Throughout the course, we’ve used a combination of geological, ecological, and human-centered perspectives to understand the world we live in, and we continued to take this interdisciplinary approach in Yellowstone on day 7 of our 10-day road trip across Wyoming. Our first official stop of the day was an overlook at Yellowstone Lake which formed 2.1 million years ago when an eruption of Yellowstone’s supervolcano blew out its sides, leaving a large hole called a caldera. But the lake bottom’s topography hasn’t stayed the same. Subsequent eruptions, erosion, and sediment deposition have filled in the lake and changed it since its formation.
Next, we saw the hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and other geothermal features at Mud Volcano. There were also a few bison, strolling through the parking lot and making wallows (bare dirt patches) next to the hot springs. The bison herd in the southern part of Yellowstone is smaller than it is in the Lamar Valley area, but you see them everywhere— next to hot springs and rivers, in parking lots, crossing the road (creating a bison traffic jam!).
Seeing and learning about the bison was a highlight of the day but also made me frustrated with the ways in which we treat certain wildlife. In a river floodplain, bison were roaming and feeding and wallowing in a herd, with their calves, and alone, and it was easy to see why tourists run up to them with cameras flashing. The bison look cute, with their big, shiny eyes and thick coats, and different from anything we see on the east coast. But they’re only protected as wildlife, able to perform as a keystone species, in the park. Outside, cattle ranchers are prejudiced against bison because they think that bison will transmit brucellosis to their cows. This sentiment reflects centuries of anti-indigenous practices, as bison were forced off the land to starve tribes that depended on them, and a sense of entitlement in the cattle ranching industry.
Everything we saw from the first day of Yellowstone made me so excited to learn about the area in the last days of our trip. National parks and forests are often described as areas of pristine wilderness, but they’re not. They are influenced by complex geological processes that change the landscape over time, ecological processes that dictate everything from wildlife populations to forest composition, and human processes that shape our interaction with each other and the land. In my opinion, this makes the natural world so much more interesting and I can’t wait to learn more about it.
All the best,