Reflections on "La Ecosistema Yellowstone Mayor" From the Remote Office

 
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¡Buenas tardes, desde España! 

I am writing to you as I look out the window at a fishing vessel exit the Bay of Santander (La Bahía de Santander), surfers trying to catch the last of a dying swell, and families appreciating their holidays on the soft white sands of northern Spain.  But just yesterday, I took my sister’s dog for a swim to San Juan de la Canal, our local beach a five minutes walk from my grandparent’s house, and for the first time in my 40 years, I caught myself wondering if I was exposing myself and my dog to something harmful.  For many Bozemanites, this would be the same as considering the water quality health hazards of tubing down the Madison River in the summertime. 

As a resident of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), like many others, I come from somewhere else.  However, my story may be a little outside the norm as my family hails from Cantabria, a province on the northern coast of Spain.  Cantabria is in what is often referred to as “green Spain” due to its climate being dominated by the Atlantic coast. I am lucky to call both the GYE and Cantabria home, giving me a unique perspective.

There are some major differences between Cantabria and the GYE, most notable the presence of an extensive Atlantic ocean coastline. The GYE, considered one of the largest nearly intact temperate zone ecosystems on Earth, is sized between 18,750– 34,375 square miles with a resident population of approximately 355,000 people.  Cantabria by comparison, is a magnitude smaller at 2,028 square miles with a population of 572,824. These statistics lead you to believe that there are few, if any similarities among these two regions an ocean apart. However, with a keen eye, similarities begin to emerge. Cantabria includes two mountain ranges known for its wildscapes, rock climbing, hiking, and skiing opportunities.  Along with its rocky coast often referred to as “La Costa Quebrada”, these physical characteristics make Cantabria a recreational haven with biking, surfing, and sailing being the top sports. Large predators are found in the mountains such as wolves and the Cantabrian bear (el Oso Pardo), both of which present conservation conflicts with local ranchers, along with an amazing suite of raptors and the Urogallo (Tetrao urogallus), in the same family as the Sage Grouse (Phasianidae) and undergoing similar population declines and conservation threats. Cantabria is also a mecca for migrating coastal birds that find intact stop-over habitats in the wetlands and estuaries.  So, when you look a bit closer, despite differences in language, culture and the proliferation of or lack of amazingly fresh seafood, Cantabria and the GYE appeal to a similar type of person, wildlife enthusiasts and recreational opportunists. 

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Both Cantabria and the GYE see an influx of tourists during the summer months, and with this increase in people comes economic growth as well as litter, cars, noise and crowds on trails and waters that normally see little traffic during the rest of the year.  If you are like me, you might opt to stay away from the crowds, but it makes me grateful to know that these places that I all home are once-in-a-lifetime destinations for many people and children who might not have other opportunities to experience wildlife and nature so intimately.  An opportunity that I think is imperative for us all. 

However, there are costs involved with this influx of people. Costs, which for the record, I believe can be minimized and maybe even avoided entirely with education and responsible habits.  In the GYE, we are so incredibly lucky to have high quality drinking water and air due to our intact ecosystem that functions as mother nature intended. However, we are not immune, and I have witnessed more and more invasive plants creeping on our waterways and roads, beer cans and bottles at the peaks of our mountains, fishing lines and accidentally - or purposefully - discarded trash at our campsites, in our lakes and in our rivers.  At the moment, these things seem less than the norm and singular events. However, with the rapid expanse of Bozeman and the surrounding areas, what once seemed insignificant problems will become large-scale issues.  

Cantabria has a human archaeological history stretching as far back as the Lower Paleolithic (3.3 million to 300,000 years ago) compared to the GYE whose human history dates back to sometime after the end of the ice age between 14,000-11,000 years ago. So, it follows that Cantabria has been dealing with human-caused environmental issues since before human settlements in the GYE existed.  That being said, in my own lifetime, I have witnessed changes on the beaches and coastal areas of Cantabria that I consider my childhood playgrounds. There are two things that have struck me the most on my current visit in Cantabria. Water quality issues and a changing climate. 

Ok, so back to why I was concerned about taking a dip in the ocean yesterday.  The previous day’s headlines had alerted us to how swimmers at the local beach had suffered skin reactions to the water and this led to a temporary closure of the waters.  For me, it was a clear and very sad moment when for the first time in my life, I was questioning the health of taking a dip in the ocean rather than ranting about its benefits.  This in itself is disconcerting, but the truly scary thing here is days after water samples were analyzed, the public has yet to be told a clear story of what caused the reactions with officials vaguely citing the presence of microorganisms. 

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The connection here to the GYE stems from the issues that result from a rapidly increasing population and extensive land use change. On the beaches of my mother’s hometown, there were no sewage treatments when I was a child and this waste was discarded directly into mother ocean.  This may seem outrageous, but for small pueblos where septic tanks, cow’s milk, outdoor showers, and lack of heating/cooling are the norm, large-scale sewage treatments were not needed. However, as the adjacent city of Santander expands towards these pueblos, and more people move to the country to enjoy the space and country living that pueblos offer, sewage treatment plants have been installed.  Despite this seemingly positive change, today’s problem is that the sewage plants can’t keep up with the need of an increasing population, especially during the summer swell. It’s not just lack of infrastructure at play here, but also mismanagement and corruption. This rings a bell for me as a GYE resident. As the population of Bozeman continues to grow at an alarming rate and more and more of Gallatin Valley is converted from ranch or native grasslands to semi-urban and suburban areas with paved roads and manicured gardens, we will also face the impacts of rapid land use change.  Maybe we will find ourselves with overflowing or inadequate sewage and stormwater treatment. We could just build more and better treatment systems, but what are the costs involved - both financial and ecological?   

Changes in climate and new normals have come up in conversation a few times now during my trip.  On a skeptical but positive note, a local friend of mine who has spent his whole life in Cantabria and has one of the best gardens I have ever seen, commented on how the warmer and longer summers and more temperate winters in Cantabria have made it possible to grow avocados and other sub-tropical fruits that my own grandmother would not have thought possible.  To me, that is one of the clearest signs of climate change possible! On a more melodramatic note, I am noticing the proliferation of trash on the beaches and in the ocean waters much more on this visit then ever before. It has actually made me stop and consider whether or not I wanted to take a dip in the ocean. At first, I thought I was being spoiled coming from the GYE where we rarely (but increasingly) see large amounts of litter.  But, after further thought, I have landed on a hypothesis that is more tied to changing ocean tides due to warming waters than an increase of littering culture. Climate change is changing everything in our world, from the smallest micro-organism to the largest mountain in ways that we may never fully understand. And, this may seem too overwhelming to many of us, but when we break it down into smaller changes that we can each make in our own lives, it becomes much more manageable.  The simplest change I would suggest is completing cutting out plastic water bottles, one time use coffee cups, and other disposable items from your life. Sometimes, I like to remember my grandmother and what she would have done to have drinking water, groceries and coffee in her house. She would have filled a glass jug with water from the local spring or well, collected her groceries from the market in a cloth bag and served her guests coffee in ceramic mugs - often the simplest way is the best way. 

Sometimes, as a resident of the GYE it is easy to forget just how special our backyard is as one of the last intact ecosystems.  This might be what strikes me the most when I travel across the world to my homeland in Cantabria, a region that has a human history stretching 1000’s of years times that of the GYE.  It seems to me that we, as residents of the GYE, are beyond lucky to reap the benefits of a functioning ecosystem. In my opinion, we have it easy as the great expanse of our public lands and our lack of concentrated urban areas lets us easily avoid the problems faced across the globe in regions of high populations.  It is so easy for us to lose perspective. I complain when I find shards of glass at the top of Livingston peak, or if I have to scoop up a lost beer can on the Yellowstone River, but these are singular incidents for NOW. We have the opportunity to keep these problems manageable and even find solutions that work for everyone.  The gift we have as residents of the GYE comes with an extremely affordable price, that of being stewards and students of history. It is our responsibility to look toward other regions that have already experienced the impacts of population growth and who are already innovating solutions that include humans in their ecosystems, rather than separating us from our wild heritages.  We are a young community in the GYE and we need to look towards our sisters for guidance. If we fail to maintain the health, beauty and function of our GYE ecosystem, how can we hope for change across the world?

Mikaela Howie is YERC’s assistant lab manager