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PERC Reports: Winter 2021

This special edition of PERC Reports uses "Yellowstone's" portrayals of the Rocky Mountain West to examine real-world western issues

  • Shawn Regan
  • This special edition of PERC Reports uses the hit television show “Yellowstone’s” portrayals of the Rocky Mountain West to examine real-world western issues. Explore the full issue here

    “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner, is one of the most popular shows on television. The action-packed drama takes place in Paradise Valley, not far from PERC’s headquarters, and follows the travails of a prominent Montana ranching family as they confront an onslaught of challenges to their way of life. 

    The show, now in its fourth season, has sparked renewed interest in the American West—so much so that we built an entire edition of PERC Reports devoted to exploring issues behind the series: How are conflicts over water rights handled in the real world? Why are endangered species so controversial? And how could something as obscure as fence law determine whether disputes between neighbors are resolved cooperatively or devolve into violent conflict?

    A hit television show may seem like strange subject matter for a research institute. But PERC has long used Hollywood portrayals of the West to probe deeper into real-world problems. In 2004, Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill published the book The Not So Wild, Wild West, which challenged popular depictions of the “Wild West” as a rough-and-tumble place of heroes and villains. It showed how everyday people—fur trappers, homesteaders, cattle drivers, miners—often established property rights and legal institutions that facilitated cooperation rather than violence on the frontier.  

    This special edition of PERC Reports takes a similar approach. It is based on a workshop PERC hosted last summer that brought together researchers, practitioners, and policy experts—and even some “Yellowstone” cast members—to better understand the issues of the Rocky Mountain West. 

    In the pages that follow, Sara Sutherland and Eric Edwards examine how western fence law has evolved to address disputes between neighbors, with new challenges still unfolding. Edwards and Bryan Leonard explain how water rights in the West emerged to resolve competing demands over scarce water resources, sometimes peacefully, and other times not. And James Huffman describes how stream access laws in the West affect recreation and conservation, not always for the better.

    Jonathan Wood shows how federal policies can turn endangered species into liabilities, and Catherine Semcer offers insights into how to make wolves more of an economic asset in the West. Andrew Morriss explores how regulations are shaped by unlikely political coalitions—sometimes called “Bootleggers and Baptists”—that are on display in the show. And Paul Schwennesen gives a historical look at Native American poverty and Indigenous land rights. 

    This edition concludes with a timely example of how PERC is working to help landowners enhance wildlife habitat in the real-life Paradise Valley. I hope you’ll enjoy seeing western issues through the lens of “Yellowstone” as much as we enjoyed the journey that led to this special edition of the magazine.

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    Written By
    • Shawn Regan
      Shawn Regan
      • Vice President of Research

      Shawn Regan is a research fellow and vice president of research at PERC.  He is the executive editor of PERC Reports.

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