Kevin Taylor likes to have a piece of tanned elk hide on him at all times.
“I could be in a city and I can still hold tight to a piece of the wild,” Taylor said. “A piece of what I’m made of, literally and figuratively. My intimate connection with the land is the absolute basis of who I am.”
An ethnobotanist and faculty member of Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science Schools, Taylor moved to Jackson in 2002 after having “had a dream for a while to start my own environmental education organization.
“I had a really strong affinity toward wildlife and animals from early on,” Taylor said. “And I still have family members who kid me about this, but my first job after college was studying population dynamics of bushy tailed woodrats, a type of packrat that lives in the mountains.”
Before Taylor became a Wyomingite he spent the 1990s focusing on ecological research. After receiving an undergraduate degree in biology from Bradley University in Illinois, he moved out West and did research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte, Colorado. He jokingly called one study he worked on, which used heat lamps to warm mountain meadows to simulate climate change, the “sexiest” of his projects.
In 1997 Taylor started a master’s program at the University of Wyoming’s botany department, which is where he met his wife, Amy Taylor.
As chance would have it he and his wife visited Jackson during the winter of 2002 to visit friends from when she previously lived here. A snowstorm closed the roads, so, to kill time, Taylor looked in the classifieds and stumbled upon a guide position with Wildlife Expeditions. Two months later they moved to Jackson and haven’t left since.
His job as a guide and an educator, Taylor said, is interesting because it varies every day. He does everything from short day trips into Grand Teton National Park to weeklong excursions in Yellowstone National Park.
“That’s a big part of why I’ve been involved in ecotourism as long as I have,” he said. “No two groups are the same.”
Taylor takes pride in infusing his tours with creativity.
“It’s fun for me to not only push myself to get better at what I do and communicate my passion and my interest about this area, but to do it in new and creative ways,” he said. “We’ve all been on tours before where it’s like, ‘Wow, I bet he’s told that joke 466 times.’ So how do you present information that you present every day throughout the year?”
In a time when science is often politicized and questioned, Taylor has his work cut out for him.
“I see my role as helping to bridge the sometimes gap between scientists and nonscientists,” he said. “I’m really trying to make the science of ecology and geology and animal behavior accessible to nonscientists. And it’s fun. It’s a fun challenge to be able to do that. It’s also bridging the controversial issues around science that involve economics and politics and emotions. There is so much opportunity to continue to get better at presenting those things.”
Keeping the conversation alive, Taylor said, is key to teaching non-scientists.
“If I could boil down what I’ve learned in the last 15 years of teaching people about this place and being an ambassador of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, it’s the power of words and the power of communication,” he said. “The same thing can be said in so many different ways.”
Taylor believes that naturalists are key to explaining this place, like his mentors and conservation heroes Olaus and Mardy Murie.
“I believe naturalists are some of our culture’s storytellers,” he said. “Storytelling is an ancient thing and it’s still very much a powerful thing to do.”
Being genuine is the best way to get your message across, he said.
“People know when their guide is authentic, and that’s what I’d recommend to any guide: Be yourself,” Taylor said. “Don’t try to create this persona. Be real. People recognize and trust and appreciate that.”
Teton Science Schools has a mantra, Taylor said. “The closer you look, the more you see.”
Taylor once found a plant he’d never seen before in the valley, or ever, period, called fleshy porterella, on the side of Signal Mountain.
“For a botanist who pays pretty darn close attention to plants, that’s a pretty exciting thing,” he said. “It was just a matter of going to a new place and getting on my hands and knees and looking closely.”
In addition to guiding and educating people about the region, Taylor sometimes teaches graduate courses at the school’s Kelly Campus, instructs field education staff or pops into Journeys School classrooms.
His “not so alter ego,” Jimmy Saskatoon, is a mountain man character Taylor plays for students, teaching them in first person about how to start fires and subsist off the land while wearing deerskin clothes he made himself.
In real life Taylor also helps raise his daughter Avery and in his spare time collects edible plants, raises chickens, makes soap and hunts for the most local food possible.
Hunting, he said, isn’t something he often brings up on tours. But he’s proud that 98 percent of his meat comes from the local ecosystem.
“There’s nothing in my life that evokes more extreme emotions, oftentimes tear-inducing sorrow, than to kill this 550-pound beautiful cow elk that is such a symbol of this place, to reduce her to a dead animal lying there at your feet,” Taylor said. “But also, great joy for having another year’s worth of meat that doesn’t have any hormones or antibiotics in it, took very little fossil fuel to get it to the table and, as I like to say, it’s food with a story.”
Mushrooms, roots, beets and stinging nettles (a superfood, like seaweed) that Taylor finds and harvests help balance the meat, as do potatoes — he grows about 350 pounds each year for winter — and dried raspberries from the garden.
“As a father one of my really important goals is to make sure that my daughter knows where stuff comes from, and she knows where her food comes from,” Taylor said.
Personal experience with native plants, he said, helps him answer questions from tourists and students in a more authentic way.
“Doing all my own butchering and using the fat to make candles and to make soap makes me better at making sure I understand where these things are from,” Taylor said. “I don’t take these things for granted. When you make your own stuff — I can’t waste clothing. I can’t waste food because I know what went into it. Even a grocery store apple becomes more significant and more sacred after growing your own apples in your backyard.”
As a father, Taylor has realized that parenting is “modeling a way of living,” and he wants his daughter to see environmental challenges in a positive light. There’s a magnet on Taylor’s fridge that reads, “We might just be the luckiest people alive.”
“I have a hopeful message,” Taylor said. “We can make a difference. As a parent, I signed up for being hopeful. I’m so deeply connected to this land that even if I’m the last environmentalist left on this planet, the last one to have a reverent approach to this land, so be it. I don’t have a choice to never never give up.”