Can studying morality help Yellowstone's wolves and bison?

Sociologist Justin Farrell plumbs the spiritual depths of environmental struggle.


Few corners of the West are more contentious than the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The reintroduction of wolves, the hazing of brucellosis-carrying bison, the possible delisting of grizzly bears, the extraction of natural gas, the debate over elk feedlots — sometimes it seems like a different controversy lurks behind every tree. (And don’t even get folks started on kayaking or snowmobiling.) 

Yellowstone’s discord has long fascinated Justin Farrell, today a sociologist at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Farrell was born in Cheyenne, the descendent of Wyomingites and Idahoans; though he grew up in Nebraska, he traveled often to Yellowstone throughout his youth. The area, he noticed, changed rapidly: One year, a resort company built a hotel next to his grandfather’s cabin. “It raised a lot of questions in my mind about the types of people who were moving out there, and how they interacted with the people who had lived there for a long time,” he says.

Farrell explores those questions in a new book, The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict. The book, for which Farrell analyzed thousands of documents and conducted over 100 stakeholder interviews, offers a path to understanding the deep-seated divisions within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) — and, perhaps, to someday resolving them. High Country News sat down with Farrell to discuss the sanctity of bison, the rise of the New West, and the religious symbolism of Canis lupus.    

High Country News: You investigated familiar conflicts, including the reintroduction of wolves and the hazing and killing of bison. But you’re looking at these issues through a new lens: You view the battle for Yellowstone as a moral battle, rather than an economic or scientific one. What does that mean, exactly?

Justin Farrell: I argue that we all operate from starting points that often go unnoticed, but that ultimately motivate why we do what we do: Why we care about wolves, why we view buffalo as sacred, why we’re so passionate about private property rights. Those aren’t just attitudes — they’re deeper questions about who we are as human beings and where we think society ought to be headed. The overwhelming techno-scientific approach we take to environmental issues, while often useful, tends to discourage other approaches. But these conflicts have cultural and moral dimensions.

HCN: It seems like those dimensions are constantly changing. You write about how demographic shifts in the so-called New West are driving prevailing values.

JF: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has some of the fastest-growing counties in terms of population and land development. That can lead to moral devaluation: The people who move to the area bring with them different values, which can ultimately devalue traditional heritage and ideals about what land and wildlife is good for. That can create some deep disagreement.

HCN: As you point out in the book, rugged individualism has always been part of the West’s identity. Now ranchers and outfitters are seeing their livelihood called “spiritually bankrupt” by some of the more amenity-minded New Westerners. What did you hear from the Old West community about how morality is changing? 

JF: Many had a really profound connection to the land, rooted in attitudes like, “I’m working the same land that my father and mother once worked, but now there are new laws that limit traditional ways of making a living.” Old Westerners see these amenity migrants, new environmental laws, and wealth, and they think there’s a sort of moral hypocrisy going on. Ranching and extractive industries are being eliminated in some places, but is building a 10,000 square-foot house ultimately any better for the land?

HCN: It seems like wolves epitomize the “what is wildlife good for” debate. Some outsiders assume that the people who hate wolves hate them for economic reasons — they’re ranchers and hunters who are worried about livestock and game. But you say people seem morally opposed to wolves. What’s the source of that opposition? 

JF: One of the primary feelings I heard is that individual rights are being infringed upon by the federal government. The reintroduced wolves came from Canada, so there’s also the fact that people see the wolf as an “immigrant” — a word that brings up a lot of connotations right now. The wolf links to all sorts of other issues in American politics that go well beyond the Yellowstone area.

Majestic spiritual icon, or religious abomination? Depends whom you ask.
Carter Niemeyer, US Fish & Wildlife Service

HCN: People often oppose wolves in religious terms, too — it’s an animal that symbolizes man losing dominion over the earth.

JF: People have this sense of a natural hierarchy with God at the top, then humans, then other animals. Still, that wasn’t the strongest cultural dimension I found. In fact, the pro-wolf movement had a much stronger religious dimension. You hear this notion that by reintroducing the wolf, you create a wholeness that goes beyond ecology. The language isn’t overtly Christian, but it kind of follows the Christian narrative about the fall and then redemption. The fall would be what humans did to the wolves earlier, by exterminating them from the area, but now redemption is possible, and we’ve got to seize this opportunity.

I also noticed that people were much more spiritual when they lived further away from the park. Those people tend to idealize the wolf more, maybe because they’re not as connected to the on-the-ground difficulties of dealing with the animal.

HCN: Those same spiritual attitudes also exist in the case of bison. You embedded with the Buffalo Field Campaign, the primary activist group that’s trying to prevent hazing and slaughter. They’re very overt about the spiritual value of bison and the moral importance of defending them. 

JF: They’re an interesting organization. One of their main tactics is shedding light on what’s happening, by simply videotaping and taking photos of government actions against buffalo. They find instances of extremely violent hazing, or a calf that has a broken leg, or mothers that have an abortion while being hazed. Showing people who don’t live in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem what’s going on has a huge impact. They rely on moral shock, on using shocking events and footage to cause social change.

I’m as objective as possible on these issues, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired by that group. The Buffalo Field Campaign has been very effective because it’s such a morally charged issue, and they make you feel that in a way that arguing about brucellosis from a scientific point of view doesn’t.

HCN: I thought one of the most fascinating parts of their story was that even though the organization itself regards bison in an overtly spiritual way, the individual volunteers tend to be uncomfortable talking about their own morality.

JF: I call it religious muting. Out in the field, when they’re near the buffalo, they talk in overtly religious terms. But when you get back to camp, they’re much more “rational” — they sterilize any sort of religious motivation. This is part of a larger trend in the U.S. of moving toward identifying as spiritual rather than religious, or being uncomfortable with religion because it’s come to be associated with the Christian right or extremism.

HCN: The last conflict you wrote about was the campaign against gas drilling in Wyoming’s Hoback Basin, where a whole bunch of diverse interests got together to protect the area from gas drilling. How did morality play out in that conflict?

JF: You had folks who would traditionally be for gas drilling everywhere else, but here, they say this place is too special to drill. They would say things like, “I’ve been coming here since I was young, my family has lived here for generations.” This is an example of how old Westerners are getting involved in the environmental movement. These people love land, but they aren’t your average environmentalists. They distinguish themselves from tree-huggers. It’s this interesting mingling of Old West and New West morality.

The idea that land is special and sacred was the rallying cry of this movement, and it was very effective. They ended up buying out the wells from the company, PXP. It was a “Wyoming solution,” as they called it. It wasn’t that they passed laws to forbid drilling; instead, they honored the contracts the company had, and paid fairly for them.

HCN: You make a strong case that environmental conflict has a moral dimension. To be blunt: so what? How does understanding the moral aspects of conflict help us resolve them? 

Talking about morality brings issues to the surface, especially during intractable conflicts. Sometimes you can find common ground at the level of morality, like in the case of fracking in the Hoback. Oftentimes, we don’t step back and recognize why we’re having these arguments in the first place. My argument is not that morality matters in every single case, but it’s present in many cases, and we should be aware of it. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent for High Country News. 

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