The Ecology of Fear, a skier’s journey into the heart of wild America
Story originally published in winter 2018 issue of Mountain Magazine.
Blood stains the snow scarlet. The yipping of some wild canid or another, probably a coyote, maybe a wolf, carries from somewhere in the wilderness. Normally I’d investigate — is there a grisly scene nearby? — except I’m preoccupied with the enormous mammal in front me.
Biologists recommend staying at least 75 feet from bison, which are famed for sending clueless tourists flying before goring them. I’m about that far away now, but the bison is blocking my ski trail.
So I enjoy a snack, figuring we can eat together. When he lumbers another 20 feet up the hillside, I make my move — I have many miles to ski before dark. Heart pounding, straining to exude bison-friendly vibes, I schuss past. When his bludgeon of a head turns I contemplate whether bear spray would stop a charging bison.
Thrilled to pass gore-free, my jubilance soon evaporates in exhaled mist. The next set of tracks before me are the size of lunch plates — a large pad with five toes topped by two-inch long claw marks.
It’s the second week of March, but the extended high pressure apparently has awoken one of the first grizzlies in the Northern Rockies. A new intensity in the air, I climb for two sunset runs down the west face of Terrace Mountain as the sun slips behind the western peaks, one skier alone in the wilderness. Darkness pools in tree wells as I start the long traverse back to my car at Mammoth Hot Springs, wolf howls cutting the air.
This is Yellowstone, the world’s first National Park, America’s best idea. Set aside in 1872, four years before Custer’s defeat, Yellowstone represents a revolutionary idea: Some places are better left wild and free. One of the last intact temperate wildernesses on Earth, Yellowstone harbors the highest concentrations of wildlife in the Lower 48. Every carnivore present in the time of Lewis and Clark is still here today. In Yellowstone, herds of bison, pronghorn, and elk migrate seasonally in such numbers the park has been dubbed the American Serengeti. Surrounded by public lands, it’s the beating heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a 35,000-square-mile tangle of mountains and rivers, wolves and bears.
With virtually all of the park over 6,000 feet and a geographic moisture channel delivering snow straight from the Pacific, it also gets reliably buried in snow. Head into the backcountry in winter and you’re more likely to encounter a wolf pack than other people. Of the 4.25 million visits in 2016, only four percent came from November through April. In other words, Yellowstone is wild — and a rip-roaring place to ski. On a typical winter day there are more bison than people in Yellowstone.
As Doug Smith, the legendary park biologist who oversaw wolf reintroduction, tells me, “Yellowstone is for preserving nature. Most land management agencies have some kind of multiple use. The National Park Service is about preservation, it’s about no use, and it’s the only land management agency in the U.S., and one of the only in the world, that has that as a mission statement.”
In an anti-science age that’s seeing entire bodies of work expunged from government websites and federal scientists gagged, Yellowstone offers reason for hope and even a path forward. More than just a landscape brimming with wild creatures, the park is a paragon of science and perhaps the best biology experiment we’ve ever conducted.
Desperate to escape the batshit madness that is our country’s politics, I’ve set out to explore Yellowstone in winter not just as a reprieve from modern stresses, but in search of something foundational, something true. Why does Yellowstone matter?
While most of the park is buried under deep snow and only reachable by snowmachine or days of skiing, a single plowed ribbon of asphalt, two-lane Highway 212, shadows the Montana/ Wyoming border and traverses the park’s wild northern reaches.
The majority of Yellowstone is a vast caldera created by a supervolcano that vaporized its mountains, leaving a thermally active, yet fairly flat landscape. It’s great for cross-country skiing through geyser fields, but lacking terrain for powder turns. The park’s northern reach, however, sits outside the ancient blast zone. Its winding access road, spectacular in any season, delivers winter travelers to wildlife-packed valleys backed by the vaulting, snow-choked Absaroka Mountains, with myriad peaks over 10,000 feet, and the lower, gentler Washburn Mountains, thick with wolves and ideal for exploratory three-pin tours.
Follow that road to where the plowing stops, just outside the park boundary and wedged between shark’s-tooth peaks, and you’ll find the 1800’s mining village of Cooke City. It’s here that I roll up to an old log cabin half-buried in snow to meet Jesse Logan. The pioneering entomologist who first predicted the now widespread, climate driven die-off of whitebark pine trees from pine beetles, Logan, 72 and retired, now devotes his winters to bagging over 100 backcountry ski days a season.
As we drive into the Lamar Valley, the most storied wildlife viewing locale in America, Logan describes the area’s various wolf packs and their ongoing street-gang-style brawls over territory.
“There are some right there,” he says. And lo, there are three wolves, no four, all black and loping along the far bank of Soda Butte Creek. We pull over to watch them alongside a small throng of dedicated wolf watchers with spotting scopes. These obsessives comb the park year-round looking for wolves, which they’ve named and followed for years. But they seldom depart the roadways, leaving the hills for skiers.
Driving again, we pass the weathered cabins of the historic Lamar Ranger Station, built in 1907 when bison neared extinction. From the 50 million that once thundered across the American West, their numbers were reduced to a mere 325 by white men. As few as 25 bison remained in Yellowstone. For 50 years, rangers at this station, known as Buffalo Ranch, worked to revive the herd here in the Lamar Valley. Today, the park is home to 3,000 wild bison.
We park at an unsigned pullout with several bison grazing nearby. Logan asks if I can tell when they’re agitated.
“It’s when they raise their tail,” he says. “That’s when the chips are down.”
He lets me try to decipher that for a moment before explaining — they’re either angry and preparing for a goring, or they’re about to drop a load of buffalo chips.
“Uh, Jesse, it’s raising its tail,” I say, as we start skiing.
“Yes, it is,” he says, with a note of concern. And for a pregnant moment we freeze…until the chips pour out like slot machine coins.
A little farther down the road, Logan shows me where wolf release pens were once located. After decades of hunting and poisoning, gray wolves were eradicated from Yellowstone in 1926 and soon eliminated from the entirety of the American West. They returned thanks to the Endangered Species Act, signed into law in 1973 by Republican president Richard Nixon, in an era when bipartisan cooperation to protect wildlife was patriotic. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Today, approximately 100 wolves in 10 packs roam the park. An additional 1,500 have spread across the American West.
As we ski, Logan points out the thick band of willows lining the creek below and the uniformly tall aspen trees scattered through the glades around us. When the wolves were gone, massive resident elk herds ruled these valleys, denuding streamside vegetation and devouring any young, tender aspen that sprouted. For decades no aspen survived infancy. Birds, beaver, and water quality suffered without willows and Yellowstone’s aspen were heading for extinction.
With wolves back on the landscape, elk no longer loll in the open, eating everything in site. Constantly moving again, they seek concealment in the dark timber where willow and aspen are few. Logan, encouraging me to look more closely, notes the multitude of thriving, young aspen coming in beneath the decadent ones. He calls this, “The ecology of fear.”
The wind is furious as we gain Specimen Ridge that afternoon. Old, compressed tracks of wolves and coyotes rise from the scoured snow in raised relief. Amethyst Peak, home to ancient petrified redwood forests, rises on one side, Mount Washburn on the other. Below is the denouement of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Logan points beneath racing clouds where bison trails lead to a forested plateau. He hiked past there once, he says, to a creek where the trout had never seen an artificial fly.
The nonpartisan National Park System Advisory Board was established in 1935 to provide scientific and management expertise to the Department of Interior. This past January, nine of its 12 members resigned over Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s refusal to convene a single meeting. As a result, no new national historic or natural landmarks, which the board oversees, can be designated. Which probably doesn’t bother the current administration. After all, almost a year into his job, Zinke hasn’t even nominated a National Park Service director yet.
As board member Carolyn Hessler-Radelet stated in her resignation letter, “I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside.” At a time of record park visitation, the National Park Service has 10 percent fewer employees than it did five years ago and faces an $11.9 billion maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, the current administration plans to slash the Park Service’s funding by $300 million, the largest cut since World War II. To compensate, they intend to double entrance fees for the most visited parks — Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite — to $70. The proposed budget also cuts funding for the Department of Agriculture, which manages the Forest Service, by 21 percent, and for the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent. (Meanwhile, military spending would increase by $54 billion, with $2.6 billion set aside for a border wall.)
The irony is that the politicians aren’t even doing money grubbing right. For all the talk from Washington about increasing logging, mining, drilling, and privatization of public lands, the protected public lands are huge economic engines. A recent study from Headwaters Economics shows that since 1970, rural counties in the American West rich with public lands have two to four times the economic growth as counties with less public lands. Over the same time period, counties with at least 30 percent protected lands showed over four times the job growth as counties with no protected lands. But nothing brings in dollars like national parks. In 2016, visitors to Yellowstone spent more than $500 million in surrounding communities. Visitors to all of America’s national parks combined spent over $8 billion.
A few weeks later, Logan and I ski again, this time into the Antelope Creek area above Tower Falls, where grizzlies hibernate and humans rarely tread. Backcountry skiers are used to managing a suite of objective hazards, from avalanches to winter storms to injuries in remote country. Come March in Yellowstone, skiers can add grizzly bears to the list. With spring approaching, we both carry bear spray.
Logan meets grizzlies with unnerving regularity, an experience he reveres as, “Tremendously valuable.” Once, while skiing a creek bottom toward a small box canyon, he came upon grizzly tracks leading to the canyon’s entrance. Following them to the head of the canyon, he found a freshly killed elk carcass. The afternoon was warming and climbing above the canyon could expose him to wet avalanches, but after considering the alternative — facing a murderous grizzly in a narrow canyon — he climbed. After skiing past more tracks and carcasses, he skied down to inspect the canyon’s exit. No grizzly tracks emerged. The bear was still in the narrow valley. He’d made a wise choice.
“I have close friends in Switzerland that love to backcountry ski here,” Logan tells me. “And it’s not because of our mountains. They have mountains there. They love coming because it’s as wild as you can get without an expedition.”
Though it’s early March at 7,500 feet, the temperatures are strangely balmy and an unpredictable, breakable crust sits atop two feet of sugar. I face-plant spectacularly into trap-door snow more than once. We ski on, navigating creeks, facing bison and fox, pointing out skiable lines on Mount Washburn, and wondering if a grizzly will awaken. As the afternoon warms and the delicate crust deteriorates to what we both agree is perhaps the worst snow we’ve ever skied, we happily discover that bison trails leave a mostly supportable snow structure for us to follow.
The last month has seen well above average temperatures in the park, and pronghorn are returning to low elevation valleys earlier than locals have ever seen. Later, I ask Doug Smith, the longtime park biologist, about changing weather patterns.
“Climate change is kicking our ass,” he says without hesitation. At a time when government scientists are increasingly muzzled and the EPA is headed by a climate change denier, Smith isn’t afraid to be a truth-teller. “I’m worried,” he says. “We’ve already lost two breeding species of colonial birds — Caspian Terns and California Gulls don’t nest in the park anymore because of erratic springtime weather. It’s crazy.”
Skiing on spring snow well before spring, I start to see what may be Yellowstone’s greatest value for our age — it gives us a way to measure our impact on a changing world. Yellowstone teaches us what coexistence looks like. “Speaking as a scientist, you always need a control,” Logan says as we attempt to ski back to the car with minimal wipeouts. “Yellowstone is an ecological baseline. It’s mostly pristine, but when you leave Yellowstone it’s a human-dominated world.”
Yellowstone is invaluable for science, just as science, and the way it uses measurable observations as the foundation for decision making, is invaluable for humanity. Science teaches us to observe closely, think clearly, and make decisions based not on gut-level emotional reactions, but on facts and data. It embraces complexity. It makes us smarter.
The scientific worldview embodied by Logan and Smith is a vital counter to the bullying forces in America driven by a fearful, black-and-white worldview and us-versus-them impulses. Yellowstone can heal and rejuvenate our spirits, yes, but it can also show us a better way to think and manage society. “It’s hard for humans to be evidence-based,” Smith tells me while lamenting the uninformed vitriol people aim at wolves and other carnivores. “We all cling to our stories. They make us popular at bars.”
In search of some new stories of my own, I make it back to Yellowstone in early May for my last days of skiing. The valleys have melted out and are thick with grizzlies, wolves, and a parade of carnivores feasting on the calorie-rich carcasses of winter-killed bison and elk. Nothing here goes to waste.
My friend Charles Drimal and I feel the same about the thick spring snowpack still caking the mountains. We ski deep into the park’s northeast corner, past where Logan narrowly averted the box-canyon grizzly, to the summit of 10,479-foot Wolverine Peak. Drimal, who works for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition on behalf of the region’s creeks and rivers, wants to take in the view of the waterways he’s trying to protect.
From the summit, the park boundary, Yellowstone and the Lamar Valley spill away to the southeast, and the vast Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness rises up around us in a procession of serrated peaks. The sheer number of ski lines is electrifying, as is our 2,000-foot, nearly treeless descent on perfect spring corn.
I sleep in my car that night in the valley bottom and rise early the next day to ski a couloir Drimal and I had seen from afar. After skinning and booting for hours through steep forest into the alpine, and up a stone-walled chute, I reach a high crest and look into a new valley to the south. Alone with the sun on a knife-ridge in the sky, I see mountains rising like rocky castles above a blue, forested valley far below. In the weeks and months ahead this snow will melt, creeks will swell, wildflowers will bloom, bison will graze, and grizzly cubs will grow.
After pushing my luck for hours in mountain goat territory, I dodge wet avalanches back to the car and promptly strip my clothes. Wild haired and sweaty, I head straight into the frigid flow of Soda Butte Creek. A shocked family watches from their minivan, but I pay them no mind. My season skiing here has had the desired effect. Yellowstone continues. And so shall we.