Old Faithful erupting. Yellowstone National Park. Photo George Wuerthner

Yellowstone National Park was established 150 years ago in 1872. The park’s creation marked a significant departure from public land policies of the time. Instead of promoting settlement, mining, logging, ranching, or other development, the park was designated to protect natural features like thermal features.

Yellowstone was also set aside to protect all citizens’ public access, an act of democracy. In the post-Civil War era, where the country fought a fierce battle about civil rights for all citizens, Yellowstone was open to entry by all Americans. It was a significant step toward recognizing that all people had certain “inalienable rights,” including access to natural landscapes. In retrospect, Yellowstone also became a place where the “inalienable rights” of non-humans are considered and given protection.

In recognition of its significance to planetary heritage, Yellowstone is a designated World Heritage Site and International Biological Reserve. But whether these attributes will continue to function is questionable unless we recognize that Yellowstone’s boundaries are insufficient to preserve its ecological integrity into the future.

One of the lessons we have learned from studies around the globe is that parks and wildland reserves if appropriately funded, and large enough are the best conservation strategy for protecting biodiversity. We know from Island Biogeography principles that species residing on larger “islands” of habitat are less likely to suffer inbreeding or go extinct.

It may be time to consider expanding Yellowstone to incorporate much of the surrounding public land under one agency– the National Park Service.

From its inception, park advocates recognized the legislatively created boundaries to Yellowstone Park were inadequate to protect all the wildlife and other natural values.

In the 1880s, General Philip Sheridan advocated the expansion of Yellowstone to the east and south to protect migrating wildlife like elk and bison that, in winter, sought out lower elevation lands. Today we recognize that animal migrate from Yellowstone to other public and private lands outside of the park.

Elk antler in North Absaroka Wilderness, Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming.  The creation of the Yellowstone Forest Reserve (what is now the Shoshone NF) in 1891  was in recognition that elk migrated beyond the park’s boundaries. Photo George Wuerthner 

When he was president of the Boone and Crockett Club, the future President Teddy Roosevelt also championed the expansion of Yellowstone. These efforts led to the creation in 1891 of the Yellowstone Forest Reserve, the first forest reserve (forerunners of today’s national forests). In addition, other national forests were created to surround Yellowstone and provide protection from excessive resource exploitation and prohibitions against settlement.

 

Yellowstone Park (dark green) is the center of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

By the 1970s, it was apparent that as well-intended as the creation of national forests and other public land designations (like wildlife refuges) were towards protecting the natural values of the Yellowstone region, they were inadequate to the challenge of growing development pressures. Biologists Frank and John Craighead, studying grizzly bears in the park, noted that many bears wander beyond the protective borders of Yellowstone. They began to refer to the larger landscape as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Conservationist Rick Reese further developed this broader concept when he published a book with that title.

An analysis by myself and several colleagues identified the most threatened biological hot spots of the ecosystem– all of them were outside Yellowstone Park.

However well-intended the idea of a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was in terms of getting people to think about more extensive conservation efforts, in reality, it has not changed the management of public lands outside of the park.

Wolves are killed when they wander outside of the protected lands of Yellowstone. Photo George Wuerthner

Wolves and other predators are regularly killed beyond Yellowstone’s borders. Bison are slaughtered by hunters when they wander from the park. Forests are roaded and logged for “forest health” or “fuel reduction. Increasing recreation, especially from mechanical vehicles from mountain bikes to more powerful snowmobiles, are shrinking the security areas for wildlife. Livestock on national forest and BLM lands outside the park are grazed in critical winter ranges, consume forage that would support native herbivores, and trample riparian areas. New mines are occasionally proposed that can threaten watersheds with pollution. Wildlife migration corridors are compromised by new subdivisions.

Conservationists are continuously fighting these resource extraction proposals and their impacts on the wildlife outside the park boundaries. Perhaps it’s time to consider expanding Yellowstone’s boundaries to terminate this endless rear guard action to preserve Greater Yellowstone’s ecological integrity.

With the Biden administration’s goal of protecting 30 percent of the American landscape by 2030, a positive vision and contribution to this goal would be to expand Yellowstone National Park to include much of what we call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In effect, we should have a Greater Yellowstone National Park.

While some bemoan that Yellowstone is being “loved to death” most of this criticism is based on social, not ecological views. Most of all human use is concentrated on 1% of the park landscape accessible to vehicles and occupied by lodges.

Sometimes you can’t find a parking space at Old Faithful, or you might be stuck in a bison jam for a long time. However, most of the park (about 99%) is essentially managed as wilderness, with limited human intrusions. There are few places in the United States with such large areas under such strict management.

In truth, Yellowstone is some of the best protected landscape in the lower 48 states even with millions of visitors.

Most of the park (about 99%) is essentially managed as wilderness, with limited human intrusions. There are few places in the United States with such large areas under strict management.

Yellowstone still is home to every species of wildlife that existed at the time of its establishment and, in some cases, has been the focus of species recovery, such as the reintroduction of wolves, emphasis on native fish restoration, and greater protection for grizzly bears.

A significant amount of Yellowstone Park is seasonsally closed to human use as Bear Management Units to provide bears and other wildlfie relief from human intrusion. 

Part of the rationale for this concerns the agency’s mission. The Park Service is generally inclined towards the protection of natural values. An example of this policy is the Bear Management Units within the park that are closed to human entry to protect grizzly bears, the limit of backcountry camping to specific sites to reduce impacts, the strict enforcement of food storage in campgrounds, and the hardening (i.e., paved pathways) of heavily used areas like the Old Faithful geyser basin.

Cattle grazing riparian area on the Bridger Teton National Forest. Photo George Wuerthner

Of course, there is no livestock grazing, logging, hunting, trapping, and mechanical intrusions in the backcountry. As a result, compared to even large wilderness areas, Yellowstone is–ecologically speaking– one of the most protected ecosystems outside of Alaska in the United States. For instance, 21 wolves from Yellowstone National Park packs were killed this past year, mostly within designated wilderness adjacent to the park where hunting and trapping is permitted.

A Greater Yellowstone National Park could counter some of the numerous threats, gradually diminishing the ecological integrity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The current park boundaries should be expanded to include most of the adjacent national forests, including the lands part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. For instance, the borders would be expanded to include the Upper Green River, Gros Vente Range, Mount Leidy Highlands, Absaroka Mountains, Beartooth Mountains, Gallatin Range, Madison Range, west slope of the Teton, Palisades, Centennial Valley, and so forth.

Roadless lands such as the Palisades near Jackson, Wyoming if incorporated into a Greater Yellowstone National Park would receive a wilderness designation overlay. Photo George Wuerthner

All roadless lands not currently within a designated wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act would be covered with a wilderness overlay, including the 99% of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks that currently lack wilderness designation.

Recent logging in the Gallatin Range of the Custer Gallatin National Forest by Bozeman, Montana allengely to reduce wildfire spread. Photo George Wuerthner

Extractive uses like livestock grazing, logging, oil and gas, mining, and other activities compromising the landscape’s ecological function would be prohibited. Grazing permit buyouts would be used to remove livestock grazing from the landscape. Recovery areas with an extensive logging road system like the Targhee National Forest adjacent to Yellowstone could be restored. Some of the lands could be designated as National Preserves as exists in Alaska and elsewhere to permit limited but strictly controlled hunting as currently in Grand Teton National Park.

Communities and private lands within the boundaries of the expanded national park would be encouraged to follow the land use model we find in places like New York’s Adirondack State Park and be provided with the financial funds to implement such planning and enforcement. In addition, funding to acquire private lands with critical habitat would be available.

The Path of the Pronghorn celebrates the annual migration of pronghorn from Jackson Hole over to the Green River and out to the Red Desert, one of the longest intact migrations in the lower 48 states. The path is increasingly blocked by oil and gas development and subdivisions by Pinedale, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner

The creation of a Greater Yellowstone National Park would preserve under National Park Service protection the region’s wild and scenic waters, help to maintain migration corridors such as the Path of the Pronghorn in Wyoming, expand the areas where native species have priority in the landscape, such as bison migration on to other public lands, and put protection of biological hot spot.

In addition, Park expansion by eliminating oil and gas development, logging and livestock grazing on adjacent public lands would increase carbon sequestration.

A Greater Yellowstone National Park would likely encompass 20 million acres or more (about the size of the state of Maine) depending on the exact boundaries and would easily be one of the largest temperate ecosystems preserves in the world. Such a large preserve would be our best protection against species extinction due to climate change. In addition, it would ensure that biodiversity and ecosystem function have their best chance of being maintained into the future.

If a Greater Yellowstone National Park were combined with the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) which would protect much of the rest of the northern Rockies region as designated wilderness, the United States could go a long ways towards ensuring the long term ecological health of the Northern Rockies.

A Greater Yellowstone National Park would continue the park’s reputation as a model for ecosystem integrity and protection and its role as part the planet’s global heritage.

 
About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

23 Responses to A Greater Yellowstone National Park Proposal

  1. Michael Kellett says:

    Many people have heard about — and are outraged by — the slaughter or other human-caused deaths of Yellowstone wolves, bison, and other wildlife when they leave the park. Few people realize that most of these animals are being killed on national forest and BLM lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which they also own.

    A campaign to incorporate these public lands in an expanded Yellowstone National Park would help raise public awareness of these issues and build support for giving strong national park and wilderness protection to most of the ecosystem. Engaging the broad public in this issue can override entrenched special interests that now dominate land management outside the national park.

    With this one solution, we could greatly reduce the wildlife slaughter, phase out publicly subsidized public land grazing, halt destructive logging, and highlight spectacular new parklands to help spread public recreation over a much larger area.

  2. Pamela W says:

    I am thrilled by this idea! I hope it gains traction.

  3. Michael Anthony says:

    Its been YEARS awaiting this concept and REALLY don’t feel there will be interest from the agencies to approve such an idea….. sadly.

    Virus related issues, the Congress is broken and the Senate is just corrupt, greedy, and an array of legislatures not interested in the health of the greater Yellowstone Park System. I do agree with the comment above!!!!! The problem with all these issues is PEOPLE mostly on the EAST coast don’t even know about these problems and suggested solutions. It would take several million

  4. Johns David says:

    Yes, expand the park. Wildlife needs more space. While humans steal habitat from other species and bicker over which group of humans owns the land and water, the Earth continues to be degraded. The debate over political correctness gets very tiresome. It’s time for conservationists to stand up for wildlife–humans are only one species among millions and not the center of the universe.

  5. Beeline says:

    George mentions that in the post civil war era “Yellowstone was open to entry by all citizens.” Well not quite. Not if you were an indigenous American. I guess you could say that technically Indians were not really citizens but you get my drift. If an Indian got off the ‘rez’ you were taken back,or put in prison or maybe shot or hung. I do not think Phil Sheridan had Indigenous folks in mind when he went to bat for Yellowstone.

    On to the Department of Interior or perhaps “Inferior”. The attitude of Interior bureaus and services is not exactly reassuring. Here is an excerpt from the BLM’s website about “Three Peaks Disc Golf”. It is an 8,442 foot course with a 62 throw par.

    “This high desert course features rugged terrain and scenic views, unique granite rock formation, pinyon trees, juniper trees and sage brush litter the landscape providing challenging obstacles”. Interesting attitude isn’t it. Natural species of vegetation “LITTERING” the landscape. Wow, what a hollow, idiotic, derogatory statement about Grandmother Earth.

    I fear that most people think of the park as a kind of museum. A museum hosts things of the past. Things that many people no longer really value. Yeah, they were once novel/valuable in their time but not now. Just a sort of show piece. That is somewhat understandable considering our bears, buffalo, wolves and Indians have been placed on little islands we call “reservations”. A park like Yellowstone has become a well known place to visit but I don’t think most visitors give a damn about the ecology there.

    Ecology is boring to the masses. So some bright star in the intellectual governmental constellation says-“hey what about disc golf”. We have acres and acres to play in. I can just see the range guys in the back ground saying “hey man, that will scare the cows”.

    How bereft of spirituality can they get in this world of saturation capitalism? I am not sure I want to know.

    • Mark L says:

      Ah, so a Greater Yellowstone National Park might actually create more ‘golf adventures’ for some wreckreationists, correct? I’ll take frisbee golf over the ‘other golf’ any day for lessening environmental impact. In my younger days I’d have disincluded them from principles alone…..now?

      …..any trick in the book. Whatever it takes to actually get nature a win.

    • Chris Zinda says:

      If you’re talking the three peaks disk golf outside cedar city – the BLM transferred that area to Iron County, Utah.

    • Martha S Bibb says:

      I love your word twists! I’m gonna plagiarize!
      Dr. Bibb

  6. Susan Rhem-Westhoff says:

    Sooo very much needed!

  7. Mike Higgins says:

    “In addition, Park expansion…” That paragraph alone, presents the most compelling reason for expanding the Park boundaries. We’re in deep shit if we don’t take “drastic” actions like this one!

  8. Chris Zinda says:

    of times conservation mentioned in article: 3

    Preservation? 0

    And, this wishful and untrue statement: “In retrospect, Yellowstone also became a place where the “inalienable rights” of non-humans are considered and given protection.”

    GW is a conservation personified.

  9. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” – Aldo Leopold

  10. Rich says:

    Federal Court Restores Endangered Species Protections Gutted by Trump

    “In the midst of a global extinction crisis, the court’s decision to vacate the rules will help ensure that imperiled species receive the protections they desperately need,”.

    https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/07/05/win-wildlife-federal-court-restores-endangered-species-protections-gutted-trump

    Does anyone know whether this ruling has any affect on wolves in the Yellowstone area?

    • Michael Kellett says:

      Hi Rich,

      I believe the delisting of wolves in the Northern Rockies from the Endangered Species Act was a separate action that would not be affected by this ruling. This was a bad decision that should also be reversed. However, one of the advantages of an expanded Yellowstone National Park is that wolves would be protected with or without ESA protection. Today they have no protection once they leave the park.

  11. Martha S Bibb says:

    Hey, let’s all advocate for expanding the Yellowstone ecosystem to its’ actual ecosystem boundaries. We need to be done with cow-bombs on our public property. Enough welfare ranching. Enough polluted riparian areas and headwaters. Enough killing our wildlife to “protect” some abandoned meat product.

  12. Ida Lupine says:

    All for it! Is it/can it be part of the 30 x 30 plan? (If the plan has’t been reimagined to unrecognizability by politics of both parties).

  13. Rich says:

    Yet another reason to expand the park to include the upper Green River.

    https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/07/07/groups-challenge-trump-approved-plan-kill-72-grizzlies-near-yellowstone

    • Ida Lupine says:

      Just outrageous. Now that the ESA rollbacks have been reversed, I can’t see how this would stand either, in opposition to the number of bears necessary for genetic diversity called for in the ESA?

      It hasn’t escaped notice that all of these reversals of Trump policies and the protection of wildlife have not come from the Biden administration, but wildlife protection agencies taking these issues to the courts. If anything, the Biden administration has stood with some of these Trump decisions, such as the delisting of wolves.

      Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  14. Paul Griffin says:

    In the past, national parks and monuments have been enlarged by transferring other federal agency lands to the NPS. Olympic National Park was created from mostly USFS lands as was Crater Lake. The USFS, never a wilderness friend was openly hostile to the transfers. Grand Canyon National Park was created from a National Monument. Enlarging YNP would put the USFS on the defensive and might alter their attitude about preservation for fear of losing more land to a real conservation minded agency. National park status would provide “gold standard” protection for grizzly bears and bison and make quisling collaboration NGOs uncomfortable

    • Ed Loosli says:

      Thank you Paul for pointing us and hopefully President Biden in the right direction. Pres. Biden has the power to single-handedly designate a new “Greater Yellowstone National Monument” that should take in the entire Yellowstone Ecosystem that surrounds the present Yellowstone Nat. Park (now made up mostly of Nat. Forest and some BLM lands). After a Greater Yellowstone National Monument has been created, it will be much easier to get the entire 20,000,000+ acres designated as “Greater Yellowstone National Park”.

  15. Ida Lupine says:

    Just a little aside –

    Wildlife report: Monarch eggs have hatched; a tiger swallowtail observed sipping nectar at my hummingbird feeder. Thrilling!

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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