Can we talk about science without acknowledging human influence? Can we talk about human society without discussing our environment? Ecological Inquiry, our most recent course in the TSS Graduate Program, wove together the social and the ecological as we explored the systems that drive policy and dialogue in the Mountain West. As a cohort of developing educators, conservationists, consumers, and active citizens, we sought to answer the following question for each system we encountered: How can we manage social-ecological systems to the satisfaction of all stakeholders?  

In this course, grads debated the ethics of managing wildlife disease, questioned their beliefs on the Endangered Species Act, probed local ranchers for their perspectives on wolves, and reviewed a model for community-based waterway management. Check out these pictures and short blurbs to get a taste for the Mountain West social-ecological systems that interested us the most, the partners whose perspectives we had the pleasure of gaining, and the fun we had embracing conflict and management.
 
Supplemental Feeding and Disease in Elk and Bison: To kick off the week, the grad cohort took a sleigh ride through the National Elk Refuge and met with a Wyoming Game and Fish biologist to discuss the threat of disease in the Jackson Hole elk herd. Elk and bison in Jackson are fed to offset winter habitat loss due to human development. This feeding concentrates animals in the same areas. In the face of diseases like brucellosis and chronic wasting disease, wildlife managers must balance the chance of disease spread with the need to sustain target population numbers. Our group explored possible threats to tourism, ranching, and wildlife populations, all realities of ungulate management in the valley.
 
Sage Grouse and Natural Gas Extraction: Oil and gas reserves in Wyoming underlay many lekking grounds and other key sage grouse habitats. Given these reserves’ economic importance to Wyoming, much of the contentious discussion around grouse and gas has revolved around balancing resource extraction with wildlife protection. An interesting approach to this balance took effect in 2015, when state management plans were accepted in lieu of federal management under the Endangered Species Act. While some groups are fighting this decision in court, Wyoming’s collaborative state management plan has been heralded as the future of conservation by many historically opposed stakeholder groups.  
 
Nutrient Loading in Fish Creek: Folks at the Aspens Wastewater Treatment Plant in Wilson showed grads the wonders of activated sludge water treatment, in which microbes consume organic matter and nutrients. Multiple filtration and processing steps result in crystal clear drinking-quality water and nutrient outputs well below regulatory thresholds. The surprisingly low impact of this plant prompted the grads to think like the stakeholders involved in restoring Fish Creek. While it’s easy to assume that wastewater plants and similar operations are the major polluters of nearby waterways, it’s critical to step back and examine all of the contributors to the problem, including septic tanks, fertilizer application, and development. Friends of Fish Creek, a non-profit, provided grads with a model for successful community organization around a conservation issue, showing us how to include the voices of all stakeholder group and base management practices on longitudinal research.
 
Wyoming Wolf Management: On the Walton Ranch, grads heard from a long-time cowboy and ranch employee about his experiences with cattle ranching and wildlife depredation. He painted a picture of the challenges of grazing livestock on land shared with grizzly bears and wolves, prompting the grads to consider the pros and cons of federal compensation for livestock lost to protected wildlife. Grads debated the responsibilities of humans to restore ecosystems and wildlife populations. In altered ecosystems, is it appropriate, feasible, and productive to reintroduce extirpated species, or does doing so threaten local ranching operations to the point of financially inviability? How should we balance human economies with natural systems?