Several years ago, I reviewed my younger brother Rick’s book, In the Temple of Wolves (2014), which recounted experiences he and his wife Mary shared over several winter stays in Yellowstone National Park. That book was quite successful, boosting Rick from merely a recent retiree to a prominent advocate for Yellowstone and its wildlife, especially the wolf.
The volume under review is a sequel to In the Temple of Wolves, but with a difference. The author’s emphasis this time is, as his subtitle suggests, “A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy.” Rick and Mary are no longer seasonal visitors to the nation’s first national park. Since the publication of In the Temple of Wolves, the “Oregon Lamplughs” have become the “Montana Lamplughs,” moving to Gardiner, just outside Yellowstone’s north gate. That relocation, with the adjustments required of them by their new environment, gives this book its special flavor.
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All the grandeur of the park and its wildlife you’d expect from the author’s lyrical writing in his earlier volume is here, too, but now there’s more. Living year-round next to Yellowstone brought new responsibilities to wolf advocates Rick and Mary, plunging them into controversies about conservation of the park and its denizens vs. exploitation of its resources and wildlife. And, thanks to Rick’s skill in describing those issues, the reader is there with him and his wife throughout that year.
The self-deprecating humor that was part of Rick’ s first book carries over to this volume as well. For example, a chapter entitled “A New Way to Stop” highlights Rick and Mary’s efforts to master cross-country skiing. Rick is determined to learn how to ski downhill safely; after all, what could go wrong? Try a face plant that cuts his forehead and forces him to scramble around madly retrieving glasses, sunglasses, hat, and one glove.
Another hilarious account reveals that Yellowstone wildlife pay scant attention to the needs of local advocates. Rick and Mary decide to take a weekend off, do some chores, kick back and relax. Well. . . . Several female elk show up with newborn calves in tow just outside Casa Lamplugh.
Watching the spectacle out of their windows, Rick and Mary are struck by the cluelessness of a jogger who got too close to one of the calves for its mother’s liking and was chased away by the angry mama. And then—wait for it!—Rick stepped outside to work on a project, despite Mary’s warning that Mama Elk and baby were still nearby. Rick shrugged off his wife’s advice; after all, he was a permanent resident of Gardiner, not a weekly renter like the jogger. Then: Rick ended up shouting at an aggressive Mama Elk, while backing slowly into his garage and slamming the door.
A final example of the author’s penchant for humor occurs when he records what happened after he and his wife awoke up on a cold September morning while on a camping trip and found themselves forced to run from three angry moose who, it turned out, were trying to escape from them!
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In explaining what drew him and Mary to activism on behalf of Yellowstone and its denizens, Rick offers as an example the “hunters” (“shooters—a firing squad really” ) who wait for hapless bison to wander from the protection of the park to adjoining land where—surprise!—bison hunting season has begun. Moreover, this “sport” is part of an “interagency management plan” that aims to reduce the number of bison in the park from 5000 to 3000.
Rick and Mary soon joined local conservation groups, hoping to make a difference. Even if bison escape being shot by hunters, another part of the interagency management plan allows some of the animals to be captured, penned up, and then sent to a slaughterhouse, with the meat being given to local Native Americans, again as part of an effort to control Yellowstone’s bison population.
The author’s first detailed account of what advocating for wildlife can mean for the truly dedicated describes a meeting in the Gardiner school during a “public comment” session on a proposal to increase the kill quota for “Montana Wolf Management Unit 313,” just outside the park, from two wolves to six. Rick’s sympathies are clear, but he does give “equal time” to the other side. A month or so later, the government agency announces that the quota would remain at two; the title of the chapter, “Saving Four Wolves.”
Another example of Rick’s introspective cast occurs when he has a nightmare while on a camping trip. The experience leads him to ponder the nature of his fears, and he concludes that they’re primal and have been part of being human for eons: “Our ancestors kept shooting, trapping, and poisoning any and all creatures that evoked the fight or flight response. Kill the animal; kill the fear.” (203)
Yet, it isn’t only the park’s wildlife that Rick and Mary try to protect. Rick and another member of Gardiner’s Bear Creek Council joined advocates to tour the proposed site of a controversial gold mine. While listening to the testimony of experts on the gold mining process, the author realizes that one person who also opposes mining in Yellowstone owns a wilderness outfitting business and is a trophy hunter whose kills decorate his workplace. Can you say irony?
Moreover, there really was no force strong enough to monitor whether the mine would live up to its promises to the public. Ultimately, the Interior Department ruled that the proposal would be put on hold for two years so that more time could be spent studying the impact of the mining proposal on areas near Yellowstone and on the park itself. In other words, the powers that be opted for a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
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A regular feature of the book is the use of a specific activity that leads the author to consider a broader issue. For example, a leisurely hike sparks a discussion of the “trophic cascade theory,” which holds that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in 1995, by reducing the elk population, enabled the park’s willows, aspens, and cottonwoods to recover.
When Rick and Mary spot a grizzly couple courting, Rick reflects on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s current effort to delist Yellowstone grizzlies from the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act. He points out that, when wolves were delisted from the same statute in 2011, the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho essentially became “free fire zones” for wolf hunters, and he fears that, if grizzlies lose those same protections, they would face a similar fate.
Rick and Mary’s first mountain bike ride of the season takes them near a group of pronghorn antelopes and their fawns, then segues into the history of the pronghorns in Yellowstone. Not surprisingly, these animals also are in danger. Their numbers are down from one thousand or so in the 1930s to four hundred and fifty today.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, Mary pulls a four-day volunteer stint driving tourists at Old Faithful. Meanwhile, Rick, ensconced with a book manuscript in a room at the Old Faithful Inn, recalls how, a few summers earlier, he joined a group of tourists watching an eruption of the geyser. The author muses about observers who became impatient with how long the process took, because they shortly had to be somewhere else to view another attraction. Rick wonders, “When did this marvel of nature become just another stop along the vacation highway, a wonder to bag in our rush to the next must-see?” (136)
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Rick also devotes an occasional chapter to the historical context of a current controversy. For instance, in meditating on the role of the bison, he reviews the history of efforts to protect Yellowstone’s bison from poachers, who had been plundering herds almost from the creation of the national park in 1872. Two decades later, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which prevented hunting, wounding, killing, or capturing wildlife in Yellowstone and became the model for protecting wildlife in all national parks.
My little brother can certainly turn a phrase. Here’s an excerpt from his journal, when he and Mary went backpacking along the bottom of Yellowstone’s “grand canyon”: “The clouds have unionized. No longer separate little puffs, they have banded together, flexing billowing muscles, forming thick masses with battleship-gray bottoms and few breaks of blue. They cover more than half the sky and drift slowly eastward, resisting the wind, demanding more time to block the sun.” (169)
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Rick also does not shy from commenting on the impact of Yellowstone’s popularity on the park and its neighboring towns, including Gardiner. Around the turn of the twentieth century, ten thousand visitors came to Yellowstone; in 2015, four million tourists arrived, in a park that’s designed to handle two and a half million annually. Of course the money is good for residents of Gardiner and other nearby towns, but the tourist season puts a tremendous strain on local budgets. For instance, the town of Gardiner has 850 year-round residents but hosts about 750,000 visitors each year.
The author points out that the National Park Service’s multi-year ad campaign, “Find Your Park,” was too successful; in fact, it’s a major factor in the park’s problem of overuse. He offers a modest proposal, “Reserve Your Park,” as a way to limit visitors to the nation’s park system. Basically, “Reserve Your Park” amounts to asking the Park Service to cap the number of both overnight campers and day-trippers, and, once reservations reach the limit, to accept no more. Yet, everyone Rick shared this idea with pointed out that, while it might look good on paper, in practice it would arouse controversy and, ultimately, end in failure.
A fascinating chapter concerns the role of the grizzly in Yellowstone’s ecosystem. Returning to the site of a big male grizzly feeding on an elk carcass, Rick and Mary watch as the grizzly, who is loading up for his approaching hibernation and isn’t eager to share the carcass with interlopers, eventually comes around. At that point, Rick imagines the same grizzly preparing for hibernation if the carcass had been brought down outside Yellowstone and, thus, beyond the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act in the park. And the twist: he also recognizes that it’s people like him and his wife, watching grizzlies in a context where the animals are in no danger from humans, who actually help condition the bears to view humans as harmless, even if they’re packing heat.
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Deep into Yellowstone is a fine book, illuminating the evolving interests of Rick and Mary in their now permanent home environment, just outside the gates of Yellowstone. The seasonal organization of this volume stresses the year-round demands made upon the time and energy of local residents who care about the future of the park, its wildlife, and its resources. As was the case in his first Yellowstone book, in treating controversies Rick strives for objectivity, and succeeds much of the time. If you liked In the Temple of Wolves, you’ll certainly enjoy Deep into Yellowstone.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: