My husband, our dogs and I spent two days in the summer majesty of Yellowstone National Park during the July 4th weekend. I once lived in this grand part of the United States, serving first as education director for the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center (then just the Grizzly Discovery Center), and later as editor of the West Yellowstone News. Driving into and through Yellowstone was always an amazing experience – observing elk, bison, trumpeter swans, and sandhill cranes, and many other animal species, as well as watching Old Faithful and Castle geysers, among others, explode with fountains of steaming water. Yellowstone is a watchable park, but it’s also a treasure of smells and sounds, from the phosphorous geysers and mud pots to the aromatic and colorful wildflowers, from the bugles of bull elk to the splashing of geese and ducks in the myriad of rivers. I am partial to this peculiar, popular national park!
Amid the beauty of mountains, streams, lakes, flora and fauna also quakes thunderous controversy. Reintroduction of grey wolves in 1996 brought major howling from ranchers with lands on the outskirts of the park, and the continual slaughter of the wooly bison as they migrate outside national park lands in winter pits landowners against environmentalists. I’ve written stories on both issues, and I’ve seen both types of these large mammals while inside, and outside, of the park. Yellowstone is strikingly beautiful; Yellowstone has been, and remains, in the crosshairs of controversy.
Bison – Yellowstone remains the final stronghold for the ancestors of America’s last free-ranging bison. Also called buffalo, these animals went from a hefty 60 million to nearly extinct in less than a century. Bison jams replaced bear jams inside Yellowstone’s borders; where once people could view black and grizzly bears along the roadsides inside the park through the early 1970s, now bison cows, bulls, and calves frequent the roadways and block traffic; even while resting in the distance, they cause tourists to stop their cars in the middle of the highway to take photos. These animals may be popular to those visiting Yellowstone, but to landowners in Montana, they can be a nuisance and cause fear of transmitting brucecllosis to cattle (however, no documentation exists that bison cause this disease, which was actually brought in by and existed in bovines in the first place).
Wolves – Not seen often even today, the grey wolf once roamed through Yellowstone’s forests and prairies. But, like most of these wild canines in America, the species became extinct during the early 1900s. A controversial plan to bring this predator back to Yellowstone took root during the mid-1990s when wolf packs from Canada were transported and transplanted into the national park. Numbers have increased and the controversy remains, especially regarding the “hunt” now going on in surrounding states and the wild animals’ ever-increasing range. I’ve seen a few wolves during my Yellowstone visits, and I was enthralled to be a news reporter during one of the early releases back in the ’90s. My mind vividly remembers the eyes, the howls, and the sprinting of these magnificent creatures as they left their holding pens. What once was is now again … but, for how long?
Snowmobiling – For nearly 20 years, snowmobiling in Yellowstone has been a hot-button topic, particularly between small businesses in the nearby communities and environmentally-minded groups in and outside the region. For several years, no one could keep up with what “the rule” for that particular winter was, creating confusion not just for business owners, but also for machine riders. Noise levels, air pollution, and environmental destruction were, and are, among the issues raised. The current Winter Use Plan allows for just a few individual/non-guided snowmobiles in the Park as well as for guided snowmobile and snowcoach tours. My husband and I took a snowmobile trip into Yellowstone as our honeymoon adventure; this year we celebrate 15 years of marriage and are highly considering returning to that magical winter place as our anniversary/Christmas gift to one another during which time we’d take a snowcoach tour. As editor of the West Yellowstone News, I took a snowcoach trip once and thoroughly enjoyed learning from the knowledgeable guide and experiencing Yellowstone’s landscape and wildlife during a season of frigid temperatures, icicle-like frosted trees, and mounds of swirling snow..
Gold Mine – The mid-1990s also brought a mining controversy to the Yellowstone area, when the New World Gold Mine was proposed just outside the northwest boundary near the small towns of Jardine and Cooke City. Stream and land pollution as well as noise and air pollution and the simple idea of tearing up an area recognized as a World Heritage Site created ill will with people who saw the mine as a major job-creator in an area rift with low-paying, seasonal jobs and those wanting to keep the landscape as pristine as possible. The mine didn’t materialize and the lands were eventually sold as part of a land trust, helping further advance the region’s tourism industry and protect the area from mining.
From creation as the world’s first national park in 1872 to today, Yellowstone is an object of both beauty and controversy. From the flight of the Nez Perce Indians, during which the conflict resulted in the death of a Park tourist in 1877, to the continued tirade regarding wolves and bison, this gem of the Rockies continues to inspire and attract… and cause debates. Last year, more than 3.5 million people visited the national park; those numbers bring about discussions of eliminating vehicle traffic and going to a bus system. Even the creation and administration of the park ignited controversy nearly 150 years ago.
Conflict in Stories
As writers, we find both beauty and controversy in our stories. Our characters, whom we mold and shape into interesting personas, experience conflict to help move the story along. One of my works in progress, “Bo: A Bison Grows Up in Yellowstone,” relates the fiction-based-on-fact story of a young bison as he learns to survive. The story will feature wolves, tourists, winter, and the final decision: does Bo leave the security of the park during an especially harsh winter with the possibility of being shot by Montana agricultural interests or does he stay in Yellowstone and face possible starvation? Does he survive or does he not, no matter the decision he makes? I’m considering having the reader “write the ending,” in an effort to make a stronger impression about one of the most important issues still facing Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area.
What types of conflict do your story characters face? What beauty is portrayed in your stories? What about your life – do you find conflict in the midst of beauty, and how if so, how do you balance the two?
Do you enjoy visiting national parks and other places of natural beauty? Do these places also have elements of controversy associated with them?
I hope each of you has opportunity to visit a national park one day – they truly are America’s, and the world’s, treasures!
- Native American tribes lived and hunted in and around Yellowstone for thousands of years. Tribes included Crow, Shoshoni, and Blackfeet, among many others.
- John Colter, who took part in the Lewis & Clark expedition, visited Yellowstone in 1807, and his stories of the thermal features and other elements of the park sparked doubters to coin the term “Colter’s Hell.”
- In 1870 and 1871 expeditions to the area explored portions of the now-national park; among the 1871 crew was the famous painter Thomas Moran (a mountain in Grand Teton National Park is named for him).
- From these expeditions came the call to action to create Yellowstone as a national park, setting aside more than 2 million acres as a public “pleasuring-ground,” preserved “from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.” President Grant signed the legislation known as the Yellowstone Act of 1872.
Learn more about Yellowstone’s history at http://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/historyculture/park-history.htm.
Gayle M. Irwin is writer, author and speaker. She is the author of several inspiring dog books for children and adults and a contributing writer to five editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She’s also authored a guidebook for owners of blind dogs, available on Kindle. She has a passion for pets and volunteers for and donates a percentage of her writing revenues to several animal welfare organizations. She enjoys traveling and visiting America’s beautiful national parks and forests, finding inspiration in nature. Visit her website at www.gaylemirwin.com.