In Native American culture tribal members often turned to the wisdom of their elders for leadership and vision. Elders were not always the oldest or even the wisest. They were irreplaceable keepers of oral history, tradition, and the legacy of knowledge. Here, we present six people with irreplaceable perspectives on the history and management of three cornerstone issues for Yellowstone National Park: bears, wolves, and fire. Two of these individuals were there at the beginning – Bob Barbee as superintendent from 1982 to 1994, and John Varley, his chief scientist in the park. They saw the controversies as insiders from start to finish.
In the twenty five years since wildfires burned over third of Yellowstone there have been papers, books, and remembrances; a partial list can be found at in the reference portion at the end of this work. Grizzly bears and wolves have also attracted their fair share of attention. The fires of 1988 were a spectacular ecological lesson that have been variously interpreted as either a bureaucratic failure that resulted in the ruin of one of America's great treasures or, the success of brave park personnel that persisted in allowing the park to be managed by nature rather than politics. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between and inevitably, involved some luck and the fortuitous timing of a September snowstorm that put the fires to rest.
The management of large predators in the park has been covered from a wide spectrum of political viewpoints going all the way back to at least the 1943 when the last wolf was killed within the boundaries of the park. The discussion of the management of wolves and bears is mostly focused on a myriad of complex questions related to ecosystem science and human tolerance: To what extent should they exist in the park, How do we coexist with large predators that can easily kill us, Is the reintroduced wolf a "super wolf", How many bears are enough, How can an ecosystem be said to be complete without a full complement of predators, Is modern resource management really a thinly disguised "War on the West"? These are important and difficult issues that will be debated for many years to come. The story that has not been told, and the reason for this work, is how and why Yellowstone National Park officials decided to manage the two keystone predators they way they did.
At various intervals between 2014 and 2016 I was lucky to spend time with the elders below. John Baden and I have been friends for many years and it was through his programs with federal judges I was introduced to Bob Barbee and John Varley. As I listened to them talk about their park careers it occurred to me that I had never heard their version of the story. In 2015 Bob and John, as well as Doug Smith and Scott McMillion, joined us in a dinner and taping session at the Baden ranch in Gallatin Gateway, Montana. We caught up with Dan Wenk at his home in Mammoth Hot Springs in the Spring of 2016. I had three goals for this work. My first intention was to pull together the stories of bear and wolf management from the point of view of the managers who were there, on the ground, making decisions on a daily basis. Bob's perspective on the role of Dick Cheney during early discussions of the wolf reintroduction will come as a surprise to most. Second, I wanted to try to explain why the two management efforts - rebuilding the Yellowstone grizzly bear population and reintroducing wolves to the region, has had such different political results. I focus on the types of institutions that governed each and the role they play in shaping public perception. Finally, I wanted to put a human face on management of these two watershed issues. I do so with the hope that those who follow Bob, John, Doug, and others can appreciate the importance of humility, honesty and personality so important to modern resource management. The obvious lesson is that resource managment needs good science but it also needs good people. I hope what follows satisfies a small portion of those goals.
Editor's Note: Jerry Johnson is a professor of political science at Montana Sate University in Bozeman, Montana. He teaches natural resource policy, administrative law, and various introductory courses. His research has focused on tourism and tourism impacts, land use change in the Greater Yellowstone region, the political economy of social and economic changes taking place in the Rocky Mountains, and decision making in high risk settings. He is the author of numerous academic papers, two books, and popular articles. He is a research affiliate in the MSU Snow and Avalanche Laboratory.