May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
In 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yellowstone National Park, the naturalist John Burroughs accompanied him. “No bird escaped John Burroughs’ eye,” Roosevelt wrote; “no bird note escaped his ear.” (On this trip the only game Roosevelt bagged was a gray mouse, which he skinned and sent back to the Smithsonian on the chance that it might have been an unknown type.) It’s still possible to go on safari through the animal haunts of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons with a guide in the Burroughs mold, someone who can scan the horizon and spot two brownish dots a half-mile away that binoculars reveal as a grazing moose and her calf. Someone who has permits to swing his four-wheel-drive from the often crowded main roads of these Wyoming parks onto the high prairie land to track at a careful distance the movements of fifty wild horses.
Tom Segerstrom, formerly a wildlife biologist with Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department, has created a niche —he calls it a product—that offers a visitor to the northern Rockies about as good a chance as Roosevelt and Burroughs had to explore what they saw as “this great game amphitheater.”
On one-day excursions that are mainly devoted to the Grand Tetons, near Jackson Hole, where he is based, and on longer trips, ranging into Yellowstone and beyond, Segerstrom leaves his charges with the sense that what at first seems simple can be a maze of complexity. There is a movement supported by many environmentalists, for instance, to reintroduce the wolf to Yellowstone. Local ranchers, fearing for their stock, are less enthusiastic, and a further, modern complication is the animal’s standing as an endangered species. “I think the wolf should have been introduced,” a rancher named Craig Whitlock told me. “The only thing I’m afraid of is the bureaucracy that follows.”
Segerstrom says, “The first rule of ecology is, the more diverse your environment, the more stable it is through time.” Last July I was one of a small group—the maximum is six people—who traveled with Segerstrom for five days to see a land that in its variety is as astonishing to the modern eye as it was to the first explorers.
After John Colter, a guide with Lewis and Clark’s party, left them at the upper Missouri River in 1806 to lead two trappers along the Yellowstone River, he eventually found himself on a lone expedition into the harsh, trackless region that is now Yellowstone Park. His later reports of geysers, boiling pools that could instantly cook a fish or a rabbit, and a petrified forest were scorned as fantasy. Much of the Wyoming territory remained known only to the trappers who pursued the beaver until about 1840, when changing hat fashions put them out of business. For a while Wyoming was left to its native population, except for the wagon trains that came through on the way to somewhere else.
The first major government survey of the area, in 1871, included the painter Thomas Moran and the photographer William H. Jackson. With the indisputable evidence of Jackson’s images, John Colter’s phantasmagoric claims finally gained credence. Some entrepreneurially minded settlers who saw the possibility of a tourist trade pressured the government to carve the world’s first national park from the Upper Yellowstone Valley. President Grant signed the bill for this in 1872, and the first tourists really did arrive soon after, as did the sport hunters and fishermen who have brought the state a main source of income.
Today’s visitor will surely recall the fire at Yellowstone that dominated the news in the summer of 1988. The message we received then was that nearly all of the park’s 2.2 million acres had been destroyed. This makes local wildlife people like Tom Segerstrom cross; they can quote you which broadcaster said which silly thing. Experts on the scene believe that the “let burn” policy is appropriate, as part of nature’s grand scheme. There hadn’t been a great fire in Yellowstone in possibly two hundred years. It was long overdue, and the diversity of vegetation that Segerstrom believes is necessary was being lost to an encroaching pine forest. Now, after the fire, the graceful aspen is getting room to breathe, the lodgepole pine is regenerating, and wildflowers blanket the forest floor.
Soon we learned to trace the path the flames—in some places a fire storm—had taken. We could tell that here they swept just the treetops, here only the eastern side of a grove, and here they’d leaped a road and gone on feeding. On a trip like this your eye quickly grows more capable of seeing what’s in front of it. Tom supplies his very comfortable van with binoculars and high-powered spotting scopes. Thus armed, you graduate from a nervous “Where is it? I can’t find it” at the start to a coolly satisfied “It’s to the left of the cottonwoods, and did you see the fawn in the shadows?”
Spotting animals from the road is a constant source of fun, even when the hulking form at the creek bed turns out to be a log or—in the wildlifers’ lingo—a “stone moose” or “stone elk.” It’s an infectious pleasure, and you can readily feel what was animating TR when John Burroughs described his happening upon a herd of elk: “The President laughed like a boy.”
“Good eye,” you’re told when you’re the first to see an animal. It’s the ultimate accolade, and we all came to earn it at one time or another.
Tom has acquired state permits to travel off the main roads, in part because he uses each trip as a laboratory in which he and his passengers contribute fieldwork to the various agencies administering Wyoming’s wildlife. It may be reporting on a trio of trumpeter swans discovered on Yellowstone’s Cow Pond. ("The swans aren’t doing so well. We want to find out why”.) Or it may mean helping a University of Wyoming scientist on a remote ranch trap and test prairie dogs for fleas that can carry bubonic plague.
Teddy Roosevelt did the same sort of fieldwork. He and his companions on the 1903 trip “spent about four hours with the glasses counting and estimating the different [elk] herds within sight,” he wrote. “After most careful work and cautious reduction of estimates in each case to the minimum the truth would permit, we reckoned three thousand herd of elk, all lying or feeding and all in sight at the same time.”
To find wild horses, we drove east from the town of Cody, jouncing onto a sere sagebrush-planted patch of the Big Horn Basin. They were here all right, in the far distance, grazing on whatever the sparse prairie could provide. As the horses became alert to our presence, the stallion formed up his ladies and colts until they stood poised like a riderless posse. Moments later they took beautiful flight, mysteriously disappearing from view in that seemingly open space.
It’s hard to be sure just how old these herds are; many may be only one generation away from the ranch. And that stands too for Wyoming’s human history, much of which has taken place within modern memory. It was here, on the wide plains, a rainstorm blacking out the mountains to the left, sun gilding the hills to the right, jagged buttes directly ahead, that I glanced down at the prickly ground cover and picked up an old, bent silverplate spoon with a hole punched in the top of the handle.
A New Yorker, used to finding treasure on the street, I put the spoon in my pocket and didn’t think of it until later. That is when Tom gently reminded me that history is indeed held to a short tether here. The spoon wasn’t for me to take, but for the archeologists to note, to photograph, and perhaps to leave in place. That no longer possible, we turned it over to the Bureau of Land Management.
Judging from where I found it, the spoon could have belonged to one of the early travelers on the old Bridger Trail, or it might have fallen from a sheepherder’s wagon during the 1930s. It could even have been dropped by a participant in the wagon train that followed the trail last summer to celebrate the state’s hundredth birthday. Whatever the answer, or none, I’m not likely to forget that in Wyoming a dented spoon on the ground speaks of history.