The Real-World Conflicts in Yellowstone Can Be Solved by Markets, Not Drama

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Yellowstone, the modern-day Western starring Kevin Costner, is one of the most popular shows right now. The series, which just wrapped up its fourth season, follows Costner’s John Dutton as he fights to preserve his family’s way of life on a sprawling ranch in Montana’s Paradise Valley. The action-packed drama has captured the attention of Americans across the country—many of them in small-market towns and cities in “flyover” states.

The show’s popularity—with its sometimes corny dialogue and Middle America–focused themes—has media elites scratching their heads. Vox called it “a watchable yet almost relentlessly three-out-of-five-stars TV show” and lamented that it “is not particularly interested in saying anything grand or sweeping about the world.” HBO’s Succession, which has a similar family business legacy theme, is an Emmy-winning darling of media critics, but it draws only a fraction of Yellowstone‘s viewership. Just 1.7 million viewers tuned in to Succession‘s season finale last month, compared to more than 11 million for Yellowstone‘s. A Yellowstone prequel starring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill that debuted last month, 1883, drew nearly 5 million viewers, making it the largest cable premiere since 2015.

Yellowstone‘s appeal, along with the apparent disinterest of the chattering class, reveals familiar red-state–blue-state cultural divisions. The show isn’t moralizing or preachy. But part of its appeal is how it features real-world issues facing heartland communities—topics that are often unfamiliar, or poorly understood, by coastal critics who might perceive Yellowstone as lowbrow.

Consider the show’s depiction of the tensions between urban and rural communities—whether in the context of disputes over water rights, property boundaries, or wildlife interactions. Our organization, the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), which is based in Bozeman, Montana, near where Yellowstone takes place, recently published an entire magazine issue exploring issues in the show. Many of the plotlines involve big-city developers or transplants butting heads with locals who see the outsiders as a threat to their traditions and livelihoods, and the result is usually conflict instead of cooperation.

For instance, in the series premiere, developers from California sit in a Bozeman conference room looking over their plans to build a subdivision next to the Duttons’ ranch. When one wonders whether they can unilaterally dam a river, diverting it from the ranch to supply their vacation-home development with water and power, another says: “On our land, it’s our river. This isn’t California, gentlemen. This is Montana. We can do whatever we want.” It’s fantasy—a sophisticated Western water rights system known as prior appropriation emerged more than a century ago to preclude such a conflict-ridden approach—but it captures the urbanite-elite disdain for traditional ways of life that Yellowstone so often illustrates.

Take another example: the Duttons’ constant challenges with federal endangered species regulations. At various times throughout the show, the Endangered Species Act is either hamstringing the Duttons’ cattle-ranching business or being used by their adversaries as a weapon to remove them from the land. In one scene, a lawyer for a real estate investor devises a plan to use environmental regulations to attack the family with “a thousand little cuts.” In another, one of the Duttons’ cowboys shoots an endangered grizzly bear in self-defense, prompting a protracted investigation and an attempt by the Duttons to avoid legal punishment under the Endangered Species Act.

The basic problem with the Endangered Species Act is that it penalizes landowners who, like the Duttons, provide habitat for imperiled species. The show shines a light on the urban-rural divide between animal-loving city dwellers who want to save species and the rural landowners who bear the costs of doing so. This often pits endangered wildlife against landowners and leads to a “shoot, shovel, and shut up” approach that is bad for species as well as people. “When someone kills a bear,” says the local sheriff in the grizzly bear scene, “10,000 vegans send letters to their congressmen. You should have buried that thing in a hole before I got here because I ain’t the problem—the feds are!”

Other scenes depict challenges associated with wolves and livestock. As wolf populations have rebounded throughout much of the American West in recent decades, some states have created funds to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to wolves and other predators. Such programs have helped ranchers mitigate some of the costs of living with wolves, but they do little to turn wolves into economic assets in the eyes of rural landowners. For wolf recovery to be sustainable, strategies will need to benefit the local communities that bear the costs of providing habitat for the predators.

Similar issues are playing out in real time. Montana and Wyoming have both recently petitioned the feds to remove grizzly populations from the federal endangered species list, citing dramatic recoveries in recent decades and growing conflicts with rural landowners and residents. Despite attempts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist Yellowstone grizzlies dating back to 2005, the species remains listed in the region due to protracted litigation from environmentalists. Meanwhile, controversies over recent wolf-killing measures adopted in Montana and Idaho are prompting calls to relist wolves, which had previously been delisted. And in 2020, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure to reintroduce wolves in the state—in what amounted to a stark urban-rural split—angering rural residents who will bear the costs. Grim us-versus-them outlooks over wildlife turn disputes about species into all-or-nothing battles, ultimately undermining landowners’ incentives to help recover wildlife.

Strife doesn’t have to triumph. In the real-life Paradise Valley in Montana, ranchers face many of the same challenges as the Duttons—pressures to subdivide, the reality of being land-rich but cash-poor, and modern global economic shifts that increasingly make it difficult to stay in the business of bringing beef to market. To help address such challenges while also promoting conservation, PERC recently launched a new tool to reward landowners for providing wildlife habitat, funded entirely by local groups interested in conserving iconic Yellowstone wildlife. Last fall, we partnered with one ranch family to create the state’s first-ever “elk occupancy agreement“—a voluntary contract that compensates the family for setting aside 500 acres of land as winter habitat for the valley’s migratory elk herds.

Other similar free market arrangements are in the works in the valley, all with the same goal: to reward private landowners who voluntarily conserve habitat that does not benefit just them but also serves as a boon to Bozemanites and even faraway out of staters, many of whom may never vote the same way they would. More new tools will be needed to replace controversy with cooperation, and connect animal-loving urbanites to ranchers who provide habitat, especially given the national backdrop of polarized red-county–blue-county politics. Even as it exaggerates conflict on the screen, Yellowstone frequently alludes to the underlying institutions that are supposed to help settle conflicts over water, land, and other resources. While the show often chooses violence, we shouldn’t have to in the real world.

“There’s a war being waged against our way of life,” John Dutton says in the latest season. For many people across the country, this sentiment rings true. Yellowstone captures it, and, in the process, the attention of more viewers than most other television series. Media critics, along with conservationists and policy makers who care about these issues in the real world, dismiss it at their own peril.

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