Hello! I’m Dana, one of three interns joining the Jackson Hole Wildlife FilmFestival for the winter season. I’m very happy to be involved here. I believe media is essential in exposing people to the problems and wonders of our natural world and a key factor in conservation. Working as a guide for horseback and dogsled trips in the wilderness areas of Wyoming, I’ve seen firsthand the positive effect an experience in the natural world can have on a person. But even low impact human activities have an often harmful effect on wild areas as well. Where does one draw the line between preserving wild habitats and experiencing the great outdoors? I’ve recently returned from the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in northern Minnesota, and I’d like to share a little bit about dog sledding and some thoughts it brings up in me about the use and protection of wild lands.
At approximately 380 miles, The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is considered one of the biggest sled dog races in the lower 48. It commemorates John Beargrease, avid outdoorsman and son of an Anishinaabe Chief, who with great perseverance delivered mail between early settlements along the rugged terrain of Lake Superior’s North Shore via boat, horse and dogsled in the late 1800s. Like other great sled dog races, such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, the Beargrease is run on many miles of trail through protected lands and wilderness. This sport just can not exist without access to vast amounts of wild, open space.
No one takes up dogsledding casually. The cost and commitment of owning, training and caring for these canine athletes is daunting. You need to love it, because staying involved in the sport requires a great deal of dedication and sacrifice. For most mushers, gliding on your runners through a pristine winter landscape, the only sound the gentle panting and padding of the dogs with whom you share such a special bond, is such an undeniable and irreplaceable experience that it becomes a major part of their lives.
Dog sledders aren’t alone in this kind of passion. Many people build their lives and their careers around pursuits that rely on access to public lands and wilderness areas. Sometimes these activities have a great cultural and historical value, such as fishing and canoeing among the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe people. Even as a modern horsewoman, I use age-old hitches and long honored techniques when packing into the backcountry that might disappear if not for their recreational use. Other outdoor sports, such as skiing, are always on the cutting edge, fueling technological advances. New ways to recreate in natural areas are constantly emerging. Snow King resort here in Jackson has recently begun hosting a race series for Fat Bikes, a relatively new innovation in mountain biking that allows bikers to travel over thick snow. Interestingly enough, a Minnesota company makes a top of the line Fat Bike also named for Beargrease. Here in a mountain town like Jackson, the popularity of outdoor activities and the dedication with which people pursue them is obvious.
This passion has power. It’s been a driving force behind initiatives to protect and preserve wild lands from the very beginning. Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geologist and preservationist that played a great role in the formation of Yellowstone National Park summed up his goal as “setting aside the area as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”(source). Sporting outdoorsmen and women have always been some of the strongest proponents of conservation. An iconic example is Theodore Roosevelt. An adamant hunter originally drawn west by the lure of big game, he found himself spurred to action by the habitat destruction and species decimation taking place there. As president, he made great strides in conservation, helping to create the National Forest Service, 5 national parks, 18 National Monuments, and 150 National Forests, ultimately preserving approximately 230,000,000 acres of land (source). This tradition continues today. Outdoor sports enthusiasts and organizations not only use lobbying power to preserve public land, but also largely fund the institutions that protect them. Visitors to the National Parks offer support through day use fees, dogsled and horse trip outfitters pay for permits to operate in National Forest and Wilderness areas, and hunters and anglers do a great deal to support the wildlife management budget through license fees, conservation stamps and organizations such as Ducks Unlimited. A role summed up by the Colorado Wildlife Council’s HugAHunter campaign.
It’s important to remember outdoor recreation can also be a threat to the wilderness. To varying degrees, any human activity taking place in nature has some impact on the environment and the resident wildlife. Each activity presents its own challenges. Ski resorts, although run on National Forest property, seem to be constantly expanding. Hunting and fishing by their very nature have a direct influence on wildlife populations. Even Leave No Trace style hiking and camping can potentially disturb wild animals during a vulnerable stage such as nesting or foraging in winter. Dogsledding causes a lot less noise and air pollution than snowmobiling, but the dogs do have the potential to pass on dangerous diseases to wildlife. This was the main reason sled dogs, despite being crucial to earlier Antarctic exploration, were banned from Antarctica in 1993 by the Antarctic Treaty, for fear they could spread distemper to native seal populations (source).
The impact of human activities on public lands is addressed in a number of ways. Before a race sled dogs must be cleared by veterinarians as healthy and proven vaccinated. Hunters and anglers must adhere to strict regulations or face steep penalties. Access to important winter range areas is restricted during certain times of the year to help animals that must graze in heavy snow. Here in Wyoming we are lucky enough to have different types of public land, including National Parks, National Wilderness areas and National Forests. Each has it’s own set of rules for access and use, a brief description of which can be found here. But these protective restrictions are constantly being challenged. One example that hits close to home is the current bill before congress that could abolish 60 year old restrictions on boating the rivers of Yellowstone National Park (source). I can empathize with those who love to paddle, but I can’t help but be concerned about the erosion, invasive species and pollution they could expose to these long protected waters. Currently remote, these riverbanks are a crucial habitat and water source for Yellowstone’s wildlife. We can’t forget that for the health of the ecosystem and the sake of biodiversity some places must be set aside as truly wild and untouched.
Conservation is an ongoing struggle. Even when an area is protected, it must be constantly monitored and it’s regulations kept current in response to the needs of the environment and its wildlife. The more vigilant we are and the more space we can keep undeveloped, healthy and wild, the better; for the protection of our resources, the survival of our planet’s species, the continuation of our outdoor traditions, and for the future of the world’s greatest playground. For people, and for sled dogs.