The Wyoming Legislature recently passed a joint resolution calling for a conservation fee to be assessed on visitors to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Led by Rep. Albert Sommers and co-sponsors Rep. Jamie Flitner and Sen. Hank Coe, lawmakers have said they are hoping to strike up a conversation about how to pay for the escalating costs of wildlife management— and they are right to do so.
While Yellowstone and Grand Teton are large parks, they occupy only a fraction of the ecosystem on which they depend. For example, the working ranches of the larger Yellowstone ecosystem provide much of the critical winter habitat Yellowstone’s iconic wildlife populations need to survive. These ranches bear many of the costs of sustaining these populations — costs that continue to increase. While some livestock depredation and game damage costs are compensated, most are not. If ranches cannot remain economically viable, they often turn into subdivisions, particularly in areas where development demand is high, as it is in proximity to national parks. Development, land fragmentation and habitat loss are immediate and ongoing threats to the entire ecosystem, the parks and to local economies.
Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenks and others are rightly worried about what might happen to the number of visitors to the park if fees are increased, but the much greater worry should be about our ability to conserve and manage the land and wildlife that attracts these visitors in the first place.
A conservation fee for park visitors should be just one of a number of strategies to be explored to address not only the rising costs of wildlife management to the states, but also the rising costs to landowners as the remaining undeveloped lands face ever increasing pressure to provide for wildlife. The truth is, everyone who lives, visits, does business or recreates in the region has an impact on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, yet few pay the costs of that impact. The same can be said for most other places as well. It’s not just park visitors, landowners or sportsmen who should bear the costs of wildlife conservation and recovery—it’s all of us.
The Legislature is right. It’s time for the national park system, state agencies, landowners and the public to have this conversation and to take shared responsibility for these connected landscapes and ecosystems so vital to us all.