Rainy and cool, as April often is, with new snow in the mountains. My wife Cara and I have come to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to join a group of writers, artists, and activists, many of whom we have known for years as neighbors of sorts in our shared place. Others are from as far away as Nigeria, albeit by way of Nebraska. Marking the publication of an anthology called Hearth, we gather in Paradise Valley, at Chico Hot Springs—for more than a century a regional hub—to break bread, listen, and engage in what the anthology’s subtitle terms “A Global Conversation on Community, Identity, and Place.” Each of us has burned gasoline to get here, about 130 miles’ worth in our case. That’s not counting the hundred we added driving into the park before the event, or what we’ll rack up tomorrow before returning home to Billings.
Perhaps a word is in order about how Yellowstone people conceive of home. The nature of the landscape and the patterns of human habitation, some established in prehistory, have birthed an expansive sense of place. My neighborhood encompasses mountains and watersheds on both sides of the Continental Divide. Everything between the Yellowstone Valley and the Tetons is what locals mean when we say here. My late office neighbor, a legendary scholar of western literature, was married to an equally legendary novelist who lived a hundred miles away. It worked for them, she explained.
We’ve spent this early spring day with wolves, elk, bighorn sheep, migrant cranes and ducks. Our RAV4 followed small platoons of bison trailing the melting snow into Lamar Valley, a few new calves—called “red dogs” for their russet juvenile coats—already bold enough to kick up divots of vernal mud. They’ll soon be joined by pronghorn antelope clambering across the windswept Mt. Everts scarp into the northern range, as pronghorn have for millennia. It’s all so redolent of the wildness that was, for Thoreau in less compromised days, “the preservation of the world.”
Not that the Yellowstone country is always, or even usually, serenely stable. With cataclysmic wildfires, sudden blizzards, and hail-sputtering thunderstorms echoing from granite crags and basalt canyons across parts of three states, Greater Yellowstone is big, sometimes dangerous, generally given to extremes. After all, it surrounds a supervolcano—the very word is hyperbolic. It is upheaval, earth in the making, always, like the eruption patterns of the geyser basins, changing. That’s where I live, or, to be honest, what I live near. The Beartooth Mountains, the northeast rampart of the ecosystem, loom on my everyday horizon, but it takes an hour to track the Yellowstone River, Clark’s Fork, and Rock Creek to Red Lodge, my closest gateway to the Beartooths.
Despite being armored by a full complement of protective designations—National Park, World Heritage Site, Biosphere Reserve—and beloved by millions across America and the World, Yellowstone is not impervious to the planetary disruptions of our time. The ecosystem responds to harmonies and patterns orchestrated by long frigid winters and generous if inconsistent snowfall. To fend off tree-killing beetles, for example, whitebark pines need spring and fall cold snaps—very cold but within the expected range—which grow less frequent as the seasons shift. Skeletal whitebarks, such as those along the switchbacks leading to Beartooth Pass, constitute one of the most obvious, least ambiguous, signs of climate change in the region. Experimental poet Jody Gladding, author of Translations from Bark Beetle, is not the only one channeling forest insects into a poetry of destruction. Maybe the beetles are translating us.
Almost alone on the Grand Loop Road, we have our pick of haphazardly plowed pulloffs edged by eroding snowbanks. Below our chosen vantage, sandhill cranes stride across icy sloughs like Giacometti skaters, while ducks claim patches of open water. In a couple of months, sun and snowmelt will ring these ponds with nesting cranes, waterfowl, and blackbirds, and tangle roadways with the hubbub of summer tourism. At the height of the annual invasion of visitors, Yellowstone’s wild denizens withdraw into the backcountry or endure the crowds with varying degrees of resignation and patience. Laying claim to busy park roads, they occasionally demand patience in return.
An August evening finds a stymied line of park patrons rubbernecking from sunroofs or leaning cross-armed against car doors. Though we don’t know this yet, a mile or two ahead bison sprawl across the road, spurred by the rut’s imperatives despite the clicks and whirs of cameras and phones. With traffic backed up, Cara and I might as well pull over, turn the car off, and wander around the high sage meadow veined with sedge-laced depressions. We look for animal sign. And there it is! Not tracks or scat, but the animal in the flesh, an inch-long boreal chorus frog—glistening greenish-brown with broken stripes—the only one I’ve ever seen, though I look forward to their comb-strumming calls, an anthem of resurgent life, each spring.
A summer stop at Phantom Lake in the northern range or by a placid Hayden Valley swale reveals a vibrant world of small-scale life. Seasonal by nature, many park wetlands dissipate to damp mud sometime in July or August, their resident amphibians sheltering in the reedy shade of residual pools. But since the late twentieth century, a persistent trend toward reduced snowpack and accelerated melting has been nudging evaporation just a little earlier decade by decade. And the frogs, still common enough in Yellowstone at present, will likely grow gradually rarer, may already be doing so, as they have in other parts of their range. In the current issue of Yellowstone Science, a team of researchers concludes that “The establishment of warmer, drier weather patterns would have consequences for snowpacks, wetlands, and boreal chorus frogs, profoundly changing YNP’s spring and early summer soundscape.”
The Hearth event at Chico has brought us to this slushy pulloff, but we would soon have been drawn to Yellowstone anyway, true to our own compelling if vestigial migratory impulse. Summoning another generation to the promised feast of invertebrates, small fish, and frogs, sandhill cranes call an ancient farewell to the flyway and dance in the silver light of an April afternoon. We stay with them as long as we can, till drizzle turns to steady rain with a hint of snow to come, and we, like passage birds, resume our journey.
Towering over the chorus frogs and cranes that share their summer ponds, moose are more clearly at risk, in the midst of a long decline in Yellowstone, as elsewhere. Hiking the Beartooths around Red Lodge, we sometimes encounter a cow and calf browsing new growth in an open burn. Winter is another story. During the snowy months, moose seek food and shelter in dense conifer stands. When these are lost to insects or megafires like those that torched the park in 1988, a moose might take to an ancestral trail traversing the Green River Valley to Utah’s Uinta Mountains. South, however, is an increasingly hazardous direction for moose. Cold-weather animals, they may be subject to heat stress crossing the shadeless high desert country south of Greater Yellowstone. Winter ticks, a more insidious peril, thrive through milder seasons; as many as forty thousand have been found on a single anemic calf. When ticks overwhelm a moose, the fur can thin to baldness, the afflicted animals referred to as “ghost moose.” Jackson Hole, at the south end of Greater Yellowstone, is already seeing the effects of these parasites. Recent survival rates show a counterintuitive trend—mild weather is better for ticks and thus worse for moose, the arachnids’ toll more than offsetting any gains the mammals might get from better winter forage and ease of movement during less snowbound years.
In January, we accompany our dog Luke along creekside ski/snowshoe trails in the foothills above Red Lodge, weaving through scraggly lodgepole pine and Douglas fir to Basin Creek Falls. These riparian coverts often host a wintering moose or two, and we’re alert, not wanting to either miss or surprise one. “Don’t expect her,” warns poet Lee Sharkey in “How to See Moose,” “and she may bolt from the woods / not ten feet before you.”
To encounter a creature as grand as a moose—even slumped for a midday nap by an icebound creek—is always a kind of miracle. To miss these surprisingly elusive giants is more likely than not. When they keep to themselves, as they do today, we worry about the local population, individual animals we’ve undoubtedly met before. We take solace in a scatter of fresh moose sign, and a Red Lodge regular we pass says he saw two the day before.
This year, at least, frogs will call, moose will browse the burned slopes between pine seedlings. Summer will be opulent, messy, and wonderful. People come here, people like me live here, to belong to a world big enough to inhabit without feeling as if you’re suffocating it. In our time, though, a human shadow drifts across the land like wildfire smoke, which in part it is.
That shadow is too central to our experience to ignore. Lodged like Blake’s invisible worm in the concept of pristine wilderness, nature’s end shades everything nature means to us. One of Greater Yellowstone’s most eloquent contemporary writers, Gary Ferguson, until recently a Red Lodge resident, has said that the ability to perceive oneself immersed in a larger whole is essential to psychological and cultural health. Today, however, the numinous reflects our presence like a hall of mirrors, as much a part of us as we are of it.
We’ve long understood national parks as islands rimmed by the tamed, humanized places where we spend most of our lives. For Yellowstone, this is true geographically as well as culturally. Shouldered aloft by high mountains, the plateaus that make up the park’s core lift above a sea of towns, mining claims, grazing allotments, and irrigated farmland like an unfallen Eden, a beckoning if challenging Bali Ha’i. As is true of both gardens and islands, Yellowstone is besieged by everything that is not it.
Political neglect, increasing visitation, invasive species, and encroaching development wear against the region’s littoral margins. Climate change exacerbates wildfires throughout the West, scrimming the Big Sky with a pall of smoke for days or weeks each summer, shattering the illusion that setting even an entire ecosystem aside will ensure its future. Moose, boreal chorus frogs, whitebark pine—these are already on the line in Yellowstone, and the high islands of the Rockies, as surely as ocean islands elsewhere, wash away as our human tide rises.
On the road through the northern range, we’re forced to a stop, literally being buffaloed. A herd of about a dozen bison ambles slowly but purposefully ahead of us toward Lamar Valley, led by two experienced cows. The first shoves rangy adolescents through lingering snow, nudging her oblivious wards onto the pavement where rocky ravines narrow their path. The second directs auto traffic, blocking the way until the last straggler has passed, sweeping the herd forward, then repeating the routine at the next bottleneck. These two have done this before, obviously. Dealing with humans and our tools has become, for them, second nature.
Left to their own devices, Yellowstone bison could repopulate the Great Plains. Though they can’t be expected to conceptualize, much less respond to, global disruptions like climate change, they will do their part to keep prairies healthy, watered, and fertilized for the “red dogs” to come. Tempered by a recent brush with extinction, theirs is an adaptive, mobile culture, a synergy of instinct, tradition, and the resourcefulness of wise migrant leaders for whom the practical and ethical—would it be too much to say spiritual?—are nothing more or less than intertwined responses to the same necessities.
In their introduction to the Hearth anthology, editors Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor propose that “humans, like whales and monarch butterflies, are programmed to return to, or to seek, places of refuge, nurture, and deep connection.” Like whales and butterflies, like cranes and bison, people trace ancestral paths and blaze original trails, guided by water and stars to havens sometimes continents away from where we started. Such journeys are never without peril. Even a hundred mile highway trip reveals skid marks and broken glass, remnants left behind by unfortunate travelers. If we’re lucky our wandering brings us to hearthside conversation at familiar waystations like Chico Hot Springs.
Despite its dangers, migration across the earth’s expanses has long been a common survival strategy for the planet’s creatures, ourselves included. Any attempt to traverse time, however, beats against a theoretically permeable but practically impregnable border wall of physics. Our time travel limited to the seasonal round and the inevitable forward momentum of biology, none of us escapes the era of our birth. Our troubled age is poised to strand whole nations in disappearing homelands, place itself become a kind of refugee, unhomed by climate change, resource exhaustion, the potential extinction of entire ecosystems.
This April, sun and earth once more prod cranes and bison into Yellowstone’s lush valleys. Longer days pry edges of snow and ice. Perhaps frogs are already stirring in their muddy beds, and moose may be roaming upslope from streamsides. Greater Yellowstone’s wild inhabitants glory in the planetary rhythms they depend on. Having forfeited that faith, their human neighbors light a literary hearth in a place called Paradise Valley, an apt name for all we have lost and are losing—still so close at hand, and still the only world we’ll ever know.