In Native American culture tribal members often turned to the wisdom of their elders for leadership and vision. Elders were not always the oldest or even the wisest. They were irreplaceable keepers of oral history, tradition, and the legacy of knowledge. Here, we present six people with irreplaceable perspectives on the history and management of three cornerstone issues for Yellowstone National Park: bears, wolves, and fire. Two of these individuals were there at the beginning – Bob Barbee as superintendent from 1982 to 1994, and John Varley, his chief scientist in the park. They saw the controversies as insiders from start to finish.

In the twenty five years since wildfires burned over third of Yellowstone there have been papers, books, and remembrances; a partial list can be found at in the reference portion at the end of this work. Grizzly bears and wolves have also attracted their fair share of attention. The fires of 1988 were a spectacular ecological lesson that have been variously interpreted as either a bureaucratic failure that resulted in the ruin of one of America's great treasures or, the success of brave park personnel that persisted in allowing the park to be managed by nature rather than politics. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between and inevitably, involved some luck and the fortuitous timing of a September snowstorm that put the fires to rest.

The management of large predators in the park has been covered from a wide spectrum of political viewpoints going all the way back to at least the 1943 when the last wolf was killed within the boundaries of the park. The discussion of the management of wolves and bears is mostly focused on a myriad of complex questions related to ecosystem science and human tolerance: To what extent should they exist in the park, How do we coexist with large predators that can easily kill us, Is the reintroduced wolf a "super wolf", How many bears are enough, How can an ecosystem be said to be complete without a full complement of predators, Is modern resource management really a thinly disguised "War on the West"? These are important and difficult issues that will be debated for many years to come. The story that has not been told, and the reason for this work, is how and why Yellowstone National Park officials decided to manage the two keystone predators they way they did.

At various intervals between 2014 and 2016 I was lucky to spend time with the elders below.  John Baden and I have been friends for many years and it was through his programs with federal judges I was introduced to Bob Barbee and John Varley. As I listened to them talk about their park careers it occurred to me that I had never heard their version of the story. In 2015 Bob and John, as well as Doug Smith and Scott McMillion, joined us in a dinner and taping session at the Baden ranch in Gallatin Gateway, Montana. We caught up with Dan Wenk at his home in Mammoth Hot Springs in the Spring of 2016. I had three goals for this work. My first intention was to pull together the stories of bear and wolf management from the point of view of the managers who were there, on the ground, making decisions on a daily basis. Bob's perspective on the role of Dick Cheney during early discussions of the wolf reintroduction will come as a surprise to most. Second, I wanted to try to explain why the two management efforts - rebuilding the Yellowstone grizzly bear population and reintroducing wolves to the region, has had such different political results. I focus on the types of institutions that governed each and the role they play in shaping public perception. Finally, I wanted to put a human face on management of these two watershed issues. I do so with the hope that those who follow Bob, John, Doug, and others can appreciate the importance of humility, honesty and personality so important to modern resource management. The obvious lesson is that resource managment needs good science but it also needs good people. I hope what follows satisfies a small portion of those goals.

Robert "Bob" Barbe
barbee400Bob Barbee in Yellowstone in 1987 (NPS photo)Robert (Bob) Barbee spent over four decades in the National Park Service trying to sort through the maze of conflicting values, weighing scientific findings with political reality, and learning how to be a successful public servant. His job was to care for our version of crown jewels – our national parks. After serving in the U.S. Army, he began his career in the park system first as a seasonal ranger and eventually as the Superintendent of the world’s first and most iconic national park – Yellowstone.  Along the way he worked as a ranger at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, several stints at Yosemite National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore in California, and Big Bend National Park in Texas where the Rio Grand forms part of the international boundary with Mexico. He was the superintendent of other important parks in the system including Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras National Seashores in North Carolina, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaii, and Redwood National Park in California. After running Yellowstone for twelve years, he was named the Regional Director for the Alaska Region of the National Park Service, a system of twenty-three parks including Katmai, Denali, and Gates of the Arctic – over 54 million acres. He and his wife Carol retired to Bozeman, Montana in 2000.

John Varley, PhDvarley400John Varely and President George Bush Sr. in 1989.(YNP/Jim Peaco photo)John Varley, PhD. John worked as a fishery biologist in Yellowstone from 1972 to 1980, returned to Yellowstone in 1983 as chief of the Division of Research. By 1993 he was the director of the newly created Yellowstone Center for Resources – an office to centralize the park's science and resource management functions under one roof. He retired from the Park Service in 2006. Immediately after retiring, John took on the role of executive director of the Big Sky Institute at Montana State University in Bozeman. In between stints at Yellowstone John was a fishery biologist for the State of Idaho and, before that, a fishery research biologist in Utah. When John arrived at the Park in 1983 the fishery was in poor shape, he and his research and management crew rehabilitated the cutthroat trout fishery and began dealing with the invasion of Lake Trout in Yellowstone Lake. John has stayed active in that effort up to this day. In my experience, the word “gentleman” could have been invented for John Varley.

I have spent many hours now with both Bob and John in each others company. Their genuine respect to each other and their deep friendship is obvious. Barbee the politician and Varley the scientist are perfect foils for each others strengths and weakness. Together they made a formidable pair of bureaucrats (and I say this in the most positive manner possible) that hostile Congressmen or community member could face.

Dan Wenk

wenk400Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk (Credit: Bozeman Daily Chronicle)Dan Wenk, Yellowstone’s current superintendent, initially came to Yellowstone when he was hired by Bob Barbee. Dan served as Deputy Director of Operations for the National Park Service in Washington D.C from March 2007 through February 2011, which includes 394 national park sites covering more than 84 million acres. It is an expression of the importance of Yellowstone that Dan became the superintendent after serving as the Acting Director of the National Park Service during the transition of the Obama Administration. Wenk received the Department of the Interior Meritorious Service Award in 1991 and Secretary Executive Leadership Awards in 2008 and 2009.  Dan also received the Meritorious Presidential Rank Award in 2010. Dan is a landscape architect by training - a background he shares with some of the early pioneers of the national park movement.

Doug Smith, PhD

smith400Doug Smith carrying a wolf in the Rose Creek Pen during the reintroduction efforts in 1997. (YNP photo)Doug Smith, PhD, is an exemplar for the National Park Service. He is one of the world’s experts on wolves and can answer most any question put to him about the ecology of Yellowstone. More than that though, Doug has passion for the National Park Service and his role in the agency. He has an obvious and deep respect for the Yellowstone ecosystem and especially its wolves. Doug is currently the project leader for the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project in Yellowstone and his ability to communicate the nuance of wolf management in a rational and logical manner can disarm even the most intransigent opponent of wolves - people who represent all sides of the issue like and respect him. Doug has studied wolves for over a quarter of a century. Prior to coming to Yellowstone as the project leader, he worked as biologist for the Yellowstone wolf project from 1994 to1997 and has been with the program since its inception.  Before that, he worked on Isle Royale in Michigan with wolves from 1979 to 1992 and also with wolves in Minnesota in 1983. He wrote his dissertation on beavers and continues to study them as well as otters and other small mammals in the park.

Scott McMillion

mcmillan400Journalist Scott McMillion 2015 (Dan Smith, Oolite Media photo)Scott McMillion is the owner and editor of the Montana Quarterly and is an expert on bears, fires, and the west in general. Scott grew up in Livingston, Montana. After graduating from the University of Montana, he knocked around the world for a few years including spending enough time to become, in his words, “the most unpopular guy in Antarctica”. He came home to stay in 1988 and took a job as a reporter for the local Bozeman Daily Chronicle. That summer Yellowstone began to burn and Scott was there to cover a story that took on international significance. His journalism and magazine has won dozens of awards and his book “Mark of the Grizzly” became an instant classic when it was published in 1999; it is now in its 13th printing and second edition. He’s been a frequent guest on national radio and television news programs. His writing appears in magazines and newspapers around the nation.

 John Baden, PhD

RomonaJohn400Ramona and John Baden (Baden Collection photo)John Baden has a depth of knowledge about the West, protected lands, and the politics that go with them that runs deeper than most. John is known as an ecological economist but is, in actuality, an anthropologist by training. He lived with and studied the political economy of the Hudderite communities on Montana. With Rick Stroup he was one of the primary founders of what became known as “New Resource Economics” and the use of an economic way of thinking about management of natural resources. In 1985 he founded the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment (FREE) an organization that has its roots in the Center for Political Economy and Natural Resources, which Baden helped establish at Montana State University in 1978. For over twenty years, FREE held seminars for Article III federal judges, and law and economics professors. This was in addition to seminars, writing books and opinion pieces. Over the last three decades John and Ramona have rehabilitated a small ranch near Gallatin Gateway - the rail terminus for travelers to Yellowstone beginning in 1927.

jerryBridgers798Bridger Range in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (Jerry Johnson photo)

Bob’s management expertise goes far beyond his travels in the national park system. His tenure was a success for many reasons – he has a scientific grounding for understanding the ecological issues, his Master’s degree in Natural Resource Management from Colorado State University was a combination of natural and social science.

At one point in the early stages of his career as a park superintendent Bob found himself far from the west and the issues with which he was most familiar. His new assignment was mostly about managing sand. He turned it into a life lesson in management.

Bob is one of those rare individuals who has a deep grasp of the issues but takes the time to listen more than he talks. He has a keen ear for the local who feels insulted by the actions of federal bureaucracy and he has the political sensitivity to connect with a hostile congressman. He is a gentleman with a good sense of humor and even better sense of the art of the possible. His career and the lessons he absorbed are emblematic of the best of our public land managers.


Bob’s time in Yellowstone between 1983 and 1995 was a period of intense growth and change. Visitation grew by 33% with the only dip being 1988 when much of the park was on fire. During those twelve years he presided over the management of three of the most significant political and scientific events in the history of Yellowstone and the National Park Service – helping bring the Yellowstone Grizzly bear back from the brink of extinction, managing the spectacular Yellowstone fires of 1988 and, laying the groundwork for the restoration of Grey wolves to the American public lands. A significant misstep and the politics of any of these issues could have cost him is job and career.

bearCubs400Yellowstone Grizzly and cubs (YNP photo)Between the 1920’s and 1930’s, the grizzly bear lost 98% of its habitat in the contiguous United States. By 1975, of the 37 known populations to exist in 1922, only six known populations of bears remained. Although no one knows the exact numbers, by 1975 the population of bears in Greater Yellowstone region was estimated to be around 250. It was that year that the bear was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. By the time he arrived in Yellowstone in 1983, much of the responsibility of recovering and managing the great bear fell to Barbee.

bisonFire400Bison during 1988 fires (YNP photo)Just five years later Yellowstone began to burn. Over the course of five months, in the driest period on record, one third of Yellowstone National Park was overrun by spectacular wildfires. Late autumn snows extinguished what 9,000 firefighters, over 4,000 military personnel, and $120 million in government expenditure could not. Members of Congress, fans of the Park, and locals were outraged. Again, Barbee was at the center of a national environmental controversy and earned the nickname – Bar-B-Q Bob.

wolfInPen400Wolf reintroduction (Credit: NPS)By 1943 the war on the wolf had been won. Leo Cottenoir, a sheepherder on the Wind River Reservation shot the last known Yellowstone wolf near the southern border of the park. Like the bear, the grey wolf was widespread across the whole of North America and, like the bear, by the 1930's it was all but eradicated in most of the contiguous U.S.  In 1987, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a recovery plan for the grey wolf to large and remote expanses of public land with Yellowstone at the core. After considerable political maneuvering, a reluctant Congress funded the first effort to restore wolves to their previous niche in Yellowstone. Once more, Barbee found himself managing people, wildlife, and politics.

Bob’s central talent as a manager is simple – surround yourself with great people, listen to them and your constituents, understand the political context and, don’t take criticism personally – even if it is. These lessons helped him negotiate the public land management hot seat for over four decades. Our hope here is that his lessons can be exported and applied for others who follow his career path in public service.

Barbee attributes his success to the benefits of working with a large number of talented and dedicated individuals in the Park Service and beyond – notable among them is John Varley – his chief scientist during his years in Yellowstone.  He also understands that effective park management involves the political economy context of ecology – institutions and relationships matter.  We believe that Barbee and his senior colleagues featured here have a good deal of wisdom to share.  Our Wisdom of the Elders project preserves and shares an organized sample of the wisdom of Bob and a few of his many deserving colleagues.

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