Scientists Gather to Discuss Yellowstone’s Future in a Rapidly Changing World

In Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, solar panels at the historic Buffalo Ranch reflect adaptation to a changing world. NPS photo.

Scientists, public land managers and others will gather in Yellowstone National Park this week to discuss and help shape the future of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)—one of the largest intact temperate ecological systems on the planet—spans over 27 million acres of public and private lands that includes the world’s first national park and first international biosphere reserve. Within its boundaries begin the headwaters of three of the largest watersheds in the United States, and the nation’s longest undammed river, the Yellowstone, meanders through its landscape. One of the largest calderas on the planet, along with half of the world’s hydrothermal features, are housed in its borders. The GYE also supports a remarkable treasure trove of flora and fauna, from the charismatic mega-fauna of grizzly bears, elk, bison, or wolves, to the tiny thermophiles that thrive in the extreme heat of the park’s hot springs.

The GYE is a natural wonder of biodiversity. The noted scientist and environmental activist Dr. Edward O. Wilson urges us to “preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.” And an array of groups—land agencies, federal, state and local governments, tribal governments, non-profit organizations, and private individuals—strive to do just that for the GYE.

Preserving and protecting this important resource, however, can prove challenging given the rapidly changing landscape. Yellowstone National Park alone receives over 3 million visitors annually and experienced record-breaking visitation this year. The area has also experienced a surge of development (resulting in 2 million acres being subdivided) that accompanied a steep increase of 61% in population from 1970 to 2000. Recreation, travel patterns and other factors have allowed for an influx of invasive species that threaten the native flora and fauna. And climate change has already begun to alter the historical patterns of the ecological system.

To find solutions to these challenges, scientists, public land managers and others will gather in Yellowstone National Park this week to discuss and help shape the future of the GYE at the 10th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Themed “Questioning Greater Yellowstone’s Future: Climate, Land Use and Invasive Species,” the event is cooperative effort of public land agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations.

The conference’s goal is to examine the changes that climate, land use, and invasive species will bring to the GYE and consider strategies to manage these changes. Tom Olliff, NPS Landscape Coordinator and member of the conference planning committee, says the conference will provide a forum to continue the work that was started on these issues at a number of other gatherings over the past year. “My hope for the conference is to continue down the path of linking scientists and managers on these three landscape-scale issues. Over the 20 year history of the conference, it has been the bedrock for forming relationships between scientists and managers in the GYE; these relationships have been the nucleus of many outstanding collaborative proposals and have served as the foundation of science-informed management in Yellowstone and other GYE agencies.”

Developing new administrative, technological, and scientific tools and strategies is a key area of discussion as Dr. Jeff Kershner, Director of the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center and program chair for the conference, explains:

Our tools need to evolve much more rapidly to meet these challenges. For example, the treatment of major human health issues such as heart disease and cancers does not rely on a single tool. We need to be much more proactive about developing ways to forecast the pathways and likely points of entry of invasive species and develop a toolbox that has multiple treatment pathways for the stages of an invasion, much like cancer specialists have evolved tools and techniques to diagnose and treat the stages of cancer.

The agenda includes three days of presentations and panel discussions on a variety of research about the GYE. But the essence of the conference—synergistic solutions—may also come from the less formal offerings according to Olliff.

Over the years, the scientific presentations have been interesting, educational, and, at times, surprising--at least in terms of gaining new knowledge that, as a manager of Yellowstone, made me re-think some aspect of management. But the real surprises have often come in the special sessions, either the panels where people react synergistically or in the invited keynotes and special sessions like the Superintendent's International Luncheon or the A. Starker Leopold Banquet. These are the sessions that bring in world-class thinkers that can broaden our horizons and even begin a paradigm shift. I would look toward those for the really key messages.

The 10th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is being held October 11-13 at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel in Yellowstone National Park. Keynote speakers and special lecturers include:

• Dr. Goran Ericsson, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies, Swedish University of Agricultural Science

• Dr. Mary Meagher, Retired National Park Service and US Geological Survey Biologist

• Dr. Judith Meyer, Department of Geography, Geology and Planning, Missouri State University.

• Dr. Marcia McNutt, Director, US Geological Survey

• Dr. Stephen Gray, Director, University of Wyoming Water Resources Data System and Wyoming State Climatologist

• Dr. Robert Gresswell, Research Wildlife Biologist, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center

• Dr. Andrew Hansen, Director Landscape Biodiversity Lab and Professor, Ecology, Montana State University

For more information, visit the conference website.

Comments

This is a challenge that will challenge even the most wise and gifted. But judging from the list of speakers, it looks like there are many gifts and wisdom at work here.