25 January 2013

Friday Field Notes: Why is Yellowstone in Montana?

Note: After more than a month-long hiatus in which the blog's author traveled to places as far and exotic as the Galapagos Islands and New Jersey, Friday Field Notes is back! Here's hoping that the natural world provides us all with excitement, beauty, enlightenment, and inspiration in 2013!

In the last few years, you may have driven past a billboard or a truck displaying this eye-catching advertisement:

The ad, containing a stunning aerial shot of Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring, was put out by the Montana Office of Tourism in an attempt to ensure people spend time in Big Sky country on their next Yellowstone trip. The irony of it, however, will not be lost on most: Grand Prismatic rests firmly within Wyoming's borders. 

Yellowstone, oft heralded not just as America's but the world's first national park, is a spectacular and sublime place, so it's no surprise that Montana would want to claim partial "ownership" of it. And technically speaking, 3% of Yellowstone's more than 2.2 million acres is within our borders (1% falls within Idaho, while the remaining 96% makes up the northwest corner of Wyoming). But that's just the thing: only 3% of Yellowstone is within Montana. When one looks at the park's boundaries, this section appears as little more than a straight sliver of land invading south-central Montana. This observation begs the question: Just why exactly is Yellowstone even in Montana? A deeper look at history begins to reveal some of the answers.
When the Hayden Expedition ventured through the area we now call Yellowstone back in 1871, the party was exploring what was then the Montana and Wyoming territories, as the states were not admitted to the union until the years 1889 and 1890, respectively. What they saw was both a bizarre and enchanting landscape, teeming with mountains, streams, canyons, geysers, and wildlife. As word traveled back east, curiosity about the "Yellowstone country" grew, and calls for its protection inevitably began.

An early map of the Montana Territory, showing the sliver of YNP within the state.

The loudest shouts for the setting aside of a nature reserve in the Yellowstone region were not just from conservationists, but also from promoters with ties to railroad companies. The growing desire to see some level of protection afforded to Yellowstone's most prominent natural features resulted in a somewhat hastily drawn up plan. The selection of Yellowstone's boundaries was later described by then NPS Director Horace Albright:

"The north line was drawn through the junction of the Gardner and the Yellowstone Rivers; the east line was drawn north and south through a point ten miles east-ward from the most eastern point of Yellowstone Lake; the south line was drawn through a point ten miles south of the most southern point of Yellowstone Lake; and the west line was drawn through a point fifteen miles west of the most western point of Madison Lake."

The intent of such a design was strictly to create a significant buffer around Yellowstone's main attractions in order to ensure their protection from outside influences. This approach, however, lacked any regard for ecological or economic values, and it was not long before problems arose due to the park's arbitrary boundaries.

As early as 1880, the mining, timber, and railroad industries sought to push the northern boundary south to what is now the Montana-Wyoming border. Arnold Hague, a prominent USGS geologist at the time, wrote of such a plan: "Little would be lost in the way of timber land or natural scenery needing protection." At the same time, however, numerous parties were pushing for an expansion of the park. Of particular interest were the southern and eastern boundaries, which many felt should have been extended outward in order to protected wildlife habitat. Despite the various struggles to alter Yellowstone, the original borders of the park were solidified in perpetuity by an Act of Congress in 1891, and as a result, the northern 3% of the park remains within Montana.

The world famous Roosevelt Arch stands in front of Yellowstone's Northern Range

Today, thanks in large part to over one hundred years of observations and the emergence of the fields of ecology and wildlife management, we better understand the role Yellowstone's boundaries play in park management and the long-term conservation of the park's species. From an ecological standpoint, it is a good thing that Yellowstone extends into Montana, if only briefly, as this area is important winter range for a number of the park's animals, including bison and elk. But of course, animals do not see nor acknowledge such political boundaries, and as a result, this portion of the park has presented numerous management challenges as conservation values clash with private interests at the park's border. Some people would like to see stricter protections afforded to Yellowstone's wildlife when they cross the northern boundary, while others would like to see greater efforts to keep animals within the park.

The discussion over how to best deal with issues around Yellowstone's northern boundary will continue well into the future, but one thing is certain: Yellowstone is definitely in Montana.

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