Yellowstone is more than just our most famous national park it is greater than that. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is the last large, nearly intact ecosystem in the northern temperate zone of the Earth and is only partially located within Yellowstone National Park. The GYE encompasses some of the earth’s most cherished wilderness and wildlife. Roughly the size of West Virginia this special land is still predominantly wild. All the wildlife that was here a couple of centuries ago when Lewis and Clark passed through the Northern Rockies, wolves, grizzly bears, bison are still here. It’s remote; the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, the Thorofare region, is farther from a road than anywhere else in the lower 48.
A bull bison relaxes as Olf Faithful erupts during a passing thunderstorm
The GYE is the purview of my book, as the publisher of the Greater Yellowstone Resource Guide, a website about visiting the GYE, I am constantly amazed at the diversity of beauty throughout the area. Had I not tackled such a ridiculously large project I would not have had any reason to see so many corners of the GYE. Every corner has it’s own unique geological and botanical beauty. To document the region it has been my duty and privilege to go to the corners of it and photograph it and profile its far-flung amenities embarrassment of riches. Those of us who have been blessed with the privilege of visiting or living near one of the great treasures of the world, are continually awed by the majestic beauty of its towering mountains, crystal-clear streams, lush mountain meadows, and wildlife.
Yellowstone National Park’s boundaries were arbitrarily carved out of the western wilderness in 1872, the goal being to include all regional geothermal basins in the area. No other landscape or biological considerations were envisioned as ecology awareness was in its infancy in 1872 when the park was created. Yellowstone Park is a 2.2 million acre square except for the eastern boundary.
The logical boundary of an eco-system is the migratory range of the animals that make the ecosystem their home. The GYE has animal migrations that are over a hundred miles long reaching from the mountain tops to the high desert plains where Yellowstone’s rivers wind their way out of the mountains where many of Yellowstone’s animals retreat to for the winters. The GYE straddles the continental divide so its waters drain to the corners of the continent. The Snake River drains into the Pacific at the Washington/Oregon border, the Green River that originates in the Wind River Mountains dump into the Gulf of California in Mexico and the Madison, Wind River, Shoshone, and Yellowstone rivers end up in the Gulf of Mexico. The headwaters of all these are the migratory corridors of the GYE. Ecosystems are more than a property, as is a park, they are a biological region. The GYE is the crown of the continent.
The ecosystem concept has been most often advanced piecemeal via concerns over individual species instead of over broader ecological principles. By the 1970s, the grizzly bear’s range in and near the park became the first informal minimum boundary of the GYE which included 4,000,000 acres surrounding the park. Since then, dimensions of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem’s size has steadily grown larger. A 1994 study listed the size as 19,000,000 acres as more migratory species were included in the equation. As you can see nailing down the size of the GYE is a moving target, but 20 million acres seems to be a nice round number so we will go with it.
Several decades of information on a wildlife population may seem considerable, but one of the important lessons of GYE management is that even half a century of study is not long enough to give a full idea of how a species may vary in its occupation of a wild ecosystem, especially one so impacted by man where much conjecture and extrapolation is necessitated because of the paucity of anecdotal observation and study before the mountain men and ranchers arrived.
A bull elk in his spring velvet pauses from his browsing to look at the full moon
As is all things “Yellowstone” management has been controversial. The area is a flagship site for conservation groups that aggressively promote ecosystem management. It is also the traditional home of the Shoshone Indians and to the progeny of the pioneers. The GYE is one of the world’s foremost natural laboratories in landscape ecology, geology, and wildlife biology, and is a treasure to all.
The GYE is a panorama alive with one of the greatest concentrations of large mammals in the lower 48 states hosting more than 30,000 elk, 5,000 bison thousands of mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope, and hundreds of grizzlies, But for decades this spectacle was missing a key participant: the wolf. This absence had both aesthetic and ecological significance, the ecosystem wasn’t complete. In March 1995, wolves from Canada were released into the GYE, they became the first wolf packs here since extermination in May of 1943. The population growth and spatial expansion of wolves in the GYE since reintroduction is now reestablishing a strong predation pressure on ungulate populations and this have triggered an exponential impact returning the GYE into a more natural system.
The GYE encompasses Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton Park and all the perimeter national forests and wilderness areas all which make this a world-renowned recreational area. Other federally managed areas within the GYE include Gallatin, Custer, Caribou-Targhee, Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests, as well as the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park. The GYE also encompasses the privately held lands surrounding those managed by the U.S. Government. Ten wilderness areas have been established in the National Forests of the GYE since 1966 to ensure a higher level of habitat protection.
The GYE envelops many cattle ranches, which are some of the most ecologically stable pieces of property in the area, there are many ranches around the periphery as well. The large and undeveloped landmasses of a cattle ranch serve as sanctuaries from increased human encroachment and development on the GYE where the wildlife prosper from this private open space
The GYE is a unique cradle of life, a globally renowned oasis for wildlife, the greatest area of geothermal activity and unique extreme environment life forms in the world, the Thermopile, a microbe that thrives in water as hot as 176 °F. The GYE like no other part of the planet provides critical clues to the origin, current complexity, and future of life on earth, and, indeed about the possibilities for life elsewhere in the universe.
The GYE is a Grand Experiment: The GYE is the world’s first protected wild lands, an intact mountain region that plays a significant role for climate and hydrology for much of North America as well as a diverse and growing human landscape with prosperous communities. The GYE is thus, the first, longest, and most comprehensive of modern humans intending a compatible integration of society and wild lands the result of the experiment is unknown and continues to unfold.