild, to give people the experience of what the wild in the Northern Rockies is, we've got to do some tinkering. We've got to do some management. We have to have some rules and some boundaries.

And that goes back to the beginning, the founding of Yellowstone National Park back in 1872. It was founded originally because it was a great tourist destination for people who wanted to see geysers and canyons. And then gradually we realized that part of the importance of this place was as a great wildlife refuge.

So how do you manage the wildlife in a way that people can enjoy them, people can appreciate seeing them, people can feel safe visiting this place and yet the wildlife can be, to some degree in some sense, wild? It's very tricky. It's tricky for the bison. It's tricky for grizzly bear. It's tricky for a number of different species. And we could march through them, but I try and touch on that in the issue, the way these problems of managing the wild create complicated dilemmas for the managers.

GROSS: Well, let's look at grizzly bears. I mean, they're really an object of fascination, I think, for most people. What makes grizzly bears extraordinary?

QUAMMEN: Well, they are the largest, most ferocious, most magnificent carnivore in North America. They lived throughout the Western U.S. a hundred years ago and before. And now because they are so ferocious and so uncompromising and so magnificent and needy in terms of privacy and space and prey, they have disappeared throughout the American West and exist only in a very few places.

Glacier National Park - there's a population of grizzly bear up on the Canadian - the Montana-Canadian border. A few places in the northern Pacific Northwest, there are a few grizzlies. And in Yellowstone, there's this big population of grizzlies because there is so much habitat, there is so much space.

They were nearly eradicated from Yellowstone back in the late '60s, early '70s. The population for reasons I can't explain went down to about 140 or fewer grizzly bears. They were put on the endangered species list as threatened in 1975, and gradually the population has been brought back by careful management of the causes of grizzly bear mortality. So now there are more than 700 in the ecosystem.

GROSS: There was a period where the bears were feeding on garbage dumps with, like, human garbage - you know, leftovers from the campfire, from dinner - and that became, like, the steady diet of a lot of grizzly bears.

QUAMMEN: That's right.

GROSS: And it also made them into a big tourist attraction 'cause you could go to the dump and see the bears. But that didn't work out well for anybody. Would you tell that story?

QUAMMEN: Yes. And that goes back to the early 20th century. There was a very important superintendent of Yellowstone, a man who was involved in the founding of the National Park Service itself, Horace Albright. And he became superintendent which is the boss of Yellowstone Park in 1919 - from 1919 to 1929. Later, he was director of the park service itself.

But during that period, Albright embraced the idea that in order for the national parks - and Yellowstone in particular - to have support from the American people and from politicians, there needed to be wildlife as spectacle. And for wildlife to be available as spectacle, Horace Albright said wildlife needs to be abundant and tame. And so he sanctioned the idea that grizzly bears would be fed handouts from cars and would be allowed to eat garbage - human - essentially human food garbage from the various hotels within Yellowstone National Park.

So there were these dumps near the big hotels at the lake and at Old Faithful and elsewhere in Yellowstone National Park. And the food garbage each day was put out there on these dumps and the grizzly bears were allowed - invited, essentially - to come and feed at the dumps.

At a certain point, they decided this is great. This is the bear show, and they put up stands like bleachers around these natural amphitheaters at the dump site, so people would go out in the 1940s, the 1950s, even in the 1960s. You might finish your dinner at one of the hotels in Yellowstone and then you'd say, let's go look at the bear show. And you would go out to the dump and you'd sit in bleachers and you would watch 12, 15, 18 grizzly bears - adult, dangerous, male, females with cubs, grizzly bears - feeding on garbage.

And then eventually in the 1960s, ideas changed. There was a very important report commissioned by the Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall called the Leopold report in 1963 that advocated a shift toward what came to be known as more natural regulation.

And one consequence of that was a shift in the ideas that - about the dumps, and it was decided that these dumps should be closed. And that it was unseemly. It was unnatural. It was not right for people to watch grizzly bears eating garbage. So the dumps should be closed.

They were closed in the late '60s and early '70s, and then the grizzly bears were desperate for a few years, searching for substitutes for all of this high calorie human garbage that they had been eating.

GROSS: They were used to things like hamburgers and stuff, like leftover hamburgers?

QUAMMEN: Yeah, hamburgers...

GROSS: And now they had to forage and they didn't really know how?

QUAMMEN: That's right. Now, grizzlies are omnivores.

GROSS: Or hunt - I guess - yeah, forage and hunt, right.

QUAMMEN: They're hunter-gatherers. They're omnivores. They eat a lot of vegetable, plant foods. They eat various kinds of insects. They eat earthworms. They eat tubers of wildflowers. They eat fish when they can get fish. And they eat meat when they can get meat. They eat elk calves. They eat winter-kill bison, bison carcasses left over from the winter. They eat virtually everything, very diverse diets.

But they scramble to get the calories that they need from a limited number of high-caloric foods. And garbage had been one of those until the early '70s, and suddenly it was gone. And this was a crisis for the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

GROSS: So how did it change human and grizzly interactions?

QUAMMEN: Well, it made it more dangerous for everybody. Closing the dumps brought on this crisis and made things more dangerous. So in the years following the closure of the last dump, there was high mortality of grizzly bears. Why? Because they were frantic, as I said in the geographic piece, they were dazed and confused and desperate and hungry.

And so they came into campgrounds more. They tried to take food off of picnic tables. They tried to take food out of tents. They went places where they shouldn't go and did things that they shouldn't do. And they got in trouble. And quite a number of them got killed, and some people got hurt, too.

And so in 1975, the grizzly bear was put on, as I said - on the endangered species list as threatened. And new measures were taken, for instance, bear-proofing garbage, creating new regulations to - essentially to try and keep people and people's food away from the bears, let the bears adjust to eating the abundant wild food that's available in Yellowstone and allow them to be more wild, to be independent of humans as sources of foods for the good of both sides. And that has been quite successful.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? If you're just joining us, my guest is David Quammen. He wrote all the text for the May edition of National Geographic. It's a special edition devoted to Yellowstone National Park on this centennial of the National Park Service. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer David Quammen. And he wrote the text for the May edition of the National Geographic, which is a special edition in celebration of the National Park Service's centennial anniversary. And the edition is devoted to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone National Park.

There's a picture in the National Geographic of a cattleman and conservationist who lives, I think, just outside Yellowstone National Park. And he was mauled by a bear. And you see his face, which has had several surgical reconstructions. You can see that his face has been reconstructed, and you wonder, of course, looking at the picture, what it looked like before the reconstructions. He's probably very lucky he survived. What happens to a bear that mauls somebody if that bear can be identified?

QUAMMEN: This is a very controversial and very difficult issue. Yeah, when bears get in trouble, when they attack people, when they maul somebody, if they kill somebody, then a decision has to be made. The decision is not always that that bear has to be taken out of the population, by which they mean killed, executed. I don't like to use the term euthanized because it's not really euthanasia. Euthanasia implies putting some creature out of its miseries.

This is different. This is killing an animal because of something that it has done, not because it's suffering. That is not always done if a grizzly mauls a human. But if a particular grizzly is implicated in repeated, seemingly unprovoked attacks on humans, suggesting that that grizzly has come to associate humans with food and think of them as prey, then that bear is taken out of the population. That bear is killed. And that happened just last summer. There was a fellow named Lance Crosby.

Lance Crosby was attacked and killed by a female with two cubs. His body was partially eaten, and it was cached. It was stowed by the bear, suggesting that she planned to come back and eat on it further. For a variety of reasons, the bear managers of Yellowstone and the superintendent decided that this particular bear would need to be killed because she represented a continuing threat to humans. They had particular evidence for that. And so she was taken out of the population. She was killed.

And her cubs were sent, as I recall, to zoos. That doesn't always happen. There have been cases when a bear has killed a person and has been allowed to live because it seemed as though it was just a very unfortunate situation when a bear and a human ran into each other accidentally and the bear killed the person. This happened in 2013. That bear, in that case, seems to have killed a second person in the same summer. And so that bear was taken out of the population. The bear managers in Yellowstone are reluctant to do that. But if they feel there is a continuing danger to the public, then they feel they have no alternative but to do that. They don't like killing bears. But it happens occasionally.

GROSS: Have you had any dangerous encounters with wild animals in Yellowstone?

QUAMMEN: I have - not recently. But I can remember an occasion when I was out hiking with three other fellows. This was in May, early in the year. The grizzlies were just out of their dens. That means they're hungry, and they're looking for food - looking for carcasses. And we went out hiking to certain parts of Yellowstone to see how many grizzlies - how many bears generally, grizzlies or black bears - we could find that day.

And one of the fellows with me was my friend Lance Craighead of the famous Craighead brothers - John and Frank Craighead. His uncle and his father had done a landmark study of grizzly bears in Yellowstone. So I'm out with with Lance. And we're hiking. And we come to the top of a butte. Lance is a few steps ahead. And suddenly he turns around, and his eyes go wide. And he motions for us to back up. And so we start backing up quietly. And we look ahead, and about - oh, about 50 yards in front of Lance, there's a female grizzly with three cubs standing there not very far from us.

And Lance is saying, quick, stay together. Back off. Stay calm. So we stayed together. And then Lance - and I've asked him if I could tell this story, and he said yes. Then Lance says, who's got bear spray? And I had bear spray. So I pulled out my bear spray, and I uncapped it. And I got ready to use it if I needed to as we backed away from this sow grizzly. But the thought went through my mind, now, wait a minute. My name is not Craighead. You're the Craighead here. You're the guy who comes from a family of bear experts. How come I'm the only guy with bear spray?

GROSS: (Laughter).

QUAMMEN: This is about a dozen years ago. I'm sure Lance always carries bear spray in the park now. But we backed off. And the female turned. She seemed to perceive us. She either saw us or she smelled us. She put her front legs up on a rock and was looking around. And she was essentially making a decision.

And the decision for a grizzly female is always fight or flight to protect her cubs. And she made the wise decision. And she peeled off and ran off this butte in the other direction. And her cubs went with her. And we all breathed a sigh of relief.

GROSS: What's in the bear spray?

QUAMMEN: Pepper - capsaicin pepper aerosoloized - so when you spray it, it's like, you know, it's like tear-gassing a bear. You don't spray it on your own body, by the way. You spray it toward the bear.

GROSS: Right, kind of like macing the bear.

QUAMMEN: You mace the bear. And it works. It has been shown to be the best possible way of avoiding a disastrous outcome when a human, by accident, runs into a grizzly bear.

GROSS: My guest is David Quammen. He wrote National Geographic's special May issue, "Yellowstone And The Battle For The American West," which commemorates the centennial of the National Park Service. After we take a short break, we'll talk more about the relationship between people and wild animals in parks. And he'll tell us about a terrifying example he witnessed of what can go wrong. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Quammen. He wrote the text for National Geographic's May issue - "Yellowstone And The Battle For The American West." This special issue commemorating the centennial of the National Park Service is dedicated to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, over 22 million acres that include Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and other public and private lands. Quammen writes about some of the conflicts within Yellowstone, like the conflicting needs of the wild animals and the people who visit the park or live on land adjoining it.

So we were talking about grizzly bears and the dilemmas that the National Park Service faces about how to deal with grizzlies and how to prevent people from being eaten by grizzlies (laughter). Let's talk about the elk. There's a problem that the National Park Service has in dealing with the elk. The elk go through migrations, but part of their migratory patterns are blocked. What's blocking them?

QUAMMEN: Private land development threatens to block more and more of their migrations. Elk don't respect linear boundaries drawn on a map. The elk of Yellowstone National Park spend their summers in the high country of Yellowstone feeding on the high grasses that remain green through the summer.

But in the winter, those high places become brutally cold. And so the elk move down - they move down to what we call winter range. They move down off the Yellowstone Plateau, where Yellowstone Park is, to lower elevations in the surrounding lands onto national forests, and in some cases onto large private ranches. They have to go down to find places where they can survive and eat during the hard months of the Montana, Wyoming, Idaho winter.

Now, there are biologists that I talked to in the course of researching this issue who told me, you know, there a lot of problems facing the Yellowstone ecosystem. But the one most crucial problem, if you're going to point to one, is private lands development. It's not hunting; it's not even climate change, which is an issue. These are all tangled together.

But private lands development around the periphery of the parks - Grand Teton and Yellowstone - is a crucial issue because if those private lands are transformed from open pastures, meadow, forest land to suburbs to little ranchettes to shopping malls to roads to Starbucks - if those places are all settled for the benefit of humans, then the elk are not going to be able to migrate in and out of Yellowstone Park anymore. can't And if the elk migrate into the park, then that creates problems for the wolves, for the grizzlies, for a lot of other creatures. These things all fit together. The elk are the most abundant large herbivores in the Yellowstone ecosystem. There are thousands and thousands of them. They migrate in and out. And those migration routes need to stay open.

GROSS: So one of the paradoxes here is that people who love the wildlife and the natural beauty of Yellowstone and want to live really close to it also risk being part of the problem in terms of interrupting the migratory routes for the elk.

QUAMMEN: That's absolutely right. There are ways in which Yellowstone is in danger of being loved to death - essentially two ways. One of them is that visitor ship is going up - 4 million visits to Yellowstone National Park last year. And most of those people come and bring their private automobiles. That's becoming a problem.

But even more of a problem is the question of private lands development. People visiting the West, visiting Wyoming, Montana, coming to Yellowstone, saying boy, I like this. I'm going to buy a second home here. I'm going to retire here, and wanting a piece of this wild landscape. So people come, and it's very understandable. But it has corrosive implications.

There's one very crotchety and wonderful and knowledgeable mountain backcountry guide named Wes Livingston out of Cody, Wyo. And Wes told me that - well, when he runs into these well-meaning conservationists, environmentalists, wealthy people who have moved to this area and they tell him all of their conservation concerns, Wes says well - I tell them if you really want to do something to help wildlife, burn your house down and go back to California.

GROSS: Yeah, I love that quote. It's very funny. There are animals that were going extinct, like the bison, for instance. But through human intervention, they've repopulated. And you talk a little bit in your essays about how some of the animals are, like, beautiful and wild and, you know, symbols of the American West in the park are perceived as pests once they get outside the park and end up on, say, cattle land. Can you talk about that conflict?

QUAMMEN: Yes. And the bison are a particular case in point of that situation. Bison, as we all know, were massacred, were slaughtered at the end of the 19th century to the point that we almost extinguished this incredibly abundant animal the way we succeeded in extinguishing the passenger pigeon. But the bison - not quite - we didn't kill every last one. There were a few private herds in the late 19th century.

And there was a group of about 20 bison that survived in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park in a place called the Pelican Valley. The park took it on itself to rescue the bison. At one point, there was even something called the Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley, the northeastern corner of Yellowstone Park, where bison were being ranched by the National Park Service. In the winter, they were brought into corrals, and they were fed hay to help them get through the winter.

And then in the summer, the corrals were open and the bison ranged freely across the Yellowstone landscape again. Additional bison were brought in and added to those 20. So the Yellowstone herd was rescued. Now there are thousands of bison in Yellowstone. Some people say there are way too many.

They, like the elk, tend to come down out of the Highlands in the winter looking for winter range, looking for grass to eat. And so they come flowing across the boundaries out of Yellowstone generally into Montana. And they get into people's pastures, and they get into people's yards. And that's a little bit inconvenient. And some of the people claim that it's dangerous to have a bison in your front yard.

Bison now carry a disease called brucellosis - bacterial disease that was originally a European cattle disease, was brought in by cattle. It was passed to bison. Many of the bison in Yellowstone now test positive for this disease. Its significance is that in cattle, it causes the abortion of calves, therefore it's of financial significance to the cattle industry. It's a big problem to the cattle industry to have this in your cattle. The Montana Livestock Department is very wary of this disease and therefore very wary of Yellowstone's bison. So the state of Montana decided that bison in Montana could no longer be considered wildlife. They are considered livestock. And when they late come out of Yellowstone Park, they are unwelcome in the state of Montana. So they are rounded up and shipped to slaughter.

GROSS: You've been to African safari parks.

QUAMMEN: Yes.

GROSS: What's the difference between how visitors are treated at the American national parks like Yellowstone versus the African safari parks when it comes to seeing or interacting with wild animals?

QUAMMEN: Right. Well, we have retained in this country, in Yellowstone Park and other places, the idea that people should be free to walk around amidst these animals, amidst even these big predators. In Africa, as you say, it's very different.

If you're Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya, if you're in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, you don't get out of your vehicle and go walking around amid the lions and the leopards. You stay in your Land Rover. You stay in your safari van, and you look out the windows or you look out the pop top at these animals.

I know by experience how badly that can work out if you violate those guidelines. I've been out on foot with an elephant researcher in northern Kenya. And we got charged by an elephant because we were hiking in a place where we probably shouldn't have been. And we ran and were chased. And he was picked up and thrown by this female elephant and nearly killed.

GROSS: Wow, I feel like I've only seen that in the movies. And I've seen that - when I was growing up, I saw that in a lot of movies. That really happened.

QUAMMEN: That happened. A fellow named Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a famous elephant researcher. And I was doing a story on him. And at one point, he said at the end of a day shall we go out for a game drive, meaning should we drive around and look at some animals? And I said we could we please go for a walk?

And so he and I and a Samburu African young man working as an employee of his camp - the three of us went out and started walking. And this female elephant, this big cow elephant saw us. She had a calf, and she threw out her ears and bugled and charged. And we started running.

And then Iain stopped, threw out his arms, hollered (imitating shouting) and waved his hands because this had worked in the past, stopping an elephant charge - didn't work with her. She kept coming. So now he turned around and started running again. Now I have the advantage. I'm 20 yards ahead of him. And I run around a big acacia bush and stop and look. And Iain runs around the big acacia bush and the elephant runs around the big acacia bush and she catches up with him, picks him up with her trunk.

I hear him say in a sort of calm declarative voice help. She throws him through the air. He lands in tall grass. She takes about three steps forward and jams her tusks into the dirt right where he is. And I'm standing 50 feet away thinking oh, my God. I've just gotten Iain Douglas-Hamilton killed.

She backs off. I go running up and his glasses are broken. His sandals are gone. His watch is gone. And there are two tusk holes in the clay where he was. She either missed him to the side or she went one Tusk on each side of his body. And he didn't have a scratch on him. And so we got out of there quickly.

GROSS: Oh, my gosh, what a harrowing story. You must have felt so responsible.

QUAMMEN: I did. I thought I've made a really bad mistake. I pushed him to bend the we rules, and we walked in a place where we shouldn't have walked. And we nearly paid - he nearly paid dearly for it. We walked back into his camp then and said shall we have tea?

GROSS: (Laughter) So this a great illustration of the difference between the African safari parks and American National Parks - theoretically, you should've been...

QUAMMEN: That's right.

GROSS: ...In a car there, where in America it's perfectly acceptable to walk around even though you can get mauled...

QUAMMEN: That's right.

GROSS: ...By a bear. But...

QUAMMEN: You can hike into the Yellowstone backcountry. You can camp in the Yellowstone backcountry. You can take food into the Yellowstone backcountry, and you're surrounded by grizzly bears. And it's - it's a very, very thrilling, peculiar situation. Every sound that you hear in the night, you wonder is this a grizzly bear coming to tear into my tent?

You do things - you do sensible things to protect yourself. You hoist your food up into a tree with a rope. You camp - you sleep somewhere a hundred yards away from where you've hoisted your food. You eat nonaromatic food. You have bear spray beside you at every moment. And there's still no guarantee.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Quammen. And he wrote the text for the new special edition of National Geographic celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service, focusing on the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone National Park. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer David Quammen, who's written extensively about the natural world and about Darwin and about evolution and about animals and viruses. And he wrote the text for the new special National Geographic issue commemorating the centennial of the National Park Service, focusing on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone National Park.

Let's talk a little bit about just, like, the geography of Yellowstone. I mean, about a third of it sits over an active volcano. So that's not going to erupt anytime in the immediate future is it?

QUAMMEN: We hope not. It has exploded in three huge explosions over the last 2.1 million years, creating these big basins that they call the calderas. One of them is known as the Yellowstone Caldera. It occupies a good portion of the central part of Yellowstone National Park.

It is still an active - they call it a supervolcano. It's this hotspot underneath the continental plate burning its way through the continental plate. To understand why Yellowstone is wild, why it's remote, why it's high, why it's cold, why it was never settled in the early days of European settlement in the West - to understand all that, you have to understand the volcanic forces and sources of heat underneath it. And it's this supervolcano, this hotspot that is pushing magma - molten and semi-molten rock and heat - upward creating the Yellowstone Plateau.

GROSS: Now, America's most famous geyser, Old Faithful, is a result of this volcano right?

QUAMMEN: It is. There are a number of geysers, a huge number - I think 10,000 hydrothermal features of various different sorts of which Old Faithful is the most famous, the iconic image of Yellowstone.

And that's because this volcanic hotspot is heating the waters underneath, and those waters are pushing upward in the form of steam and pressurized water. And they break through cracks in the surface of Yellowstone, in the geyser basins and certain other parts of Yellowstone. And some of them erupt as geysers regularly. Some of them erupt irregularly.

So when the early explorers - the early white European explorers - came to Yellowstone, the first thing that caught their attention was not the wildlife; it was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and all of these geysers, all of these springs full of colorful, bubbling liquid mud, a good place to hang out if you were very cold in the middle of the winter.

But it had a reputation as being spooky. But it was the geysers, the thermal features and the canyon that caused Yellowstone National Park to be created back in 1872. It wasn't even thought of as a wildlife refuge in those days.

GROSS: What was it thought of as? Just as a place to see weird volcanic effects?

QUAMMEN: Yeah, it was thought of as a great tourist attraction. Yellowstone, as I say, is a big idea that has gotten bigger, a good idea that's gotten better. But it's, I think, important to understand the history of Yellowstone, that it wasn't always this great idea.

It began as a very commercial idea. The original impetus for creating the national park came largely from minions of the Northern Pacific Railroad who wanted to sell train tickets and hotel rooms to tourists who fancied coming out to see these canyons and geysers.

With Yellowstone, it was decided that this should remain a public place so that people could come - albeit you would be paying the Northern Pacific Railroad to bring you out and you would be paying a hotel operator to let you stay there - but people could come out and essentially for free they could see America's greatest, most majestic landscapes in the West. And so it was decided that this would be a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

GROSS: As you say, it was created for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, but the emphasis was on white people. For instance, Native Americans had a relationship with that land. What was their relationship to the land and how did the creation of Yellowstone Park change that relationship?

QUAMMEN: Because Yellowstone Park was atop the the Yellowstone Plateau - very high, 9,000 feet much of it - it was not a place where Native American people had tended to spend time year-round. It was not a good, comfortable place - not a sensible place - to spend the winter.

So Native American people from various tribes in the region - the Sheepeater, the Shoshone, the Crow, the Blackfeet, others - they had long histories of using Yellowstone Park seasonally. These were nomadic people, and it was routine for them to move from one place to another looking for game, looking for resources, looking for comfortable places to spend the different seasons.

And so absolutely they did have a presence in Yellowstone. It just wasn't a permanent, occupational presence. But when the park was created in 1872, they were not part of the equation. It was, as I said, created for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. But the founders in Congress back in Washington were not thinking about Native American people when they said that.

GROSS: Well, David, congratulations on this National Geographic issue, and thank you so much for talking with us.

QUAMMEN: Thank you, Terry. Great to talk with you.

GROSS: David Quammen wrote the text for the May issue of National Geographic devoted to Yellowstone and the battle for the American West. This special issue commemorates the centennial of the National Park Service. We have a slideshow of photos from the issue on our website, freshair.npr.org.

After we take a short break, our rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by Peter Wolf, who's best known for his work as the lead singer of the J. Geils Band. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.