Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to sub-navigation
Skip to main content

Innitiative Name: Greater Yellowstone Coalition

Case Study Author: Sam Williams, 2013-14 State of the Rockies Project Researcher

Location: Based out of Bozeman, MT with satellite offices in Idaho Springs ID, Cody, WY and Jackson, WY, The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) works to protect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks as its core. The area includes the National Parks, the surrounding Complex of National Forests and Wildlife Refuges, and more, in the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) are numerous smaller conservation areas such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The GYE itself is contained within several larger areas, both federal and international. On the federal side, it is contained within the Department of Interior’s Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GNLCC). The multi-nation Commission on Environmental Cooperation’s Northwestern Forested Mountains Ecological Region also subsumes the GYE.

Created by Secretarial Order No. 3289[i] of the Department of the Interior, the GNLCC is a region where federal agencies are meant to emphasize cooperation amongst various groups. These regions are determined by both environmental and political factors. The Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) is a collaboration between the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada which pursues cooperation between these three nations in order to better manage cross boundary natural resources. The Ecological Regions of the CEC are strictly an ecological classification of the type and location of the landscapes found in North America.

In the private sector, the GYE is contained within the even larger Yellowstone to Yukon bioregion  (which spans over 2000 miles from Wyoming to just below the Arctic Circle). The GYE forms a large and vital component of the greater regions, which is essential for the varied wildlife found there.

Date of Origin: The GYC was created in 1983 under the premise that “an ecosystem will remain healthy and wild only if it is kept whole.”[ii] It was created as a response to the then dire threat of grizzly bear extinction.

Size of Initiative: While estimations vary depending upon who is performing the calculations, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition states that there are approximately 20 million acres of land in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This land exists roughly within the borders of Montana's Interstate 90 to the north, I-15 in Montana and Idaho to the west, Wyoming's I-80 to the south, and the Big Horn Mountains to the east.

Summary:  Like most large landscape conservation initiatives, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition deals with issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries, are vast in scope, and must be addressed with cooperation and creative management strategies.

As the very first National Park, established in 1872, Yellowstone holds an important place in the American psyche. With its diverse wildlife, complete with megafauna predators such as the Grizzly Bear and Grey Wolf, the GYE is well known and loved as a nearly intact bioregion. The large amounts of interest in the area, and the subsequent high levels of private funding, have created a mecca for non-profit environmental groups unlike any other. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is currently home to approximately 220 conservation or environmental groups[iii].  With so many groups focused on one area, unique conservation resources may be utilized, yet corresponding pressures are also created.

In much conservation work, it is the classic story of the greens versus the blue-collars, with local opposition to outside regulation, involvement, or intrusion common. This opposition remains for the GYC. In cases such as wolf and bison issues, local opposition is vocal, and not without reason. Ranchers’ livelihoods are threatened by each of those conservation interests. For the wolves, it is more obvious: periodic feeding on calves and reductions in the number of livestock head on a ranch.

With the Bison, the enemy of the rancher is brucellosis. Brucella abortus is the strain of the bacteria that most often affects cattle; it causes high incidence of fetal abortions. In 1990, a study by Texas A&M researchers showed that bison could indeed transmit Brucellosis to cattle[iv], and since then the wary eyes of ranchers and their representatives have been focused on them. The National Wildlife Federation, and others, argue that no confirmed cases of Brucellosis transmission, outside of laboratory conditions, have ever occurred. While it is difficult to identify the source of Brucellosis in actual cases, there is, in fact, increasing evidence of transmission to cattle from Elk[v]: a cornerstone of the region’s lucrative hunting and outfitting industries. While a couple of cases of cattle carrying brucellosis have occurred, Montana retains its classification as a “brucellosis-free state”[vi], increasing the price and demand for its cattle output. Ranchers see expanding bison territory as an increased threat of brucellosis contraction. With these threatened interests comes strong opposition from ranchers to any project involving the health and range of wolves or bison.

Ranchers, however, are not the only user group fighting against environmental regulations and other outcomes that the GYC pushes. Extractive companies, off-highway vehicle users, and more, have interests that conflict with the desired goals of the Coalition. The recent restrictions on snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park and extractive industries on adjacent public lands, both advocated in part by the GYC, have created quite the controversy. The question becomes, how does one draw the line between conservation and access, between “conserve[ing] the scenery and natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein”[vii] and maintaining “a public park and pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”[viii]? How do the rights and wants of all Americans, from the hiker, to the oil exec, to the snowmobiler, to the conservationist, receive proper consideration?

These examples of more typical opposition to conservation work are not the only challenge faced by the Coalition. With so many non-profits in the ecosystem, a whole host of new dilemmas is created. These include competition among conservation groups for projects and funding. These pressures have created a unique political climate between non-profits in the region wherein communication and coordination between groups is almost non-existent and advocacy resources are sometimes wasted in coinciding or conflicting projects. In order to survive these intense pressures, the Coalition, and every other group, has been forced to fill a specific niche and separate themselves in the eyes of potential funders.  The GYC has done so with a focus on large landscapes.

The Coalition was formed with one goal in mind: the protection and rehabilitation of the iconic grizzly bear. Established in 1983, the nearly global support of the cause of the endangered grizzly allowed the Coalition to flourish. It also did not hurt that they were one of the first non-profits in the region, entering the field when there was only one conservation specialist working in the GYE[ix].The focus was initially on landscape scale issues because, as the GYC saw it, only total landscape health could help the far-ranging bears.  Today, with the grizzly populations healthy once again, the mission of the Coalition has evolved towards its previous means: total landscape health.

Using tools such as litigation, lease buyouts, community outreach and education, and project funding, the Coalition is fighting for an improved natural, and social, environment that can encourage the total health of the GYE for years to come.


            Leadership: The Coalition depends greatly upon the active involvement of its board members, who consist of executives, conservationists, ranchers, small business owners, consultants, attorneys and more, all of whom are chosen by GYC members and must “have a strong commitment to protecting the vast 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” In addition to the Board, there is a full-time staff composed of 19 professionals who keep the Coalition’s wheels spinning.

            Structure: For a small annual fee, anyone may become a member of the Coalition. With membership comes voting power. The members of the GYC vote to select persons for 4-year terms to the Board. Limited to 24 board members, the board itself has the governing power of the organization. The board has 4 sub-committees: Conservation, Governance, Finance, and Development, which facilitate discussion and make the decisions about their respective areas.

            Type of Initiative: The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is a 501 (c)3  non-profit organization. It is a formal institution.

            Authority: Traditionally, the leverage of the GYC was dependent upon existing laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as intra-agency management guidelines. The group acted as a watchdog in many cases: pursuing litigation when these federal laws or internal agency regulations were not being upheld. In recent years the Coalition has moved towards a more collaborative strategy where communications and relationships influence other actors more than the threat of litigation.

Participants: Anyone may participate in the GYC by obtaining a membership for $50 annually.  GYC has about 6,000 full-fledged members. There are nearly 40,000 people worldwide who support the organization in some way. Members can be individuals, organizations, or even businesses. Some noteworthy organizational members include the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, the Audubon Naturalist Society, and countless small businesses located in the area.      

Mission:  Based on the premise that “an ecosystem will remain healthy and wild only if it is kept whole”, the mission of the GYC is to do exactly that: advocate for keeping the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem whole and protected.

Motivations for initiating effort: The GYC was formed in order to aid in the recovery of the dwindling and highly threatened grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) population in the region. The grizzly bear has a seasonal range of up to about 100,000 acres[x]. While these ranges depend upon habitat condition, and there is some overlap of ranges between bears, these animals clearly require large swaths of healthy land in order to survive. The GYC originally formed to ensure the protection of enough lands for the grizzly to thrive.

Major Strategies: 

            Research – The Coalition utilizes scientific research in order to more accurately address environmental issues in the GYE. The research utilized is either funded directly by the GYC, funded by State and Federal agencies, or is extraneous but useful. In the words of board member Kniffy Hamilton, the real research work comes in the form of “compiling and coordinating information, not directly collecting it”[xi]

            Planning – According to CommunicationsDirector Jeff Welsch, all projects of the Coalition are planned with two objectives in mind: whole ecosystems and large landscapes. With each proposal, significant systemic effects on the health and integrity of ecosystems is intended, even if the end goal is to impact only one form of wildlife. Large landscapes are targeted because “the health of a large landscape is connected to the health of all [life] within it.”[xii]

            Regulation – In the past, the Coalition has taken on a watchdog role for the ecosystem: making sure that existing laws and guidelines are being properly followed in respect to the GYE. While they still retain the capacity for this type of legal regulation, the group is moving away from litigation and only utilizes it in cases where it has a value or function “that cannot be achieved in any other way”[xiii]. This move has been spurred on by the realization that you “need public support to create permanent solutions”[xiv]. When public support is not behind an action, laws can be made, rulings overturned, and work undone. Therein lies the weakness of the traditional style of environmental protection through litigation: litigation itself is divisive and weakens public perceptions of such groups, and conservation, as a whole.

            Restoration – While it is an important task in the region, the Coalition generally leaves restoration to the 200 plus other environmental groups working in the GYE. One small example of a project that has been pursued in this respect is stream restoration in the Madison River watershed. Focus on stream restoration work as a whole has increased during the past year.

            Communication – The GYC Board has 3 annual meetings, 1 in Bozeman and 2 at different locations around the ecosystem, and 1 conference call. The sub-committees hold meetings or conference calls at differing intervals that are determined on a sub-committee basis. Besides full meetings or conference calls, there is substantial communication across the Coalition, especially amongst the staff.


Besides the above mentioned strategies, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition also pursues these other tools in order to fulfill its mission:

Community Involvement and Education – With four regional offices, the GYC engages surrounding communities as much as possible in order to educate about the ecosystem and instill a conservation ethic. An example of this engagement is the Cycle Greater Yellowstone bike tour: a week-long fundraising event with the goals of sharing this special region with people from all over the world and strengthening ties to local communities.

            Land Exchanges – Pursued in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, land exchanges facilitated by the GYC helped to transform the patchwork of ownership in ecologically vital areas to broader swaths of protected land. The majority of this work, or at least the portions that are feasible, have been accomplished, and the GYC has moved away from this strategy.

            Litigation – Litigation has played a large role in the history of the GYC. However, current leadership is hoping to move away from such measures. In recent years litigation has become the final tool in the Coalition’s arsenal, only to be used when no other strategy will work.

            Lease Buyouts – Grazing rights are a ubiquitous presence on public lands in the American West. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is no different in this respect, and the Coalition is seeking to modify this tradition. As bison herds are being restored in Yellowstone Park and, increasingly, surrounding areas, conflicts with cattle grazers are increasing. Due to Brucellosis and the intense pressure from livestock interests for isolation, bison and cattle are not allowed to mix. In order to aid in the spread of bison, the GYC is buying out grazing rights in order to remove cattle from the land and return it to a more natural state, bison and all.

Ecosystems Characteristics and Threats:

            The Ecosystem – Covering approximately 20 million acres of land in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the GYE is a vast, fairly intact ecosystem. It is the “southernmost area in North America that still contains a full suite of native carnivores, along with other wilderness qualities”[xv]. The ecosystem is an important wildlife corridor, has healthy predator populations, and reasonably high biodiversity. Much of the reason for the protection of this vast swath of land is that it is currently quite intact.



Population Growth – due to the intact wildness and iconic scenery of this area, the human population in the region is burgeoning: threatening the very values that draw them here.

Climate Change – The effects of climate change will impact biodiversity, community make-up, and suitable habitat and ranges for wildlife.

Energy Development – While this threat has been reduced through the continued action of conservation groups in the area, it remains a threat to the health of the ecosystem.

Distribution of Protected Land – At the core of the GYE are Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Together, these parks compose an area of approximately 2.9 million acres. Surrounding the parks is a complex of 6 National Forests and 5 Wildlife Refuges that contain approximately 4 million additional acres of federally designated wilderness. This core, some of which is itself currently open to resource extraction, is surrounded by private, state, local, and tribal lands, all of which have the ability to threaten the resources of the GYE.

Monitoring, Assessment, and Evaluation:

            Baseline Conditions – The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is perhaps one of the most well studied habitats in North America. As our first National Park and home to a great abundance of wildlife, this ecosystem has been under near constant study since the early 1900’s. As such, basic understandings of processes, “normal” conditions, and needs of wildlife, are readily available in the academic literature.

            Monitoring – Monitoring in the GYE for the Coalition is funded directly by GYC funds, or is performed by others with similar interests, such as federal agencies, and utilized by the GYC.

            Evaluation – Compiling and coordinating the scientific work pertaining to existing and possible projects is a large component of GYC work. By compiling various scientific studies, more accurate evaluations of environmental conditions and necessary actions may be devised.

Accomplishments/Impacts: Some of the many accomplishments of the GYC are listed below, in chronological order:

One year after its founding, the GYC helped secure more than 1 million acres of wilderness designation in western Wyoming in order to provide a stronger buffer for the parks and their migrating wildlife.

In 1992, the Coalition led efforts that halted logging in prime grizzly habitat in Targhee National Forest.

In 1996, GYC prevented the construction of a vast open-pit gold mine and tailings pond two miles outside Yellowstone Park’s northeast corner.

GYC and partners brokered a historic deal in 2008, allowing for bison to roam nine miles north of the park along the Yellowstone River to suitable public lands, avoiding senseless slaughter.

In 2009 The GYC's lawsuit to restore Endangered Species Act protections for the grizzly bear prevailed and the group helped secure a Wild & Scenic designation for the headwaters of the Snake River in Wyoming.

After extensive work by the GYC, 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming Range were designed off-limits to oil and gas development.

Factors Facilitating Progress:  For the past thirty years, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition has effected lasting change in areas around the GYE. This longevity and success were won through hard-work and intelligent planning, but other factors play a role in the success of the Coalition as well.

            Grizzly Bear Perception – Unlike the grey wolf, the grizzly bear does not carry the cultural animosity of the traditional west. Instead, it is viewed by most parties as an iconic symbol of America’s wild lands. For the GYC, this perception has meant less opposition to projects, especially those related to the grizzly, and more financial support.

            Prior Success – A successful history of litigation by the GYC has created an opinion that they can affect positive change in the ecosystem. As the number of successful lawsuits and litigations grew, so did public awareness of the Coalition, and in turn, so did funding. Increasing funds have allowed the Coalition to pursue more and more successful projects, creating a positive feedback from their initial successes.

Challenges: While the Coalition has had a large amount of success over the years, there have been many challenges along the way.

            Competition for Funding – Even with the Coalition’s successes, gaining sufficient funding can be a challenge. With so many different organizations in the GYE vying for funds, there is a constant struggle to keep awareness and support of a single organization at high levels. This is especially true when many other organizations in the area use fear-mongering to increase fundraising. Postcards with slogans such as “stop the slaughter of wolves” paint an inaccurate picture of the situation, yet yield high returns. 

            Organizational Culture – Due to the above mentioned competition for funds, several other challenges have arisen. The culture of non-profits working in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem can be a stubborn, competitive, and non-cooperative one. The large number of organizations creates a stronger need to produce results, in order to gain attention and steady funding. With this increased need for results, and high level of competition for projects and funds, non-profits have taken on a combative, rather than cooperative strategy. This means that instead of working together and pooling resources to have greater effect, organizations sometimes are non-communicative, and often overlap projects: wasting resources and reducing results.

Lessons Learned:

            Power of Landscapes – In pursuing work for target species, especially those of higher trophic levels, total landscape health, not just species health, should be of prime consideration. By expanding the scope of consideration more powerful and lasting results may be obtained, not just for target species, but for the ecosystem as a whole.

            The (Proper) Place of Litigation – The recent shift of the GYC to diminished reliance on litigation, even in areas where it might have a greater impact, is a telling one. The realization has been that litigation is so divisive and impermanent that in many cases where it appears to be the best option, it no longer is. Groups need to ask, what value can be provided by litigation, that can’t be found in any other way, and, what are the trade-offs?

Project Selection – As any non-profit knows, project selection is vital. A host of complicated social, cultural, economic, and political interactions come into play with many projects. In initially focusing on the grizzly bear, the Coalition had a target whose projects would not have the same types of opposition as those related to the wolf or bison for example. By trying to understand the complex relationships others have with conservation activities, more fitting projects, marketing, and collaboration may be pursued.

Website Links: Much of the information from this report originated from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition website and the various reports, publications, and sections therein.

The Federal Government has its own focus upon the GYE, called the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, which coordinates actions and shares information between the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management in regards to the management of natural resources in this region.

This photo-essay blog by Matt Skoglund, an employee of the Natural Resources Defense council, featuring the work of Dave Showalter, highlights some of the environmental battles, and staggering natural beauty, of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

[i] Kenneth Salazar, “Secretarial Order No. 3289”, signed September 14, 2009.

[ii] The Greater Yellowstone Coalition website, Accessed June 20, 2013.

[iii] Jeff Welsch, Communications Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, interviewed by the author, July 18, 2013.

[iv] Donald S. Davis et al. “Brucella Abortus in Captive Bison. I. Serology, Bacteriology, Pathogenesis, andTransmission to Cattle”. (Journal of Wildlife Diseases 26, no. 3, 1990), 363.

[v] Albano Beja-Pereira, et al. “DNA Genotyping Suggests that Recent Brucellosis Outbreaks in the Greater Yellowstone Area Originated From Elk”, (Journal of Wildlife Diseases 45, no. 4, 2009), 1174.

[vi] Montana Department of Livestock. “FAQ - Brucellosis & the Designated Surveillance Area”, (Montana Department of Livestock website,, 1.

[vii] National Park Service website, "Organic Act of 1916." Accessed June 3, 2013.

[viii]  “An Act to Set Apart a Certain Tract of Land Lying Near the Headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a Public Park”, Approved by the 42nd Congress of the U.S.A, March 1, 1872.

[ix] Jeff Welsch, Interview.

[x] Frank C. Craighead, “Grizzly Bear Ranges and Movement as Determined by Radiotracking”, in Bears, Their Biology and Management. (New York: American Society of Mammologists, 1976), 99.

[xi] Kniffy Hamilton, Board Member of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, interviewed by the author, July 15, 2013.

[xii] Jeff Welsch, Interview.

[xiii] Kniffy Hamilton, Interview.

[xiv] Jeff Welsch, Interview.

[xv] Reed F. Noss et al,  “A Multi Criteria Assessment of the Irreplaceability and Vulnerability of Sites in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem”, (Conservation Biology 16, no.4, 2002), 896.