The American wilderness is a remarkable institution — while we pollute our oceans and remove entire mountains to extract natural resources, we leave vast areas of land unspoiled by the impact of human activity. In fact, 109 million acres are currently designated federal wilderness areas.
This is all due to the Wilderness Act, which had its 50th anniversary this month after being signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964. The Act established the first areas of federal wilderness in addition to creating a legal definition of wilderness:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Montana itself has 16 designated wildernesses divided between 3.5 million acres, including the massive Bob Marshall and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness areas. Bozeman is lucky enough to have the spectacular Lee Metcalf Wilderness just to our southwest, which is both a hiker’s paradise and an important grizzly habitat.
But despite the definition of wilderness areas as being “untrammeled by man,” humans have meddled with wildlife populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes both the Lee Metcalf and Absaroka-Beartooth Wildernesses. The most famous example is that of grey wolves, which were reintroduced to the ecosystem in 1995 after being eliminated (by human activity, of course) in the 1920s. The reintroduced wolves were not of the native Northern Rocky Mountains wolf species, but were from Canada’s Mackenzie Valley species, according to the National Park Service.
Wolves are predators — they eat deer, elk, moose and other game animals — and managing them has proved a challenge. Since introducing wolves, Yellowstone National Park has seen a decline of elk herds by 50 percent, and elk also spend less time in the open and more time hiding in forested areas. Meanwhile, in Montana, elk numbers in some areas have declined — according to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks — and ranchers continue to speak out against wolves that have killed numerous cattle and sheep. As a result, Montana and Wyoming have introduced wolf hunts, partly in an attempt to mitigate the negative effects of wolf reintroduction. Last year, over 6,000 wolf-hunting permits were purchased in Montana (for a wolf population of approximately 625).
This is not an argument for or against the reintroduction of wolves into ecosystems, rather, it is an example of troublesome situations that can arise when humans meddle with ecosystems in protected areas. There are pros and cons to such interference, but with ecosystems so fragile, we should make every effort to reduce our impact in America’s wild places. After all, a wilderness is “recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Montana’s wilderness areas have managed to avoid most human meddling; however, climate change is bound to change the distribution and number of plant and animal species. Climate change aside, we may also be tempted to interfere with ecosystems in the future for other reasons. But we should resist such temptation — ecosystems are already vulnerable enough, and human interference has the potential to create irreversible negative consequences.
Meanwhile, on this fiftieth anniversary year, celebrate our wilderness areas by hiking in the Lee Metcalf, camping by a pristine alpine lake, or scrambling to the top of a mountain. But remember, as the saying goes, to “leave no trace” — we are, after all, merely visitors in the wild places we call wilderness.
This is not an argument for or against the reintroduction of wolves into ecosystems, rather, it is an example of troublesome situations that can arise when humans meddle with ecosystems in protected areas.