The Natural

A love of wildlife and the Northern Rockies inspired Matt Skoglund to give up his law career and devote his days to protecting bison and other icons of the American West.

A version of this story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.

Matt Skoglund reaches the Bozeman Creek trailhead and quickly ascends into the Gallatin Mountains, a popular hiking and mountain-biking area south of Bozeman, Montana. The forested foothills, a spur of the Northern Rockies, function as a crossroads for wildlife, including grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions. They're also a source of the freshwater that flows to thousands of the city's taps.

Matt Skoglund Photo by Thomas Lee

There aren't too many places in the Lower 48 where a bustling college town can boast of such an unbroken stretch of scenic public lands right at its back door. This natural asset hasn't been preserved by accident, of course, but through vigilant stewardship on the part of citizens—citizens like Skoglund. As the director of NRDC's Northern Rockies office in Montana, he has transformed a calling into a career.

A former college hockey player who grew up near Chicago, Skoglund is also a hunter, fly-fisherman, and trail runner who credits a summer program at the National Outdoor Leadership School, in which he participated as a teenager, for opening his eyes to the beauty and majesty of the West.

He never forgot the experience. After graduating from Middlebury College, Skoglund earned a law degree from the University of Illinois. He clerked for a federal judge and then worked at a Chicago law firm. But the West beckoned; after two years, he returned to the region and took a job with NRDC.

A Bison on Tacarsey Bison Ranch in Alberta Michael Mahovlich/Radius Images/Masterfile

One of his specialties is creating consensus over divisive issues. Building broad citizen coalitions, he says, is the most effective way to safeguard the things everyone treasures. "It isn't easy," he admits. "But if you get buy-in and support from the greatest variety of people, long-term conservation is more effective."

Take the bison. In years past, these icons of the Great Plains would drift out of their protected home in Yellowstone during deep snows. Worried that the animals were infected with brucellosis, a disease that can cause cows to miscarry, local citizens and Montana state officials would force the bison back into the park.

Skoglund collaborated with the Citizens' Working Group—a coalition of ranchers, farmers, landowners, and bison advocates—to come up with a solution. Eventually the team agreed to endorse a plan that would permanently open up a portion of nearby national forest that had previously been accessible to the bison for only part of the year.

Bison graze in Yellowstone National Park Jeff Henry/Media Bakery

"They're symbols of the West," says Skoglund, "but bison have been treated as an exotic species. We need to respect and value them as the native wildlife they are." He sees the controversy as a lens through which we can view issues facing all large mammals in need of habitat. Yellowstone's grizzly bear and gray wolf populations, he notes, dwindled greatly, with the latter enduring nearly total annihilation. But a combination of creative thinking (such as the importing of gray wolves from western Canada in 1995 and 1996) and public consciousness–raising has enabled those species to thrive once again.

"If we're going to have healthy populations of bison, grizzlies, wolves, and other animals, we need to think on a bigger scale and find better ways to achieve coexistence," Skoglund says. "We need to plan ahead."

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