Written by Vanessa Chavarriaga
Grizzly bear viewing

A racist foundation

This year has afforded us the time and necessity to critically analyze our systems and how they serve or harm us. An integral part of doing anti-racist, revolutionary work is applying it to all aspects of our lives.

White saviorship is prevalent in conservation. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve heard white people say it is their mission to “speak up for the voiceless”. They say this about Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). They say this about differently abled or neuro-atypical people. This is problematic for many reasons, the main one being that these people are not voiceless and do not need saving. 

If people constantly speak for these communities, they will never be provided the space to speak for themselves and their true needs will never be met. 

I often hear the same sentiment of “speaking for the voiceless” in the conservation field. Through our separation from nature, a premise has been set that the non-human world cannot speak for itself. However, many Indigenous and non-Western cultures do communicate with nature. So what if we stopped speaking for nature, and began to listen to her instead? 

If we look closely, land and wildlife conservation is really just white saviorship and imperialism in disguise. 


The creation of wild spaces and wildlife

The foundation that we must speak for nature assumes that humans are superior and more knowledgeable about the natural systems that have existed without us for millennia. It assumes that we must tame, control, and dominate nature in order for it to benefit us. 

Our national parks, campgrounds, public lands, rivers, and wildlife management are all white. Our current models of wildlands and wildlife have one thing in common: they are unpeopled. 

These models, created by white men and perpetuated through conservation, depend on the division between people and nature. In doing so, they police and erase other ways of knowing. 

Wolf viewing in Yellowstone

The North American model of wildlife conservation

The North American model of Wildlife Conservation is the model we currently rely on for all wildlife management in the US and Canada. This was written by white men in the early 1900s and although severely outdated, is still used today.

I’d like to challenge a few principles from this model: 

1. Wildlife resources are a public trust.

Implies ownership of wildlife by all citizens. Projects patriarchal, white supremist values of dominion and ownership over nature. Gives us a “right” to treat nature and wildlife however we believe will suit us best. This premise also commodifies wildlife and attempts to give it capitalist value. 

3. Allocation of wildlife is by law

Wildlife is allocated to the public by law. In theory the law is supposed to ensure that all citizens have equal access to wildlife. Unfortunately for us (and for wildlife), our legal systems are racist. At most, they uphold and perpetuate racism. They also protect corporations more than they do citizens. 

4. Wildlife can be killed only for a legitimate purpose. 

This principle is sound in theory. But under the definition of “legitimate purpose” this model allows individuals to kill wildlife to protect their “property”, including livestock. This is the reason wolves were killed to extinction, and the reason grizzly bears remain endangered. 

7. Democracy of hunting is standard 

Hunting is great if done respectfully. Unfortunately hunting has become co-opted by white supremist values of conquering and dominating wildlife. The modern white hunter is likely to view wildlife as a trophy, a conquest, an indicator of masculinity. Modern hunting once again places a price on a wild animal and takes focus off its intrinsic value.

The true stewards of these lands

Before there were cities, established national parks, or wilderness areas, there was really no clear separation between society and nature. This is especially true for Indigenous peoples, many of whom lived nomadically, travelling with wild game and growing seasons. Their relationship to nature is not about dominion or superiority, but reciprocality. 

Indigenous peoples understand the importance of living in balance — of taking but also giving back. They performed stewardship to the land by dispersing seeds, performing controlled fires, and deeply honoring all beings they interacted with. 

Erasure and colonization in so-called Yellowstone

What we now call Yellowstone National Park was once a large cultural hub to many Indigenous peoples, the main groups including the Crow, Eastern and Northern Shoshone, Bannock, Tukudeka, and Blackfeet. These lands were paramount for hunting and gathering because they included important migration corridors and winter ranges for animals like bison and elk. 

Once Yellowstone National Park was established, the National Parks Service (NPS) began to forcibly remove Indigenous families in order to provide white tourists with a facade of a sanitized, untouched, and unpeopled landscape. 

When the US government forcibly broke the relationship between Indigenous peoples and what we now call Yellowstone, both the people and the land suffered. 

The People

Indigenous peoples were sent to reservations, hundreds of miles from their homes. When they attempted to return to Yellowstone to hunt and forage like they had been doing for hundreds of years, they were again forcibly chased out of the area.

Without access to their food systems Indigenous peoples were then forced to rely on government programs and commodified foods. This severely impacted mental and physical health, and created a cycle of generational trauma that carried today.

The Land

NPS began a strict fire suppression regime in which they would not allow natural fires to burn inside Yellowstone. Due to the suppression of this natural system, a series of wildfires in 1988 burned 800,000 acres — almost 40% of the entire park. 

Along with fire suppression, NPS killed the entire wolf population and sent the entire ecosystem into an unsustainable spiral: the land became extremely degraded due to the overpopulation of elk, the beavers disappeared, and the elk began to starve. 

This ecosystem degradation is directly linked to the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the management decisions of white men who thought they knew better than nature.

Environmental racism

The history of Yellowstone provides a clear example of environmental racism. When animals suffer, when nature suffers, so do we. The first communities to feel this pain are BIPOC communities. That allows the white people in power the privilege of looking away. 

Each public space we visit or wildlife that we view has a story like this. A story of humans with western beliefs centering themselves and disrupting natural processes. We uphold a false sense of superiority and an inability to listen. 

Allow yourself to sit in the discomfort of knowing that the systems you participate in, benefit from, and perpetuate are broken systems. When you travel through Yellowstone and photograph a grizzly bear, consider the fate she faces. Consider what you are taking from that bear, and what you are giving back to her. 

Bison in Yellowstone

Resilience and looking forward

The land and the animals still recognize their true stewards. They remember being treated with love, respect, and reciprocity. Indigenous peoples remember this too. This knowledge has been passed down through generations and ancestors. It is our duty to allow these leaders to rise and reclaim power. 

It is also our duty to advocate for ourselves and not expect Indigenous leaders to save us. We have a lot of unlearning to do in our own communities. 

There is a need for a radical shift in wildlife, land, and water stewardship. Through movements like #LandBack, we can return the land, water, and wildlife management to Indigenous peoples. The restoration and recognition of Indigenous knowledge and leadership is the future. Because when our communities heal, our wildlife heals too. 

About the author

Vanessa Chavarriaga is a Colombian immigrant, vanlifer, and environmental sociologist who focuses on the intersection between society and nature. She is currently earning her Master’s in American Studies and Environment and Natural Resources from the University of Wyoming. Vanessa has worked on several different projects including a clean water initiative in Jackson Hole, an Indigenous food sovereignty story-telling project, and a grizzly bear corridor study which is currently ongoing in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Vanessa is passionate about environmental justice, education, and access to nature for all. She enjoys climbing mountains, swimming in the coldest water, and foraging for mushrooms and berries.