Wildfire also goes boom-bust

  Dear HCN,

Montana Sen. Conrad Burns and ecologist Richard Keigley seem to share a common discontent: Both criticize land-management policy in Yellowstone National Park (HCN, 9/15/97).

Burns recently chastised Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for park policy that let bison die in the park last winter. Burns said the deaths were proof that "natural regulation" is bad policy. This seems similar to Keigley's worries about trees. Keigley sees elk-damaged trees as an indication that land management in the park has gone wrong.

But look again. Last winter, when bison died in Yellowstone National Park, tens of thousands of deer and cattle also died far beyond park borders. They died on privately owned land, including land owned and operated by some of the best land managers in the mountain-plains ranching community. If Burns thinks that animal deaths prove that land managers are bad ones, he has a lot of explaining to do. In a killer winter such as last winter, everyone sees losses.

For his part, Keigley seems to be insisting that "natural" conditions in the park would not include trees that were damaged by an overpopulation of elk. While I believe that Keigley's research should be funded - maybe Sen. Burns can find the money somewhere - I think his premise may be shaky; Keigley seems to assume that wildlife populations do not go through periods of boom and bust in "natural conditions." Or that, if elk populations ever do boom in natural conditions, the elk somehow avoid overgrazing their resource base.

Nevertheless, Keigley's hypothesis deserves to be put to the test, in scientific research. There is nothing in Keigley's contentions that threatens to put the lie to the policy of "natural regulation," and there may be much to be learned in a study of Yellowstone's older forest. And if his research does pose a challenge to current policy, so what? Park managers can then just move on to something better; but let's see how the chips really do fall before leaping onto bandwagons led by Burns and Keigley.

Lance Olsen

Glendive, Montana

Lance Olsen is working on a book about wildlife politics.

High Country News Classifieds