This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Text By Jeff Welsch
Photos by Dave Showalter, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP).
High on the rugged talus slopes of 13,153-foot Francs Peak, not 40 miles of raven flight southwest of Cody, Wyo., a single grizzly bear paws determinedly at boulders the size of beach balls. Soon another arrives. Then another. And then yet another – until there are 10 or perhaps 25 or, as once witnessed through the disbelieving eyes of a Wyoming Game & Fish Department biologist, a staggering 59.
It is mid-summer on Yellowstone National Park’s wild eastern flank, and the grizzly’s internal clock is ticking. Winter is coming. Hibernation beckons. A drive to survive has brought the bear to these stark environs above tree line. On Francs Peak, one of 53 such sites on a landscape known locally as the Absaroka-Beartooth Front, grizzlies gorge on hundreds of thousands of army cutworm moths, which have come to receive nourishment from the sweet nectar of newly blossoming wildflowers and to seek refuge from the oppressive dry heat of distant valleys.
With effortless flicks of powerful paws, the grizzlies send burly rocks tumbling down the mountainside. The bears frantically devour the moths as they emerge frenetically from the darkness. Larger bears will gobble down as many as 40,000 in a day.
Nowhere else in the Lower 48 do these annual spectacles occur with such fervor – not even inside Yellowstone, the very symbol of America’s remaining wildness. And it’s still possible to see this phenomenon, more than two centuries after the Euro-invasion began in the early 1800s, because people long ago recognized what the wild values of this part of the world mean to our cultural fabric. Today, we’re also seeing the growing benefits to our economies.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – 20 million acres in all, with Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million fiery acres as its core – has always been a place of mystique and wonder. It is also a place of firsts.
Any junior-high student paying attention in history class knows that Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, formally created in 1872. But it was also here, a century later, that on-the-ground “ecosystem” thinking took root with the realization that rescuing the Yellowstone grizzly bear from extinction required more than simply ensuring its survival inside a park.
In between, a mountain-man entrepreneur named Buffalo Bill Cody, along with close friend Theodore Roosevelt, recognized the intrinsic values of the rugged high mountains, free-flowing streams and bountiful wildlife on Yellowstone’s eastern porch. In 1891, 19 years after Yellowstone’s birth, they set aside 2.4 million acres as the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve, thus creating the nation’s first national forest. Roosevelt called the lone serpentine wagon road bisecting the Shoshone National Forest along the North Fork of the Shoshone River — now the paved U.S. 14/16/20 between Cody and Yellowstone’s East Entrance — “the 50 most beautiful miles in America.”
On a map, the vast Absaroka-Beartooth Front appears as an upside-down ‘L’ stretching roughly from the Yellowstone River valley between Livingston and Gardiner, Montana, east to Red Lodge, Montana, and then south to the Bighorn River canyon near Thermopolis, Wyoming. It is a place where grassy plains, undulating sagebrush shoulders and red-rock badlands rise abruptly to dramatic confluences with the jagged volcanic peaks of the Absarokas and the burly granite shoulders of the Beartooths.
With the restoration of the gray wolf to the region in 1995, Greater Yellowstone today is one of the few largely intact temperate ecosystems on Earth. And no part – not even Yellowstone itself – features more wilderness than the Absaroka-Beartooth Front. Four federal wilderness areas are here: The Absaroka-Beartooth in Montana and Wyoming, and the North Absaroka, Washakie and parts of the Teton exclusively in Wyoming.
The longest elk migration in America occurs in the Wyoming portion every spring and autumn. Greater Yellowstone’s brawniest wolves, the Delta Pack, move between the AB Front’s wilderness areas and southeast Yellowstone’s Thorofare Region, where the ranger station is the farthest manned dwelling from a road in the Lower 48 states. The Front gives sanctuary to the imperiled lynx and wolverine, and is a stronghold for bighorn sheep. Climate models suggest that clear, cool waters high in the Absaroka Range will soon be remote safety-deposit boxes for struggling native cutthroat trout.
Given these unique values, and exhaustive studies showing that future economic prosperity in the West will be inextricably linked to protected public lands, ensuring the Absaroka-Beartooth Front’s wildness would seem a natural. Yet until recently it remained highly vulnerable.
Wherever plains and mountains clash, aesthetics aren’t the only riches. Deep beneath the Earth’s crust are a treasure trove of untapped energy sources, creating a clash of cultures as well. After two decades of inactivity, energy companies and their backers recently have coveted the oil and gas beneath lands along the Front administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
As the BLM and Shoshone National Forest embarked on long-term management plans, conservation groups such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition worked with local communities, government agencies and even energy companies to highlight the region’s wild characteristics, recreational values and uniquely western way of life.
Critical to this effort was the vivid imagery of Dave Showalter of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Spending months afield, Showalter skillfully captured the essence of the area’s rich lands, waters and wildlife. Equally important: showcasing the AB Front’s cultural voices.
From Cheyenne to Cody, people of all stripes were transfixed by Showalter’s photographs of the region’s stark beauty, prolific wildlife, pure waters, and working landscape. Powerful county commissioners, whose sympathies tended to lean toward extractive industries, agreed that different rules should apply to the Front. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, normally a proponent of oil and gas development, publicly supported protections, extolling the wildlife values on Yellowstone’s eastern flank and calling it “a land of wide-open spaces from the badlands of the interior to the magnificent rim of the highlands.”
When the Shoshone released its proposed 15- to 20-year management plan in early 2014, it was clear the voices for one of America’s last vestiges of untrammeled wildness were heard. Thanks in great part to Showalter and iLCP’s 2011 expedition’s focus on the Absaroka-Beartooth Front, nearly 1 million acres beyond the 1.4 million acres of already-protected wilderness in Wyoming are to be exempt from oil and gas development.
Yet challenges remain. At the 11th hour, and without public comment, the Shoshone opted to open two wild areas to motorized usage. One of those is the Francs Peak-Wood River roadless area. This rugged region of the southeast Absaroka-Beartooth Front covers roughly 125,000 acres and has received considerable public support for future wilderness. It is also essential to grizzly bears.
The great bear, the preeminent symbol of Yellowstone’s wildness, is a remarkable conservation success story. Its numbers in Greater Yellowstone have risen from fewer than 200 in the early 1980s to more than 740 today. With grizzlies appearing in places they haven’t been seen in generations, the emphasis on protections is shifting, to ensuring that wild places like the Francs Peak –Wood River region remain a safe haven where conflicts with humans are rare.
The vast majority of grizzly mortality each year is a result of incidents involving humans, ranging from a stealthy hunter surprising a sow with cubs to a big boar stumbling upon inappropriately stored dog food or garbage. Opening places like Francs Peak to motorized recreation is a recipe for trouble, for both bear and people.
Yet it’s because of wild places like the Absaroka-Beartooth Front, and our willingness long ago and today to protect them, that we have such welcome challenges – not to mention the once-unthinkable privilege of seeing 10 or 15 or 25 or even a staggering 59 grizzly bears feasting on a buffet of army cutworm moths high on the talus slopes of Yellowstone’s front porch.
Jeff Welsch is communications coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group based in Bozeman, Montana.