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Know the West

Politics tangles with science


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

As bison pushed their way out of Yellowstone National Park last winter, Republican lawmakers from the surrounding states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana blasted the Park Service for allowing the herd to get out of control.

When the Park Service responded by citing a policy of natural regulation as opposed to shooting or feeding bison, the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands voted to investigate science in Yellowstone.

The committee, chaired by Rep. Jim Hansen of Utah, stacked the deck against the Park Service, calling in three of the most outspoken critics of natural regulation: Fred Wagner and Charles Kay of Utah State University, and Richard Keigley.

Mark Boyce, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, asked for a seat on the panel to defend natural regulation.

Kay and Boyce talked later about their opinions:

Ecologist Charles Kay:

"Natural regulation is not only about letting nature run its course; it's a particular view of how nature operates that's in line with the philosophy of the environmental movement. Environmentalists believe that North America was a garden of Eden, untouched by the hand of man until 1492. Europeans destroyed this idyllic state of nature.

"That fundamental view of nature is incorrect. Humans have been a part of Yellowstone's ecosystem for 12,000 years - they've been driving it.

"If your goal is to mimic the processes that were structuring the ecosystem before Europeans got here, you've got to figure out what the natives were doing, and then you've got to do it.

"I'm all for natural processes, but natural processes was natives burning the range. Natural processes was natives hunting.

"The top predators weren't wolves, they were native people, and whether you have the top predators or not affects everything all the way to the bottom.

"The Park Service calls Yellowstone "America's Serengeti." It's true. They're both unnatural systems. The Serengeti is a romantic, European racist view of what an ecosystem should look like. What's more unnatural than an African ecosystem without hominid (human) predators?

"It's possible to get back to the original state of nature in Yellowstone. It may take 40 or 50 or 60 years. You'd have to take the bison and elk populations to very low levels and keep them there for a long time. My solution is just let the natives hunt in the park.

"Once you get the vegetation back and get the beaver back, it'll all fall into place."

Ecologist Mark Boyce:

"We've got all of the rest of the Western United States where we can muck around and try the experiments we're prone to do. We ought to have one place where we can let it rip.

"The park serves as an experimental control. We need places like Yellowstone where we don't screw around with it.

"(Charles) Kay talks about the influences of Native Americans. I think it's far-fetched. Even if it were true, I find it irrelevant. I don't think we learn much by trying to reconstruct how Native Americans killed ungulates. I think we learn more about natural ecosystems by trying to eliminate humans from the scene.

"It would require very aggressive management to keep the park like it was. Systems need to fluctuate. We need to see ungulate populations bouncing up and down.

"We'll see heavy winter-kill die-offs. It's more likely, now that the ungulates have clobbered up some of this vegetation. In the Northern Rockies, nature takes a heavy toll. That's part of the way it works. To say it's bad implies an agricultural mindset.

"(The condition of the Northern Range) doesn't worry me in the least. There isn't a single species of threatened or endangered animal or plant at risk from letting nature rip on the Northern Range. It's fascinating to see what a large ungulate herd will do to a landscape."