20th Anniversary of Catastrophic Yellowstone Fires Forces a Look Forward

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"Black Saturday's" Damage No Comparison to Today's Loss of Crucial Winter Habitat

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Our generation faces a historic challenge and opportunity to secure Yellowstone's wildlife heritage, for all time. If we fail, the park and iconic assemblage of wildlife species that give this landscape its life will be diminished forever

Twenty years ago today, more than 150,000 acres of Yellowstone National Park burned in a 24-hour period deemed "Black Saturday," part of the worst fires in the park's history that consumed 800,000 acres total. Looking back, the fires did little or no long-term damage to the park's plants and animals - almost nothing compared to the threats the park faces today.

While the heart of the Greater Yellowstone region is protected in 2.5 million acres of national parks, the winter habitat surrounding the park - the land most critical to the survival of much of Yellowstone's wildlife - is under-protected and disappearing rapidly.

According to demographic and scientific trends, in the last two decades, the Greater Yellowstone region has experienced twice the nation's population growth rate and six times the rate of land conversion and habitat loss. While only 27,000 houses were located within 50 miles of the park in 1940, today that number exceeds 88,000 and scientists predict we could reach 143,000 in the next two decades.

"This is the biggest crisis Yellowstone faces since it was created. At the current rate of permanent habitat loss, the extraordinary wildlife that characterizes the region will not be maintained for future generations," said Paul Hansen, director of the Greater Yellowstone program at The Nature Conservancy. "Very few of the millions visiting have any sense of that."

Winter range is found primarily in the lower elevation river valleys, places also popular with home owners and the increasing number of residents who move to the region for its natural beauty. When significant portions of the park are covered in 50 feet of snow, as can be typical in the winter months, animals need room to move to less harsh conditions. Their useable space is rapidly shrinking.

The Nature Conservancy and its partners have identified the 2.8 million acres that are the most important to the survival of the Greater Yellowstone's wildlife. Working collaboratively with others, the Conservancy is working to protect 1 million acres, the most important 4 percent of the total Greater Yellowstone wildlife habitat, by 2015. This is an ambitious goal, but the Conservancy has protected more than 117 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers around the world.

"Our generation faces a historic challenge and opportunity to secure Yellowstone's wildlife heritage, for all time. If we fail, the park and iconic assemblage of wildlife species that give this landscape its life will be diminished forever," Hansen said.

Identifying ways for man and nature to coexist is not a new problem. Earlier this summer the Conservancy and Harvard University released a new study examining the effect of staggering urban growth on nature and people that finds if we don't improve urban planning now, we may lose some animals, plants and natural resources for good. Among the findings:

  •     By 2030, expanding urban areas will fill 350,000 square miles, an area the size of Texas.
  •     In 2007, the United Nations revealed that at least 50 percent of the world's population is living in cities. By 2030, that number will jump to 60 percent, with nearly 2 billion new city residents, many migrating from rural areas.
  •     8 percent of vertebrae species have been labeled as "endangered" due to the effects of rapid urban development.
  •     Economic concerns will also emerge with rapid urban growth. For example, accidental or intentionally started fires will increase, costing additional dollars and resources to suppress the flames that threaten homes, businesses and buildings. At Tijuca National Park near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, there are around 75 wildfires a year, almost all caused by humans and most started at the edge of the park by surrounding residents.

The headwaters of all three of the nation's largest watersheds- the Columbia, the Colorado and the Mississippi- begin in Yellowstone. It is the world's first park and the first international biosphere reserve. It is the location of the five longest remaining long-distance mammal migrations- one of the Earth's most stunning and imperiled biological phenomena-in the lower 48 United States.

Wildlife habitat include large concentrations of elk, mule deer, bighorn mountain sheep, bison, and pronghorn, and the Greater Yellowstone serves as the southern anchor of a larger system -stretching through northern Idaho and Montana into Canada - for wide-ranging carnivores that are critical to the natural balance: wolves, grizzly bears, coyotes, mountain lions, wolverine, lynx, and fox.

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. To date, the Conservancy and its more than one million members have been responsible for the protection of more than 18 million acres in the United States and have helped preserve more than 117 million acres in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at http://www.nature.org.

Nichole Matous
(307) 734-0440

Paul Hansen
(307) 733-8890


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