Yellowstone: The grizzly truth?
Wow, there's been a lot of news about the so called Yellowstone wildlife this week. First, there was a hearing on bison a couple miles down from me over on Capitol Hill. That generated a fair amount of national news and press releases, but none of that can possibly compare with the news onslaught generated by the announcement that grizzly bears in Greater Yellowstone would be de-listed entirely from the endangered species list. Even the news that the newest draft environmental impact statement on snowmobile use would be largely unchanged, much to the chagrin perhaps of a noisy group in Cody, was pretty much thoroughly buried by the grizzy announcement.
Predictably, some are for the bison, and some seem to be against. Some are for grizzly de-listing, but some aren't so sure, while others vow to fight against it. Of course, what is it that we are for or against? Are we for bison, for grizzlies, for snowmobile use, for Yellowstone, for the Earth, for ourselves, for everyone all at once, for compromise, for plus four? That's where things get murky. Some commentators, notably the ever-perceptive skyblu, have had a lot of observations to make about all the observers--or should we say cheerleaders--keeping a tally on behalf of their own side.
Take a close read of all of these fine essays just this week:
Static & Iconic Yellowstone - Friday, March 23
Watch Wolves Watch You - Thursday, March 22
Of Wolves, Bison, Elk, Iraq, & Yellowstone - Wednesday, March 21
and probably the one you should read first - Yellowstone ‘Wildlife’ - Hypocrisy Or Dilemma? - Sunday, March 18
I'm not sure what to make of all of this news, just the sense that I'm supposed to make something of it. There's a part of me that wonders whether there are in fact 500 grizzlies in Greater Yellowstone and probably should read up on the methodology used, especially since I know that some have called that methodology into question over the years. I guess I should be excited that a deal is near for a grazing allotment for bison north of Yellowstone, and that a huge allotment was announced this week near Jackson, but the truth is I'm suspicious of just about all the players involved and know that nothing changes the fundamental problem facing all wildlife in Yellowstone.
What is that problem? Well, they aren't really wild, but we continue to pretend that they are. When we realize that wildlife--and people--need more room to roam around, we simply shift the lines of the fence and the ideological divide.
Everything is cut into neat little zoning slices with clear regulations about what can and cannot happen on a parcel of land. Hey bison, you go here! Hey, grizzly, stay out of the trash! Hey, tourist, this is especially for you! Hey, Washington, D.C., transplanted nomad from Ohio, we have a blog where you can say whatever you want about Yellowstone National Park! (And, three or four people might pay attention!) Some get more of the zoning pie, some understand the zoning game a bit more, and some know how to get many kinds of things out of their plot of the earth. It's wild in a sense, if by wild one means crazy, but it's not wild as we think it is.
The reality is our photographs in Yellowstone are liars. If I were to re-paint Thomas Moran's famous canvas, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, I would have to show dozens or hundreds of people taking pictures. I would probably paint a parking lot. I would have to, just so people could understand the context, show some professional lobbyists in a bubble talking about this or that pet cause that they are cheerleading. All of the advocacy groups would need their spot, and what would we do without bloggers and grassroots activists? Let's stuff some bison, mule deer, elk, grizzly, wolves in there. Let's throw in some stocked fish; maybe they don't belong in this painting, but why not. Let's make sure people understand that Sheepeaters will still be deleted from the canvas, maybe we can paint them in and make them look erased. We can also do that for a lot of animals, many of them without huge advocacy groups, that no longer exist. Then, we should paint a big fence around it, perhaps with Governor Schweitzer or someone like that on the edges talking about minor modifications to the boundaries.
That would be my painting, but I would put it right next to the original, and then next to the most photorealistic photograph you could find. The Yellowstone we think we love is the one in the photograph, the one we thought we had seen in the painting, and the one we don't want to see but actually exists in my mess of a painting.
The Yellowstone we think of as wild with wild animals is a grand delusion; I have loved being deluded because even the deluded version of Yellowstone in reality is much better than any place I have ever been. It manages to touch me in ways that are utterly remarkable and make me forget what the grizzly truth is.
So, I can't get excited or even terribly more worked up than I already am. Do we really have any idea what a recovered grizzly population is? Do we know what a wild buffalo is like? Do we as humans have any idea how to be ourselves in this land? We have our romantic moments of inspiration, but the truth is we are so lost. The amount of information is so bewildering, the power brokers so entrenched, the zoning limits so demarcated, that we are forced into our own little world. We are forced to be Yellowstone advocates, wolf advocates, bison advocates, peace activists, or even proponents of our favorite American Idol contestant. It seems that America has spoken - Sanjaya is the most hated but not the least favored by those who use touchtone phones on Tuesday nights. But, isn't it also grizzly and relevant to mention old Luis Marti - who the hell is he?
If we aren't advocates, we are pragmatists. We believe we can make everyone relatively happy. We become advocates for compromise just so that there can be peace and quiet. Bill Clinton was a pragmatist like this, and now we see it in Montana's Governor Schweitzer. However, the pragmatists are the zone makers, those who think they can cut babies in half like Solomon to show their governing prowess. They see the field, they know the score, and they know how to please everyone by pissing off only their "radical fringe" elements. Maybe, the world has changed, and it's not possible for there to be bison habitat like there used to be, and maybe we need to play nice with livestock interests, and maybe we can find some way to have just enough snowmobiles in Yellowstone so that we all won't choke to death. Perhaps, we can also help things enough by selling off more and more to a couple big player corporations. Some call this realism.
Oh, but anyone can call themselves a realist; it's just a fancy way of saying that one is right. I use the word myself; I am a realist, too. The point is that in the crazy morass of opinions, fringe groups, pragmatists, and tame animals, I think that all of us need to step back and ask ourselves what is the essence of what we are so worked up about. What is it that we want, and why do we want it? And, once we've done that, what is being left out by the zoning decision of our desires.
Yellowstone National Park is a zone of a kind; the national forests another zone, the land around them another zone, and we all have zones where one thing is appropriate and not something else. I think that all wilderness amounts to is not building walls around our zones. Unfortunately, that's exactly what we have done. Because we have believed that we are entitled, (see the essays I wrote recently on John Locke and property, perhaps the last one most of all), we don't let bison, grizzlies, wolves, or anyone else breathe or change. Everything is controlled to the last border checkpoint, the last grizzly counted (or so they say), the last letter of the law, which guides our so called rights.
This week's news, no matter what you feel about it, suggests to me that we are all nuts. We are no closer to wilderness because there are more grizzlies or because there is a little more space for bison and elk to roam. In fact, everything is still just as hopelessly zoned as before. If anything, we are less empowered. Just because some enlightened despots in Congress opened up public hearings on bison doesn't give us any more power than the delusion of Yellowstone gives us a wild park. It feels very nice, I must admit, but we are in the same tangle. We are less empowered because we are deluded just that much more. Personally, we are hostage to this delusion, and so are all the various things we root for whether we are simply standing on the sidelines (like most of us) or actively trying to control the outcome.
Until we are forced to see the ugly truth about our world, the grizzly reality, I think we are not served well by the beautiful and stunning pictures we like to take and the myth of wilderness with which we cloak ourselves. If not, how much longer will it be before our delusion no longer even appears to be so nice? Our national parks traveler himself, Kurt Repanshek, and others before him have wondered whether the romance of our parks is starting to slip away. I think sometimes the deception (like The Matrix) can be very wonderful for a moment, but I can't believe that it is as beautiful as a world where our reality and our hopes and dreams can actually be present in the same place. In Yellowstone, we can have that reality. In our world, I think we can as well. But, there's no doubt it's going to hurt to break our habits, much as it undoubtedly did for bears to be forced into breaking theirs.
Yellowstone, I'm rooting and cheering for you. Yet, what that means is as endless a wonder as meandering through your forests.