By George Mehaffy, Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change at AASCU
In August 2011, we had another great week in Yellowstone National Park for our Stewardship of Public Lands seminar, a Civic Engagement in Action Series initiative of the American Democracy Project. This summer’s event marked our 7th summer exploring controversies in the world’s first national park along with our partner organization the Yellowstone Association. John Hammang from our Academic Leadership and Change Division at AASCU joined us for the week, and added a valuable perspective as one of the course instructors. John’s doctoral work was in conflict resolution, and he provided a much-needed theoretical framework for the practical, on-the-ground discussions we had with stakeholders about the public conflicts we studied: bison, wolves, snowmobiles, and grizzlies.
As I reflect on the past 7 years of this work, I’m struck by several things. First, in a relatively short period of time since we have been doing this seminar, the dominant issue has shifted from a focus on wolves to a focus on bison and brucellosis (an infectious disease caused by contact with animals, including bison, carrying bacteria called Brucella). Several folks talked about how the wolf issue has grown less rancorous as new strategies have been put in place to address wolf predation. New rules allow wolves to be shot when they attack livestock, but equally interesting, since wolves were introduced in l995, ranchers have learned to ranch differently to mitigate loss. One rancher said, simply: “Wolves are here, and we’re learning how to deal with them.”
Yet for all the changes in wolf management, both by government and agencies and by individual ranchers, wolves are still an evolving and contentious issue. After years of protection under the Endangered Species Act, this summer wolves were delisted in two states, Idaho and Montana, which have announced hunting seasons for wolves this winter. Wyoming has now prepared an approved wolf plan which will allow wolf hunting there as well. Environmental groups are watching, poised to take action once again. This set of back and forth actions underscores my second observation that these controversies really have no end. These difficult issues seldom have permanent resolution or even stable temporary solutions. As Faulkner so thoughtfully observed: “the past is not dead; it is not even past.”
For students, the lack of a quick and simple resolution is often troubling, as it is for many faculty members. Even for someone like me who never gets tired of going to Yellowstone, I grow weary of hearing the same arguments year after year. But in fact, in the case of the wolves, dramatic change has occurred in only 16 short years. But change isn’t the same as settled. For us as teachers, it seems to me that our obligation is not only to teach about political controversies, but to teach patience and tolerance. Conflict over wolves, at its heart, is conflict about core beliefs about wildness, the role of predators, and our role as human beings. Such conflict, in a democracy, is often on-going. As citizens, we don’t have to work for an ultimate resolution, something often almost impossible to achieve. Instead, our role is to be informed, engaged citizens while we are here, and to make sure that we pass along that same commitment to being informed and engaged to the next generation of citizens who will take our place.
For more information about ADP’s Stewardship of Public Lands initiative, go here.
For more information about the Yellowstone Association, go here.