You Can’t Have Your Buffaloberries and Eat Them, Too

The wildlife migration patterns and tendencies throughout the whole Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) are of great importance to residents of Wyoming, let alone to the people who live in the Jackson Hole area. These animals have shaped the memories of Wyoming residents from their early childhood by increasing their personal fascination with each long drive through Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding areas. The grizzly bear is one of the many cherished animals in this thriving ecosystem, but the love for these bears has only existed since it was first put on the Endangered Species Act in 1975, when their population fell below 200 in the area, due in part to natural deaths, as well as human caused casualties. Since then, the bears’ population has grown quite rapidly, at least in terms of the species reproduction rate, allowing park officials to remove the animal from the Endangered Species list in 2008. This rapid increase in the bear population sparks confusion to some because, from a distant eye, this problem seems resolved when it is anything but. As a result of infrastructure and real-estate development, the grizzly bear of the GYE impulsively resulted to unnatural methods of survival causing it to lose its definition as a keystone species.

In recent years, the GYE has experienced a severe lack of resources to support its wildlife and, while the bear has seen a significant spike in its population, the ecosystem presents a threat that could once again endanger it. While the national parks record a sufficient population in the area, the bears are ill-equipped to survive off of the low amounts of food that are currently available to them in the GYE. The lack of food presents a problem, for obvious reasons, but while we do not need to worry about the bear starving, what the bear eats is of great importance to its surrounding ecosystem because of its inadvertent ability to both regulate other species population and spread blueberry and buffaloberry seeds. The surrounding ecosystem depends on the health and dietary consumption of the GYE’s grizzly bear, rendering it a keystone species. The animal’s inability to perform tasks unofficially assigned are reminiscent of the fact that its supplies are greatly limited, causing it to resort to sources not beneficial to its health.

The bears’ unhealthy dietary habits are to be blamed for its fragile population growth. While its population has more than quintupled since its introduction to the Endangered Species list, the bear is still in danger of extinction because of its source of food. The bears’ population has grown steadily due to the consumption of waste. “[The] conclusions of private wildlife studies . . . [show] grizzly bear research, which suggested that grizzlies might need the garbage dumps to survive,” writes Alston Chase in his book Playing God in Yellowstone. If bears are depending on trash and other non-natural sources for food, then their tendencies are not only unhealthy for themselves, but they are polluting the surrounding environment that other animals depend on. Because trash is more readily available to the animal, human influence has reversed the bears’ role as a keystone species by harming their dependents and contaminating their habitat.

The cause for this lack of resources available to the bears can be attributed to the recent spike in human population in the surrounding areas. Wyoming, specifically the Jackson area, receives huge influxes of people due to the fact that residents do not pay state taxes and both national parks host numerous tourists every year. An article published by Yellowstone National Park in 2008 (when the bear was removed from the Endangered Species List) notes that “The 20 counties surrounding the Greater Yellowstone jumped a whopping 14 percent in population in the last decade . . . which means less space for bears and more opportunities for bear-human conflict.” Human beings desire for accommodating expansion and development poached the bears’ natural habitat, abnegating the fact that the bear is in need of assistance for the sake of survival. The bears survival rests purely on the human efforts in our national parks and their ability to identify problem areas and protect the animal from such actions.

Providing human prepared food for the bear will assist it with its re-introduction to the wild by aligning its diet with the same eating habits of the pre-endangered grizzly. This can be achieved by performing tasks such as planting more blueberry and buffaloberry seeds, a key food in the grizzly diet, as well as laying fresh meat from other animal carcasses in areas park officials deem ideal for the bears’ habits and migratory patterns. Wildlife biologist Anthony Clevenger notes in an article aimed to identify the problem associated with infrastructure in specific areas, “to overcome the impacts of habitat fragmentation has been to increase ecological connectivity, or the degree to which a landscape facilitates the movement of organisms.” In order to “facilitate wildlife movement,” the national parks must start with relocating bears in places where trash, and other anomalous food sources, cannot be found. Growing and placing ideal food for the bears’ consumption in specific areas allows the bear to safely adapt to its contrasting environment, due to careful manipulation of the GYE.

Allowing for more human control in the GYE can be seen as unnatural, but if done correctly, human involvement will naturally subside, rendering this animal capable of surviving in the GYE. Humans’ non-natural control can lead to naturally re-introducing the bear to the GYE. The idea of human-intervened food sources generates the possibility that, with minimal intervention, bears will naturally find themselves in the wild, similar to the pre-endangered generation.

The grizzly’s assistance from the national parks in the form of human-prepared food realigns the bears’ dietary eating habits in the hopes of rejuvenating the ecosystems. The ecosystem lacks sufficient resources for bears’ population to adequately reproduce and maintain their population. “Given the absence of factors needed to support ecological process management and the existence of facilities that support recreational uses in parks, it is prudent to ponder whether or not these parks’ ecosystems are in fact natural” writes R. Gerald Wright in “Wildlife Management in the National Parks: Questions in Search of Answers.”According to Wright, the grizzly bears’ survival off of human intervention would not differentiate between its species and other animals in the GYE. Most other animals in this area, to some extent, receive some form of human intervention that protects them from other species, or protects herds of animals entering locations that could risk separating the herd. As a result of providing the bear with human-prepared food, the species will survive a time of destroyed ecological input, and aid in replenishing its food resources to provide for future generations of bears.

Because of the bears’ lasting effect on its ecosystem, the overall health of the GYE depends on their discretion in eating habits and habitat. The health of the GYE and the grizzly bear in the region are of great importance to the residents of Wyoming because the bear is a prime animal for viewing pleasure when one visits the tourist area. In the eyes of the public, human-provided food can be seen as unnatural, when in fact it is a stepping stone to adopt the bear in its natural habitat. Human-provided food represents a healthy alternative for sustaining the current bear population, as well as replenishing the surrounding ecosystem for the overall health of the GYE.

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Version 2Dallas Leasure lives in Colorado Springs and currently studies Construction Management at PPCC.