This spring, when Yellowstone National Park visitors confront the effects of last summer's vast fires, they also could find themselves stepping around the chewed-over carcasses of hundreds of elk and bison that died during the long Wyoming-Montana winter.
More animals already have died this season than in any early winter of the 1980s, and if hard weather assails the wildlife again between now and June, Yellowstone is not going to look much like Disneyland come tourist season. And that is bound to cause a stir.Even though those deaths will mean a prosperous spring for every scavenger from grizzly bear to songbird, there will be those who say that if the National Park Service had fought the fires properly last August, many of those dead animals would have found enough fall and winter forage to survive.
Others will say that if the Park Service had managed its wildlife properly long-term, today's unusually large herds wouldn't be eating up so much vegetation or ranging beyond park boundaries into hunters' gun sights, as hundreds of bison and thousands of elk already have.
And others will say that the least the Park Service could do is clear away the dead bodies so nice people aren't offended.
Hardly a place in America can generate the level of righteous indignation that Yellowstone can when something happens there to challenge America's conventional wisdom about nature, wildlife and the purpose of national parks. As National Park Service director William Mott said in a conversation last week, "It's the mother park of the system. We had a fire in Alaska last summer that burned over 2 million acres, and you didn't even hear about it."
But in Yellowstone, almost everything gets heard about. A few years ago, when a Park Service employee told some Yellowstone visitors they would be interfering with nature if they tried to save a bison drowning in an icy river, that little episode spawned a national news story and a futile crusade by radio commentator Paul Harvey to have park policies changed and the employee fired.
Sometimes the attacks on park administration are political, sometimes economic, sometimes environmental. Often, as with the drowning bison, they are downright sappy, sentimental and beside the point.
For many people, Yellowstone is an impossible ideal built of equal parts memory and fantasy: It should be stable and unchanging, Old Faithful indeed, where fires never burn and animals never die, where tourist and development dollars stream steadily into surrounding communities but bears and bison never do.
Conrad Smith of the Ohio State University journalism school has studied last year's newspaper and television coverage of the Yellowstone fires and surveyed several hundred of the news sources and reporters who were involved. His conclusion is that viewers and readers were significantly misled by reporting that made the fires and the way they were fought seem much worse than was the case.
Part of the reason for that skew, Smith said, was that a lot of city-based reporters seemed to report the fires in the park the same way they would cover a fire in a city - seek the cause, assess the damage, sympathize with the most visible and vocal victims. "That fires are bad and fire suppression good are taken for granted," Smith said. "If my house were still burning a week after the fire department arrived, it would be natural for me to assume the fire suppression effort was handled ineptly.
"Our cultural conditioning against fire aggravates the problem . . . This helps explain why stories so often used words like `destruction' to describe the natural fire process that has occurred in Yellowstone-area forests for millennia."
To be sure, the fire burned some forage that otherwise would have been eaten - but even if there had been no fire at all, Mary Meagher, the park's bison biologist, said, "We would still have had some level of winterkill more than in the mild winters we've been having."
Park Service director Mott said, even if many more animals die in the course of the winter, "The fact of the matter is that with all the bison and elk killed in the hunts and all those that died in the winterkill, we still have a strong viable core of each herd."
Visitors to the park this spring will see, in addition to growing herds, new green rising everywhere from the char of the 1988 fires, new opportunities for all the park's live things to prosper.