Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Roger A Pielke Jr

Second Advisor

Sam Fitch

Third Advisor

Susan G Clark


Over the last ten years, environmentalists have levied serious critiques of environmental nonprofits—specifically that environmental groups are struggling to make an impact. Critiques include accusations of dubious behavior on the part of environmental groups in developing countries, charges that the environmental elite are more interested in maintaining an affluent lifestyle than achieving organizational goals, and allegations that environmental nonprofits lack the strategies necessary to meet their purposes. This dissertation looks at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a case study to answer the question: How can environmental nonprofits do better?

The Greater Yellowstone environmental nonprofit community consists of 183 conservation nonprofits that command a combined annual budget of $150 million, have 500 employees, and are overseen by 700 board members. Despite these tremendous resources, the status quo performance of Greater Yellowstone’s environmental nonprofits falls short in many ways. These organizations have the potential to drastically improve the realization of conservation outcomes. To understand why performance is lacking, this analysis first looks to experienced conservation practitioners. The resulting four explanatory factors are called ‘the holy trinity (plus one) of environmental nonprofit failure.’ While useful in explaining some failures to achieve conservation goals, conventional wisdom is insufficient to leverage greater performance alone. Six alternative explanations are presented by analyzing the role of nonprofits in bison, elk, grizzly bear, pronghorn migration, snowmobile, and wolf management. The central finding is that environmental nonprofits artificially and unnecessarily restrict the scope of choices available to them. By doing so, these nonprofits miss important opportunities and are less likely to achieve their current and future goals.