Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks have distinct differences. One is an immense wilderness plateau that sits atop a caldera seething with molten lava; the other is a striking set of peaks rising from a broad river plain. One encloses some of the most remote backcountry in the lower 48 and provides crucial habitat for rare species; the other is a short drive from a chic resort town and includes an airport and grazing cattle in its mixed-use approach. What they do share is the affection of millions of visitors who come here annually to renew their ties to nature through the parks’ mountains, alpine lakes, majestic elk, and astonishing geysers.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an interdependent network of watersheds, mountain ranges, wildlife habitats, and other components extending beyond the two parks into seven national forests, an Indian reservation, three national wildlife refuges, and nearly a million acres of private land. It is one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems on the planet, and covers an area as vast as Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware combined.
It’s also a massive source of water. West of the Continental Divide, snowmelt trickles into creeks, streams, and rivers that run through Yellowstone before draining into the Snake River, traveling through Grand Teton National Park and Idaho, and running into the Columbia River, which winds its way west through Oregon and into the Pacific Ocean. Water on the eastern slopes of the divide passes through Yellowstone in the form of the Madison and Gallatin rivers, which meet the Jefferson River west of Bozeman, Montana, and merge into the Missouri, which flows into the Mississippi and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.
The Parks Today
It has long been a challenge for park managers to make the parks accessible to more than 4 million annual visitors. This necessitates the construction of new facilities and ongoing road maintenance and repair. At the same time, the parks are wild preserves, and the National Park Service must cope with the impact of eight million feet on the forests, meadows, and thermal areas, as well as on the lives of the millions of animals that inhabit the area.
Some of the pivotal issues in the parks today include the impact of snowmobiles; the reintroduced gray wolves and the resulting livestock losses in and around the parks; the inadequacy of the park’s infrastructure to cope with the crush of visitors each year; invasive species; and the reduction of habitat surrounding the parks, coupled with elk and bison seeking forage beyond park boundaries and possibly infecting cattle with a disease called brucellosis, which, when transmitted, causes cows to abort fetuses.
Possible solutions are often “too little, too late,” layering complex management strategies on an ecosystem that might do better if it were allowed to work things out naturally. The problem is that Grand Teton and Yellowstone have already been altered significantly by humans, so “natural” becomes a relative concept.
As the world awakens to the accelerating loss of vital species in shrinking wild habitats, it becomes ever more imperative to find ways to preserve the relatively unspoiled ecosystems, like that of Greater Yellowstone.
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