THE NEW WEST: Teaching Coexistence

By on June 14, 2017

Greater Yellowstone’s wildness will only be saved if humans live smarter.

Renee Seidler, biologist and co-founder of the Teton Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, in 2005. Here, Seidler was on the Pinedale Anticline as a researcher studying the migration of antelope and the impacts of oil and gas development.  (Photo: Todd Wilkinson)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As they recount the grim statistics, Lindsay Jones and Renee Seidler can tell you a lot about co-existence between people and our wild neighbors.

They see the story written daily on highways, in bird strikes against big picture windows, in power line collisions, habitat being fragmented and lost, and clashes with family pets. The toll registers in a thousand different ways expressed in thousands of different casualties.

The startling truth, they say, is that many animal deaths and injuries can be averted if only humans were more committed to smarter behavior; if certain species weren’t treated as “good for nothing.” And if the automatic historic response from some wasn’t simply to call in “wildlife control” agents whose primary emphasis has been resolving “problems” by lethal removal instead of teaching people skills in compatibility.

The founders of Teton Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, to be based in Driggs, Idaho, with hopes of also opening a facility in Jackson Hole, say it’s not a matter of people having malicious intent, but more often naiveté and lack of understanding. It’s especially prevalent in the zone known as exurbia.

The verbatim definition of “exurb,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a region or settlement that lies outside a city and usually beyond its suburbs and that often is inhabited chiefly by well-to-do families.”

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, more people each year are dwelling in exurbia, areas of rural landscape that traditionally provided homelands for wildlife but with human invasion are increasingly turning into conflict zones.

Forests, river corridors and wildlife migration routes, edges of wetlands and treeless winter range fit the description. Many of the newcomers and part-timers building in exurbia are moving here from cities and suburbs where they have no experience thinking about how to responsibly inhabit a wild neighborhood.

The result has been a steady erosion of the very wildlife values drawing them here in the first place. And, amid higher rates of conflicts have come a corresponding rise in numbers of injured animals, large and small, mammal and bird, common and sometimes imperiled.

It’s noteworthy that until recently wildlife rehab and rescue facilities in Greater Yellowstone have been exceedingly rare. Those important specialized wildlife hospitals that do exist—such as the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming and Montana Raptor Conservation Center near Bozeman, Montana,—constantly struggle for funding to meet growing demand for their services.

Moreover, there hasn’t been a single facility dealing with both mammals and birds and dedicated to bringing injured wildlife in for treatment, getting them quickly on the mend and releasing them back into the wild. This is the impetus behind Jones and Seidler creating Teton Wildlife Rehabilitation Center a few years ago.

While they have a supporter who donated land on the west side of the Tetons, they’ve had difficulty securing necessary permits. As they await approval, the dynamic duo has been out doing things equally as important—hosting public education programs on conflict prevention.

A year ago, Seidler tried to get a coyote family denning with pups near the exurban John Dodge subdivision spared after adult predators attacked a pair of miniature schnauzers roaming the woods unattended. One of the pet dogs was killed and another injured. In response, the pet owner, who was caretaking someone’s house, publicly announced he shot and killed some of the adult coyotes. (It is not known if the pups were left orphaned).

A few simple actions, Seidler says, could have prevented the conflict.

Before moving West, Jones did wildlife rehab work in Tennessee. She says the high wildlife attributes in Greater Yellowstone need safeguarding and celebration.  Seidler is a biologist and former veterinary technician known for her work with the Wildlife Conservation Society, carrying out research projects on coyotes, wolves, moose, elk, small mammals and other species, including notably pronghorn.

She contributed to the work that resulted in Path of the Pronghorn, a collaborative effort to protect the ancient migration route for pronghorn traveling seasonally between Grand Teton National Park and the Upper Green River Valley.

It’s true that wildlife agencies focus efforts on managing species at population levels, but this doesn’t mean individual animals do not matter. If a fur trapper accidentally catches a single wolverine and kills it, it can mean the loss of an entire population from a large expanse. Similarly, individual pronghorn carrying the knowledge of how to migrate teach it to their young.    

“We believe it is our responsibility to counter the adverse impacts of humans on wildlife, where possible, and to teach people how to reduce human-wildlife conflicts,” Jones and Seidler write on their website tetonwildlife.org

“We provide an educational resource and standard for conservation of native wildlife species through the rehabilitation of injured, sick, and orphaned wildlife. We envision fostering the local community’s desire to assist wildlife in need by encouraging an understanding of wildlife ecology and a respect for how human-wildlife conflict impacts populations, thereby decreasing future incidents of injury.”

If we want to save the best of wild Greater Yellowstone that remains, it is up to us to know how our footprint impacts wildlife. The most powerful thing we can do: become educated. PJH

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for three decades.

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