In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, media around the world pounced on some wishful narratives of environmental successes that sprang from billions of people shutting in.
You read the headlines: Dolphins and swans returning to the canals of Venice, Italy. Black bears having a ball in people-free Yosemite National Park. Elephants moseying into Chinese villages and getting drunk on corn wine. Unfortunately, a lot of these accounts were sensationalized, overblown or straight fabricated. Fortunately, there were also real environmental silver linings. When economies around the world slowed at the height of quarantining in the spring, highways and roads were emptier than they’d been in decades. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality reported significant improvements in an array of air quality pollutants, from nitrous oxide to ozone to particulate matter. Using roadkill data, researchers detected 21% to 56% reductions in wildlife-vehicle collisions in Idaho, California and Maine.
The abrupt turn the human world turn took in March had me contemplating nature’s capacity to rebound when we grant the planet a break from the unrelenting incursions and onslaughts of 7.8 billion people. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, I thought, must as be good a place as any for native flora, fauna and ecological processes to flex back, simply because they’re already in pretty good shape. Yet even here the stressors are many and they are compounding. This year the Bridger-Teton National Forest saw unprecedented numbers of people camping, hiking and in our wild spaces. It’s not inconceivable that one legacy of this pandemic will be a heightened interest in visiting and even living in the Northern Rockies and Jackson Hole. From an environmental standpoint, more people will cause more problems. Robust planning to protect the assets that make this place so special — wildlife and the landscapes they live on — perhaps just became more important.
This edition of Headwaters, the News&Guide’s annual special section on conservation, digs into complex issues related to the ecological resilience of the 20-million-plus-acre complex of mountains, forests, rivers and valleys ringing Yellowstone National Park. You’ll read about the concept of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: its history, ideals — whether we’ve lived up to them. In the pages that follow, learn about the incredible adaptability of life on earth: Journalist Kylie Mohr tells the tale of Thermus aquaticus, a heat-tolerant strain of bacteria found in Yellowstone’s Mushrooms Springs in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, this organism played a role in rapid-result COVID-19 tests. Read on to learn about how early residents’ concerns about elk set the stage for a century of land preservation in Jackson Hole. Learn what wildlife managers are doing to arrest the spread of noxious nonnative cheatgrass. Conservation successes, like the saga of saving trumpeter swans and reintroducing them to Jackson Hole, are also highlighted, although work remains even on that front.
Will the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remain resilient to a vastly changed climate and unknown conditions of the future? The answer to that question is largely on us, you’ll learn from natural resource scientist Gary Kofinas on the next page. One strategy that can help the cause is doubling down on preserving what we know of the ecosystem today. On that front, veteran conservation advocate Phil Hocker, one of our authors, says it well: “We may not be sure what their future role will be, but saving ‘all the pieces,’ and keeping them open and undeveloped for wildlife to use, is as wise as we can be.”