It’s 9:15 on a summer evening in Jackson Hole. A common nighthawk zips above the cottonwoods, its white wing bars giving it away in the twilight. PEEENT! Hear it? Nearby, a great horned owl perches, eyes fixed on a skunk. People in cars are driving home after a satisfying dinner. Others are just now heading to work. The owl swiftly dives, sending the skunk into a scamper. It scurries up an embankment, then waddles onto asphalt. There’s a collision! The owl is clobbered by a car. One of its wings flaps wildly. The other, broken, hangs low. It is an end or a beginning.
In this amazing place, we enjoy protected national parks buffered by a rare intact ecosystem of international importance. We love it here, and so does everyone else. Life is good! So far, it is also a pretty good place for wildlife.
Or is it? There has never been a time when more people lived here, when more people visited here and when more traffic lined our highways. We will probably say that again next year, and the year after. As the late Jackson Hole-based biologist Olaus Murie asked, “Can we demonstrate our willingness to accept restraint and limit our effect on the larger community of life?” We feel changes occurring. We notice trends. We know quite a lot about this place, thanks to incredible scientific endeavors spanning generations. Yet we admit that we also know very little. The system is complex. Relationships between parts of the ecosystem evolve.
Figuring out how to fulfill our needs and consider nature’s needs is hard work. It’s difficult to comprehend at once all of the impacts our existence has on the wild community of which we are a part. We easily understand some of the large problems, such as wildlife-vehicle collisions. We know that a dam has changed a river, and a plain. We have a busy airport that shares habitat with sage grouse. The impacts of climate change may not be obvious in the moment – unless you are a pika – yet we see ominous signs. We have concerns about elk feeding and, likewise, misgivings about the effects of eliminating the practice. We know that habitat loss and migration corridor degradation are major problems, yet we seldom discuss actions that consider all of these things at once, at scale. While we remain focused on individual projects and the environmental impacts and concessions that enable each of them, the larger system degrades incrementally in our peripheral view.
Beyond these big issues, wildlife are hit with a deluge of human-caused impacts daily in Jackson Hole. A mule deer is entangled in the top wires of a barbed wire fence. A red-tailed hawk dies after eating a mouse poisoned by rodenticide. A grizzly bear is euthanized after too many conflicts with livestock. A western tanager smashes fatally into a living room window. An eagle is poisoned by ingesting lead from bullet shards in a carcass. Pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants wash into Flat Creek, Fish Creek and the Snake River. An osprey is suspended upside down from a nest, caught in baling twine, while another is electrocuted on a power line. A black bear is put down because it grew fond of Jenny Lake picnic table leftovers. A woodpecker is hung up in a hammock. A house cat swats down a yellow warbler. A dog chases a bounding white-tailed deer. An invasive species is introduced to a backcountry lake, setting off a new series of effects. The list is long, so we’ll stop there for now.
What do we need to do to reduce these conflicts and “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem,” as Teton County’s Comprehensive Plan rightfully demands? How will we ensure that humans and wildlife live compatibly here for generations hence?
“If we are to do all this, and do it right ... then we must be bold.”
That quote came from President John F. Kennedy in 1962, when he set a goal — made a promise, really — that by the end of the decade, the United States would send people to the moon and return them safely to Earth. Kennedy implored that we should chase such a bold vision “not because it was easy, but because it was hard.”
It’s time for a conservation moonshot. What ambitious goals and actions could this gifted community realize by 2030 — roughly by the end of the next decade — that would ensure a future in which we thrive within a wild and intact natural system?
Three years after Kennedy’s proclamation, Olaus Murie’s brother, Adolph, made an impassioned plea to the conservation community: “Let us not have puny thoughts,” the legendary Jackson Hole biologist said. “Let us think on a greater scale. Let us not have those of the future decry our smallness of concept and lack of foresight.” We might rally around the words of our valley’s 20th-century visionaries, without whom we would not know the wildness we enjoy today.
Can we restrain ourselves from overrunning this landscape? Have we done everything we can to prevent injuries and deaths to wildlife? The great horned owl described in the opening paragraph is hypothetical, but it’s a scenario that unfolds routinely. And that owl might survive, because this community has a world-class institution dedicated to rehabilitating injured raptors. We respond well and quickly to threats. We care about wildlife. But will we anticipate and act as well as we react?
The pressures are many and growing. The opportunity is great. The time is now.