It’s hard to imagine that our time in Yellowstone was coming to a close. Tomorrow morning, we would all be heading back to Boulder just in time for the start of CU’s spring semester. Fortunately, we still had a full day of activities ahead of us.
First stop: going for a soak in the Boiling River. Here, cold water from the Gardner River mixes with the Boiling River hot spring in this popular Yellowstone soaking spot. However, it should be mentioned that going for a dip in hot springs and other thermal features in the park is prohibited, as features are very fragile, and the temperatures can fluctuate to dangerously high levels. Hopping into in bodies of water fed by runoff from hydrothermal features like this is permitted, though.
It was another cold winter day, so we layered clothing over our bathing suits to keep us warm as we hiked to and from the swimming area. Water shoes were highly recommended, as the rocks can be very slippery and hard to walk through. Not only that, the diversity of water temperatures ranged greatly, and it was easy to tell which part of the river you were in just by walking through. Bone-chilling cold meant Gardner River. Extremely hot water was from the Boiling River. It was a shocking sensation if you weren’t able to find that perfect middle ground where the two mix together!
We spent almost an hour soaking in this beautiful river and learning about the functions of thermal areas like the Boiling River. Some of the students felt brave enough to venture out for a quick swim in the ice-cold Gardner River, only to quickly hop back into the warmth of the pool. Getting out and hiking back to the shuttles, as you can imagine, was not an enjoyable experience.
Upon returning to the Overlook, we reconvened in our designated classroom to meet with our final guest speaker, David Laufenberg. With a strong background in avian research and conservation ecology, David’s work has taken him from his home state of Wisconsin to the far reaches of Ecuador, Colombia, California, Wyoming and Montana, including two years working as an instructor for Yellowstone Forever. He is currently a graduate student studying whitebark pine at Montana State University. David’s ongoing research considers the effects of climate change in subalpine and alpine habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
David also looped us into an ongoing project of his called Common Ground. It began when he and his friends felt inclined to take action after a movement across the United States had begun to sell off our public lands. Despite strong public opinion, legislators and lobbyists were working with unprecedented eagerness to transfer public lands to private interests. Considering this, in the summer of 2017, David and two friends set off on a week-long journey from Bozeman to Red lodge, Montana. This journey spanned 250 miles across the largest intact ecosystem in the lower forty-eight states. The goal of this run? To empower the community to act in defense of our public lands and inspire adventure across the places we call home.
We had all learned a great deal throughout our time in Yellowstone, and it was clear that many of the students felt a newfound sense of inspiration and empowerment from this field course. To build off these feelings and end on a high note, Dr. Lambert had asked the students to prepare a short case study for our final discussion, called an “optimism slam.” Each student took five minutes to share an optimistic example of a conservation success story, and they all covered some fascinating ground. For example:
Luke: A wildlife council was created in Montana near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to coexist with wildlife. As one example, they installed electric fences and initiated a carcass pickup program to prevent grizzlies from getting into the area.
Nayanthara: A WWF program in Russia collaborated with local government, organizations, and other stakeholders to protect the Siberian tiger population, which was at an all-time low of about 500 individual animals. Now, the population is no longer in decline, and the goal is to have 6,000 tigers by 2022.
Brady: The Saiga antelope in the Soviet Union/Kazakhstan region suffered through two separate population crashes and the threats of climate change and human population growth. Currently, people in the region are seeing the need to protect this species and finding ways to do so.
Hannah: After Donald Trump was elected as president, people were feeling pessimistic. The Denver Greenroof Initiative was initiated by a group of community members and despite the odds, they were able to create a petition, put this bill on the ballot, and pass what is now one of the strongest mandates on green roofs. In 2018 every building over 250,000 square feet has to have solar panels or green roofs to reduce the heat island effect.
Emily & Mariel: The Channel Island foxes were previously found on all but two of the islands, but an increase of land use and human activity has greatly impacted them as a species. The population was wiped out by European settlers and non-native species; extinction was imminent, so the USFWS listed them as an endangered species. Thanks to conservation efforts, the island foxes are thriving and were taken off the Endangered Species list.
Webb & Ellie: In 1987, the largest land bird in North America, the California condor, was declared extinct in the wild. Habitat loss, DDT, poaching, and lead poisoning through bullet casings were the culprits. The California Condor Recovery Plan began a captive breeding program that was hugely successful, and 10 years later they were released into the wild. The program continues to boost the population in California and Arizona, and the birds are now moving into Nevada on their own. Ellie explained that this program goes to show that “when enough people get behind something, stuff happens and species can be saved.”
Tel: Although the last Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in 1936, scientists were successfully able to genome the species recently. They extracted the DNA, sequenced it, compared it to other species, and completely genotyped this animal, which opens it up to the possibility of cloning and bringing it back from extinction.
Lindley: Boulder, Colorado’s 10 cent grocery bag fee on disposable bags created a 68% reduction in the use of disposable bags in Boulder. There were some major behavioral changes that came with these fees, which go to education efforts. This amazing concept was originally thought of by a group of high school students.
Madeline: In Cuba around 1989-1993 the GDP fell, there were no exports, severe food shortages, electrical blackouts, and a major lack in the population’s nutritional health. They decided to change their agricultural system, and urban farming became a necessity. In 1997 Cuba passed an electrical saving program to reduce consumption and boost education. Now, Cubans use 42% less carbon than others in the world, have a higher life expectancy, lower obesity rate, universal healthcare, and sustainable development included in their policy.
Hailey: British Columbia recently banned the trophy hunting of grizzlies in Canada, and permitted zero hunting of the species in the Great Bear Rainforest. This also took place around same time of grizzly delisting in US, which goes to show how one country can move towards major progress, and another can step backwards.
Carol: Fishers, a member of the weasel family, were once hunted to the brink of extinction. In 2008, the state of Washington reintroduced these animals back to the ecosystem from 2008-2011. It was a very successful program, and populations are now stable and monitored through non-invasive measures.
Makayla: Each year, the Palau Islands have an extremely high number of tourists visiting. To preserve its unique ecosystem, Palau became the first country to require an “eco-pledge” upon arrival. The pledge requires visitors to agree to “tread lightly, act kindly, and explore mindfully.” This program just began in the past year, and has received high praise.
Phoebe: A recent case study in Australia demonstrated how one specific shrub lost 85% of its habitat, due to human development. As a way to manage this plant species and prevent extinction, Australian groups controlled fire and seed predation.
Melissa: The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal in the world, and when diving can reach up to 200 miles per hour. In the 1940s, DDT caused the species’ egg shells to be extremely thin, which reduced reproduction. In 1970 when there were only 324 known nesting pairs remaining, the species gained Endangered Species listing. With this listing and a ban on DDT, the populations are beginning to rise back up.
Carter: In Maine, tourism quadruples the state’s population during the summer months. This has a major effect on resident shorebirds and their nesting sites. In 1986 the piping plover was listed under the Endangered Species Act, with only 500 breeding pairs remaining. Thanks to a 25-30 yearlong program with the USFWS and state departments, the population has recovered to 3x the amount they were than when originally listed in 1986. Outreach with high schools and other educational programs helps to fence of nesting habitats and clearly explain no-go areas.
Dylan: The 1994 genocide that took place in Rwanda absolutely devastated the nation. In 2000 when Paul Kagame was elected president, the genocide ended and a model for how humans can coexist peacefully with nature while promoting economic growth was created. Now, plastic bags are banned in Rwanda and Uganda, ecotourism is a focus, and people work together on tree planting programs and developing new solutions to live with wild nature.
This exercise brought us to a full circle from where we began just under two weeks ago. The students had learned a great deal about the environmental complexities taking place right here in Yellowstone, and throughout the world. Each and every one of us realized we would have many challenges to face in the future, but we were able to leave this course with a sense of hope and knowledge of this small handful of environmental success stories happening across the globe. As Dr. Lambert stated, “pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford.”
We enjoyed our final evening together, and in the morning packed up to head back to Boulder. I can say for sure this is one experience that will leave a lasting impression on all of us. Yellowstone, we’ll be back!