National Geographic : 2016 May
56 national geographic • may 2016 Yellowstone was established, more people have died there of drowning and of scalding in thermal pools, and of suicide, than have been killed by bears. Almost as many people have died from lightning strikes. Two people have been killed by bison. The real lesson inherent in the death of Lance Crosby, and in the equally regrettable death of the bear that killed him, is a reminder of something too easily forgotten: Yellowstone is a wild place, constrained imperfectly within human-imposed limits. It’s a wild place that we have embraced, surrounded, riddled with roads and hotels and souvenir shops, but not tamed, not conquered—a place we treasure because it still represents wildness. It’s filled with wonders of nature—fierce animals, deep canyons, scalding waters—that are magnificent to behold but fret- ful to engage. Most of us, when we visit Yellowstone, see it as if through a Plexiglas window. We gaze from our cars at a roadside bear, we stand at an overlook above a great river, we stroll boardwalks amid the geyser basins, experiencing the park as a diorama. We remain safe and dry. Our shoes don’t get muddy with sulfurous gunk. But the Plexiglas window doesn’t exist, and the diorama is real. It’s painted in blood—the blood of many wild creatures, dying violently in the natural course of relations with one another, predator and prey, and occasionally also the blood of humans. Walk just 200 yards off the road into a forested gully or a sagebrush flat, and you had better be carrying, as Lance Crosby wasn’t, a canister of bear spray. Your park entrance receipt won’t protect you. You can be killed and eaten. But if you are, despite the fact that you have freely made your own choices, there may be retribution. This is the paradox of Yellowstone, and of most other national parks we have added since: wilderness contained, nature under management, wild animals obliged to abide by human rules. It’s the paradox of the cultivated wild. At a national park in Africa— Serengeti in Tanzania, for instance, or Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya, Kruger in South Africa—you wouldn’t face such ambiguity. You would view the danger- ous beasts, the lions and elephants and leopards and buffalo, from the safety of your Land Rover or your safari van, seldom if ever strolling through their habitat on foot. But in America we’ve chosen to do things differently, and Yellowstone, because it’s the first national park, an iconic place known throughout the world, which millions of people visit each year, is where the paradox is most powerfully played out. Yellowstone is also the eponym of the biggest and richest complex of mostly untamed landscape and wildlife within the lower 48 states. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an amoeboid expanse encompassing two national parks (Grand Teton is the second) as well as national for- ests, wildlife refuges, and other public and private holdings, the whole shebang amounting to 22.6 million acres, an order of magnitude bigger than Yellowstone Park itself. Surrounding this great amoeba is a modest transition zone, where you will more likely find cattle than elk, more likely see a grain elevator than a grizzly bear, and more likely hear the bark of a black Labrador than the howl of a wolf. Bounding that buffer is 21st-century America: highways, towns, parking lots, malls, endlessly sprawling suburbs, golf courses, Starbucks. This area, known simply as the Thorofare, is the most remote spot in the lower 48 states. ‘Thirty miles from anything,’ said pilot Roger Stradley.