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Is Yellowstone National Park In Danger Of Being 'Loved To Death'?


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross. Summer is upon us. And if you're making vacation plans that include a visit to a national park, specifically, Yellowstone, you might want to listen closely to what our next guest has to say.

David Quammen is a contributing writer to National Geographic Magazine and is the author of 15 books, including "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin," "Ebola" and "The Chimp And The River." National Geographic devoted its entire May issue to his article on Yellowstone and the battle for the American West. It's about the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, one of the last unspoiled temperate ecosystems on Earth. Animals that once were threatened, like grizzly bears and bison, now thrive there. And millions of people visit each year. The needs of the wild animals and the needs and safety of the visitors are often in conflict. And that's just one of the many conflicts in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Terry Gross interviewed Quammen last April.



David Quammen, welcome to FRESH AIR. In your article, there are many times you're not referring to Yellowstone National Park; you're referring to the Yellowstone Ecosystem.

DAVID QUAMMEN: That's right. We call it the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is this huge body of mostly wild landscape that amounts to about 22 million acres, and it includes Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, portions of five national forests, several wildlife refuges, including the National Elk Refuge, Bureau of Land Management land - that's federal land - private land, some big private ranches, a portion of the Wind River Indian Reservation - all of those things, contiguous and mostly wild landscape in the area of Yellowstone Park. It's a huge amoeba within which Yellowstone Park is a rectangle that constitutes about a tenth of the total area.

And it's very important - we argue, we think - to the American public, to American history, to modern America - that there is this huge, intact, contiguous ecosystem in the heart of the American West within which live, for instance, all of the original big predator species, all the original great carnivores - the grizzly bear, the black bear, the wolf, the mountain lion, the coyote. They're all there interacting with their prey species, interacting with the landscape. It's part of what makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem so special.

GROSS: There's a lot of environmental debates that are kind of crystallized around Yellowstone National Park. And one of those debates has to do with, how do you handle the needs of the wild animals and the needs of the people who are visiting the park? The people coming to the park don't want to be mauled. At the same time, it's part of the goal of the park to have wild grizzlies there. So can you kind of crystallize that debate for us or that conflict between...

QUAMMEN: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...Having a park that's great for the animals and having a park that's great for the humans who visit the park?

QUAMMEN: Yeah. Well, it is a complicated situation. It's what I call - in the issue I call it the paradox of the cultivated wild. It's paradoxical because we're taking a place and we're saying we want this place to continue to be wild. But in order for it to seem wild, to appear wild, to give people the experience of what the wild in the Northern Rockies is, we've got to do some tinkering. We've got to do some management. We have to have some rules and some boundaries. And that goes back to the beginning, the founding of Yellowstone National Park back in 1872. It was founded originally as - because it was a great tourist destination for people who wanted to see geysers and canyons. And then gradually we realized that part of the importance of this place was as a great wildlife refuge.

GROSS: Well, let's look at grizzly bears. I mean, they're really an object of fascination, I think, for most people. What makes grizzly bears extraordinary?

QUAMMEN: Well, they are the largest, most ferocious, most magnificent carnivore in North America. They lived throughout the Western U.S. a hundred years ago and before. And now because they are so ferocious and so uncompromising and so magnificent and needy in terms of privacy and space and prey, they have disappeared throughout the American West and exist only in a very few places. Glacier National Park - there's a population of grizzly bear up on the Canadian - the Montana-Canadian border. A few places in the northern Pacific Northwest, there are a few grizzlies. And in Yellowstone, there is this big population of grizzlies because there is so much habitat, there is so much space.

They were nearly eradicated from Yellowstone back in the late '60s, early '70s. The population for reasons I could explain went down to about 140 or fewer grizzly bears. They were put on the endangered species list as threatened in 1975, and gradually the population has been brought back by careful management of the causes of grizzly bear mortality. So now there are more than 700 in the ecosystem.

GROSS: There was a period where the bears were feeding on garbage dumps with, like, human garbage - you know, leftovers from the campfire, from dinner - and that became, like, the steady diet of a lot of grizzly bears.

QUAMMEN: That's right.

GROSS: And it also made them into a big tourist attraction 'cause you could go to the dump and see the bears. But that didn't work out well for anybody. Would you tell that story?

QUAMMEN: Yes. And that goes back to the early 20th century. There was a very important superintendent of Yellowstone, a man who was involved in the founding of the National Park Service itself, Horace Albright. And he became superintendent, which is the boss of Yellowstone Park, in 1919 - from 1919 to 1929. Later, he was director of the park service itself. Albright embraced the idea that in order for the national parks - and Yellowstone in particular - to have support from the American people and from politicians, there needed to be wildlife as spectacle. Wildlife needs to be abundant and tame. And so he sanctioned the idea that grizzly bears would be fed handouts from cars and would be allowed to eat garbage - essentially human food garbage from the various hotels within Yellowstone National Park.

So there were these dumps near the big hotels at the lake and at Old Faithful and elsewhere in Yellowstone National Park. And the food garbage each day was put out there on these dumps and the grizzly bears were allowed - invited, essentially - to come and feed at the dumps. And they put up stands like bleachers, and you would go out to the dump and you'd sit in bleachers and you would watch 12, 15, 18 grizzly bears - adult, dangerous, male, females with cubs, grizzly bears - feeding on garbage. And then eventually in the 1960s, ideas changed about the dumps, and it was decided that these dumps should be closed and that it was unseemly. It was unnatural. It was not right for people to watch grizzly bears eating garbage, so the dumps should be closed. They were closed in the late '60s and early '70s, and then the grizzly bears were desperate for a few years, searching for substitutes for all of this high-calorie human garbage that they had been eating.

GROSS: They were used to things like hamburgers and stuff, like leftover hamburgers?

QUAMMEN: Yeah, hamburgers...

GROSS: And now they had to forage and they didn't really know how?

QUAMMEN: That's right. Now, grizzlies are omnivores.

GROSS: Or hunt - I guess - yeah, forage and hunt, right.

QUAMMEN: Forage and hunt - they're hunter-gatherers. They're omnivores. They eat a lot of vegetable, plant foods. They eat various kinds of insects. They eat earthworms. They eat tubers of wildflowers. They eat fish when they can get fish. And they eat meat when they can get meat. They eat elk calves. They eat winter-kill bison, bison carcasses left over from the winter. They eat virtually everything, very diverse diets. But they scramble to get the calories that they need from a limited number of high-caloric foods. And garbage had been one of those until the early '70s, and suddenly it was gone. And this was a crisis for the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

GROSS: So how did it change human and grizzly interactions?

QUAMMEN: Well, it made it more dangerous for everybody. Closing the dumps brought on this crisis and made things more dangerous. So in the years following the closure of the last dump, there was high mortality of grizzly bears. Why? Because they were frantic. As I say in the geographic piece, they were dazed and confused and desperate and hungry. And so they came into campgrounds more. They tried to take food off of picnic tables. They tried to take food out of tents. They went places where they shouldn't go and did things that they shouldn't do. And they got in trouble. And quite a number of them got killed, and some people got hurt, too.

And so in 1975, the grizzly bear was put on, as I said - on the endangered species list as threatened. And new measures were taken, for instance, bear-proofing garbage, creating new regulations to - essentially to try and keep people and people's food away from the bears, let the bears adjust to eating the abundant wild food that's available in Yellowstone and allow them to be more wild, to be independent of humans as sources of foods for the good of both sides. And that has been quite successful.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? If you're just joining us, my guest is David Quammen. He wrote all the text for the May edition of National Geographic. It's a special edition devoted to Yellowstone National Park on this centennial of the National Park Service. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer David Quammen. And he wrote the text for the May edition of the National Geographic, which is a special edition in celebration of the National Park Service's centennial anniversary. And the edition is devoted to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone National Park. So we were talking about grizzly bears and the dilemmas that the National Park Service faces about how to deal with grizzlies and how to prevent people from being eaten by grizzlies (laughter). Let's talk about the elk. There's a problem that the National Park Service has in dealing with the elk. The elk go through migrations, but part of their migratory patterns are blocked. What's blocking them?

QUAMMEN: Private land development threatens to block more and more of their migrations. Elk don't respect linear boundaries drawn on a map. The elk of Yellowstone National Park spend their summers in the high country of Yellowstone feeding on the high grasses that remain green through the summer. But in the winter, those high places become brutally cold. And so the elk move down - they move down to what we call winter range. They move down off the Yellowstone Plateau, where Yellowstone Park is, to lower elevations in the surrounding lands onto national forests, and in some cases onto large private ranches. They have to go down to find places where they can survive and eat during the hard months of the Montana, Wyoming, Idaho winter.

Now, there are biologists that I talked to in the course of researching this issue who told me, you know, there a lot of problems facing the Yellowstone ecosystem. But the one most crucial problem, if you're going to point to one, is private lands development. It's not hunting; it's not even climate change, which is an issue. These are all tangled together. But private lands development around the periphery of the parks - Grand Teton and Yellowstone - is a crucial issue because if those private lands are transformed from open pastures, meadow, forest land to suburbs, to little ranchettes, to shopping malls, to roads, to Starbucks - if those places are all settled for the benefit of humans, then the elk are not going to be able to migrate in and out of Yellowstone Park anymore. And if the elk can't migrate into the park, then that creates problems for the wolves, for the grizzlies, for a lot of other creatures. These things all fit together. The elk are the most abundant large herbivores in the Yellowstone ecosystem. There are thousands and thousands of them. They migrate in and out. And those migration routes need to stay open.

GROSS: You've been to African safari parks.


GROSS: What's the difference between how visitors are treated at the American national parks like Yellowstone versus the African safari parks when it comes to seeing or interacting with wild animals?

QUAMMEN: Right. Well, we have retained in this country, in Yellowstone Park and other places, the idea that people should be free to walk around amidst these animals, amidst even these big predators. In Africa, as you say, it's very different. If you're Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya, if you're in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, you don't get out of your vehicle and go walking around amid the lions and the leopards. You stay in your Land Rover. You stay in your safari van, and you look out the windows or you look out the pop top at these animals. I know by experience how badly that can work out if you violate those guidelines. I've been out on foot with an elephant researcher in northern Kenya. And we got charged by an elephant because we were hiking in a place where we probably shouldn't have been. And we ran and were chased. And he was picked up and thrown by this female elephant and nearly killed.

GROSS: Wow, I feel like I've only seen that in the movies. And I've seen that - when I was growing up, I saw that in a lot of movies. That really happened.

QUAMMEN: That happened. A fellow named Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a famous elephant researcher. And I was doing a story on him. And at one point, he said at the end of a day shall we go out for a game drive, meaning should we drive around and look at some animals? And I said we could we please go for a walk? And so he and I and a Samburu African young man working as an employee of his camp - the three of us went out and started walking. And this female elephant, this big cow elephant saw us. She had a calf, and she threw out her ears and bugled and charged. And we started running. And then Iain stopped, threw out his arms, hollered (imitating shouting) and waved his hands because this had worked in the past, stopping an elephant charge - didn't work with her. She kept coming.

So now he turned around and started running again. Now I have the advantage. I'm 20 yards ahead of him. And I run around a big acacia bush and stop and look. And Iain runs around the big acacia bush and the elephant runs around the big acacia bush and she catches up with him, picks him up with her trunk. I hear him say in a sort of calm declarative voice help. She throws him through the air. He lands in tall grass. She takes about three steps forward and jams her tusks into the dirt right where he is. And I'm standing 50 feet away thinking oh, my God. I've just gotten Iain Douglas-Hamilton killed. She backs off. I go running up and his glasses are broken. His sandals are gone. His watch is gone. And there are two tusk holes in the clay right where he was. She either missed him to the side or she went one Tusk on each side of his body. And he didn't have a scratch on him. And so we got out of there quickly.

GROSS: Oh, my gosh, what a harrowing story. You must have felt so responsible.

QUAMMEN: I did. I thought I've made a really bad mistake. I pushed him to bend the rules, and we walked in a place where we shouldn't have walked.

GROSS: So this a great illustration of the difference between the African safari parks and American National Parks - theoretically, you should've been...

QUAMMEN: That's right.

GROSS: ...In a car there, where in America it's perfectly acceptable to walk around even though you can get mauled...

QUAMMEN: That's right.

GROSS: ...By a bear. But...

QUAMMEN: You can hike into the Yellowstone backcountry. You can camp in the Yellowstone backcountry. You can take food into the Yellowstone backcountry, and you're surrounded by grizzly bears. And it's - it's a very, very thrilling, peculiar situation. Every sound that you hear in the night, you wonder is this a grizzly bear coming to tear into my tent? You do things - you do sensible things to protect yourself. You hoist your food up into a tree with a rope. You camp - you sleep somewhere a hundred yards away from where you've hoisted your food. You eat nonaromatic food. You have bear spray beside you at every moment. And there's still no guarantee.

GROSS: Well, David, congratulations on this National Geographic issue, and thank you so much for talking with us.

QUAMMEN: Thank you, Terry. Great to talk with you.

BIANCULLI: David Quammen wrote the text for the May issue of National Geographic about the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem. It's available now on the National Geographic website. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Genius," the film biography of well-known literary editor Maxwell Perkins. It stars Colin Firth and Jude Law. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.