EARLY WILDLIFE CONDITIONS IN YELLOWSTONE
PLANS, policies, attitudes, scientific interpretations, and hopes in regard to the wildlife in an area are contingent on the relationships between its present and its primitive status. If present conditions differ widely from the primitive, then we may have an unnatural association of animals; the animals may be existing by recently acquired habits, they may be subjected to new predators, or to the old predators in areas of strange physiographic and floral features to which they are not adjusted. If present conditions are in the main similar to the primitive then the relationships are perhaps deeper, more stable, more significant, and represent the results of a long process of adjustment. To arrive at the primitive picture I have perused some of the early literature and compared the experiences of the early travelers with my own experiences in the mountains. Since my conclusions are contrary to those generally accepted it has seemed desirable to give briefly some support for them.
It is frequently said (Rush (1932), Skinner (1927), and others) that in the early days game was scarce in the mountains; that it is much more abundant there now than it was originally; that game migrated to the mountains about 1880; and that game was more abundant on the plains than in the mountains. The last statement seems true; the preceding ones lack evidence for their support, because it is probable that the mountain animals were the only ones to escape destruction; and the first two conclusions appear untenable in the light of evidence found in early reports and journals.
In analyzing the statements made by early explorers some points must be kept in mind. First, negative evidence must yield to positive evidence because failure to report game does not disprove its abundance. Difficulty in finding game where it is known to be abundant is a common experience. Acting Superintendent F. A. Boutelle in a supplement to the 1889 Yellowstone Annual Report makes the statement: "Visitors are sometimes a little incredulous as to the great number of large game animals in the park and complain that they have seen nothing." In more recent years I heard a superintendent make a similar remark in regard to the abundance of elk in Yellowstone. While studying elk in Teton National Forest south of Yellowstone in 1928 where hundreds of elk were summering, there were periods, especially in late summer, when the elk were more in the woods and we had difficulty finding the animals. In 1938 I heard an old-timer, familiar with all details of the Jackson Hole elk country, say that he had been out on the elk summer range for more than a week to photograph them and had hardly found an elk. It is not at all surprising to me to read of early hunting parties failing to shoot game in good mountain game country. Some other factors operating in varying degrees to give the impression that game was originally scarce in the mountains are: (1) game in summer was largely at high elevations away from traveled routes; (2) game was often much hunted along the routes and may have been locally scarce; (3) large parties were noisy, resulting in game being scared away; (4) large parties needed a big supply of game and at regular intervals, so it was not unexpected that they should run out of food; (5) although game was no doubt more plentiful in the plains country than in the mountains the contrast was accentuated by wider visibility and easier hunting on the plains; (6) as in present-day journals, game was often referred to only casually, so all game was not necessarily listed; and (7) some habitats in the mountains, such as the dense lodgepole pine, are poor in game today, and the naturalist of the 1872 Hayden party traveled through Yellowstone largely in this habitat and not through the best summer game country. So much for explaining the impression sometimes obtained that game was scarce in the mountains.
One of the most fascinating books on early western travel is the Journal of a Trapper by Osborne Russell. It covers several trips made by the author into Yellowstone between 1834 and 1843. The diary is exceptionally well written and the author was apparently a careful and truthful observer. In the following, the localities given in parentheses are mine, but quotations and comments are taken from Russell.
In The Discovery of Yellowstone Park1870, by N. P. Langford, the following observations were noted: September 6, 1870 (southeast corner of Yellowstone Lake): "We have today seen an abundance of the tracks of elk and bears, and occasionally the track of a mountain lion." On September 7, 1870, near the mouth of the Upper Yellowstone River, the party followed by mistake a fresh trail made by a band of elk.
F. V. Hayden (1872) gives some interesting light on abundance of game in Yellowstone and the difficulty of finding it, even when abundant. He writes of Yellowstone: "The finest of mountain water, fish in the greatest abundance, with a good supply of game of all kinds . . . On the evening of August 9 we camped at the head of the main bay (Yellowstone Lake) west of Flat Mountain. Our hunters returned after diligent search for two and a half days with only a black-tail deer which, though poor, was the most important addition to our larder. It seems that during the months of August and September the elk and deer resort to the summits of the mountains to escape the swarms of flies in the lowlands about the lake. Tracks of game could be seen everywhere, but none of the animals themselves was to be found."
In the Sixth Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, by F. V. Hayden (1873), the following reference is made to game early in September 1872, south of Heart Lake in the Yellowstone Region: "This is mostly fine grazing ground and the numerous game trails give evidence that it is frequented by deer and elk; indeed, we found two herds of elk of about 20 each among the groves on the top of the ridge."
The following references to game occur in the Report Upon the Reconnaissance of Northwestern Wyoming, Including Yellowstone National Park, Made in Summer of 1873, by William A. Jones: August 2. On the divide between North Fork of Shoshone and the Yellowstone basin fresh tracks of mountain sheep were reported as exceedingly numerous. September 2, 1873 (10 miles up Upper Yellowstone River): "All through this basin game tracks have been very abundant, but our party from its size makes a good deal of noise, which will account for the fact that we did not see a great deal. A magnificent elk crossed the valley in advance of us, and in plain sight today." On September 3, 1873, three elk were seen and shot at Two Ocean Pass.
The following notes are taken from the geological report made by Theo. B. Comstock, included in the Jones report: On August 6, near Pelican Meadows, the "doleful howl of a large wolf which was slowly approaching along the trail" was heard. The camp was on a "well-worn game trail. . . This locality seems to be a favorite resort of many animals. Our train approached it by following a prominent game trail, at least a dozen of which, extending for miles into the forest, meet at this point. Upon my first visit to this place, the day before the passage of the train, fresh tracks and other unmistakable signs of their presence were visible. Today I started numbers of elk while passing through the fallen timber." On August 12, 1873, a badger was seen at Canyon and a porcupine was killed in Hayden Valley. The following is written about a trip from Pelican Creek to Mirror Plateau on August 13, 1873: "Plentiful tracks of game were noticed, but we saw very little until near the summit, when we met a large drove of elk and some deer." Item for August 19, between Junction Butte and Hellroaring: "On the way we met with several large droves of antelopes feeding upon fine pasturage here afforded with much security, owing to the irregular topography which enables them to seek immediate shelter upon the approach of danger. At the time of our visit the great antelope country along the left bank of the East Fork (Lamar River) was remarkably free from their presence, which may doubtless be explained by the recent passage of several parties of miners."
In "Report of a Reconnaissance From Carrol, Montana Territory, on the Upper Missouri to the Yellowstone National Park and Return Made in the Summer of 1875," by William Ludlow (1876), the following statement indicates that many elk wintered in Yellowstone: "Hunters have for years devoted themselves to the slaughter of the game, until within the limits of the park it is hardly to be found. I was credibly informed by people on the spot, and personnally cognizant of the facts, that during the winter of 1874 and 1875, at which season the heavy snows render the elk an easy prey, no less than from 1,500 to 2,000 of these, the largest and finest game animals in the country, were thus destroyed within a radius of fifteen miles of the Mammoth Springs." This slaughter is mentioned in Norris's report of 1880.
The following notes are taken from the zoological report prepared by George Bird Grinnell, published in the Ludlow report. Of mountain lions he states: "Although not a common species, a few of these animals are killed in the mountains every winter." One was seen near Alum Creek. Lynx were reported abundant in the mountains and sometimes killed in the park. Apparently, coyotes were present in some numbers in the mountains, for the following statement on their abundance is made in writing of the coyote: "This species is abundant between Carroll and Fort Ellis, being, I think, much more common on the prairie than in the mountains." The coyote was apparently very plentiful on the prairie where it was possible to see it much more easily than in the mountains. The above comparison suggests that the coyotes were present in some numbers in Yellowstone. Many wolverine tracks were reported in the park. The grizzly was reported as numerous in the park and black bears were scarce. Concerning elk, the following statement is made: "They were seen in considerable numbers along the Missouri River, among the Bridger Mountains, and in the Yellowstone Park." The bighorn and "the so-called mountain buffalo," were reported abundant in the park.
The following statements concerning early game conditions are taken from a typewritten copy of "A report made by Lt. G. C. Doane on an Exploration Trip from Fort Ellis Through Yellowstone Park and Jackson Hole to Fort Hall, Between October 11, 1876, to January 4, 1877." Observations made in the summer of 1874 up Tower Creek are mentioned, which show that many elk had wintered in Yellowstone. He writes about a side trip made in 1874 as follows: "Late in the afternoon we reached the summit of the mountain toward Mammoth Springs, coming out in an open space where there were thousands of elk horns. There are many such places in the park where these animals have gone for centuries to drop their horns in early winter." On October 22, 1876, they were camped at Crystal Spring Creek near Canyon. He writes: "Hunted in vicinity of camp but found nothing." Later in Hayden Valley he reports ". . . saw that I had ridden close up to a herd of at least 2,000 elk. They had been lying in the snow and had all sprung up together, frightening my horse. In a minute the great herd was out of sight, crashing through the forest." A deer was killed 6 miles from Mud Volcano Springs near the mouth of the Yellowstone River. October 24, 1876, Yellowstone Lake: "In the morning I shot and wounded a large wolverine but did not stop him. . . ." October 26, 1876, Yellowstone Lake: "Killed a deer and two geese. . . . Mountain lions in chorus beyond the river, and a pack of wolves howling far down the lake shore." October 29, 1876, 1 mile from Heart Lake: "Driving a large herd of elk resting there we went into camp." November 18, 1876, on Snake River south of Heart Lake: "We have had but little depth of snow and this while favorable in one sense has been detrimental in another, as it has allowed the game to run high on the mountains where we had not time to go." South of Heart Lake a mountain lion had visited camp during the night.
In his annual report on Yellowstone Park for 1877, Supt. P. W. Norris gives a discussion of wildlife conditions in Yellowstone which corroborates the foregoing statements. He says: "Hence in no other portion of the west or of the world was there such an abundance of elk, moose, deer, mountain sheep, and other beautiful animals, fish and fowl, nor as ignorant, or as fearless of and easily slaughtered by man as in this secluded and unknown park but seven years ago . . . . From the unquestioned fact that over 2,000 hides of the huge Rocky Mountain elk, nearly as many each of the bighorn. deer, and antelope, and scores if not hundreds of moose and bison were taken out of the park in spring of 1875, probably 7,000, or an annual average of 1,000 of them, and hundreds if not thousands of each of these other animals have been thus killed since its discovery in 1870. . . . As comparatively few of them were slain for food, but mostly for their pelts and tongues, often run down on snowshoes and tomahawked when their carcasses were least valuable, and merely strychnine-poisoned for wolf or wolverine bait, the amount of most wholesome, nutritious, and delicious food thus wantonly destroyed is simply incalculable." The fact that these animals were taken out of the park in the spring and that some were run down on snowshoes indicates that the animals must have been wintering in the park.
The following quotations are taken from Superintendent Norris' Yellowstone report made for the year 1880. Referring to Soda Butte Creek he writes: "A branch of the East Fork (Lamar) of the Yellowstone and a favorite winter haunt of elk and bison . . . Elk, deer, and other game being driven by storms into the sheltered glens and valley, we were enabled to secure an abundant winter's supply of fresh meat, and also fine hides of the bear, wolf, and wolverine . . . I would add that there are now in the park abundance of bison, moose, elk, deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep besides fine summer pasturage there are winter haunts for these animals where with little care or expense other than protection from wanton slaughter, they would rapidly multiply." He mentions the presence of countless brush and stick fences of various ages created by the Indians for driveways in hunting game. Of elk he writes that in no place were they more abundant than in Yellowstone in 1870, and that a big slaughter of them occurred between 1870 and 1877. They were found at high elevations in summer and in sheltered valleys of the park during winter. Bighorns were recorded abundant throughout the park, remaining there the year round. The cougar was said to be exceedingly numerous in 1870 when Norris first explored the park, but already rare in 1880. Wolves and coyotes are reported to have once been exceedingly numerous in all portions of the park, but that the value of their hides and their easy slaughter with strychnine-poisoned carcasses of animals had nearly exterminated them by 1880. Foxes, shunks, and badgers, are said to have been numerous in 1881.
Edward Pierrepont in "Fifth Avenue to Alaska" wrote that bighorn were abundant in the Hoodoo Mountain area in 1883. Game Keeper Harry Yount in 1881 reported sheep wintering in large numbers at Norris Mountain.
The paleontologist E. D. Cope (1885) made the following statement concerning early conditions in Yellowstone: "Bison, elk, moose, deer, etc., are far less abundant than when the park was first created. The bison have been, I am informed, reduced to a herd of about 60 individuals, and the elk have been decimated . . . Some persons state . . . that the game leaves the park in winter. This I ascertained is not true, for there are numerous well-protected localities where the game winters safely."
M. S. Garretson, secretary of the American Bison Society, in a letter to Fred Packard, written February 2,1939, gives a good historical description of early game conditions in Yellowstone Park and the plains country to the east. Mr. Garretson writes as follows: "My first acquaintance with the park was in the early eighties and I have been interested in it ever since. The knowledge gained then and since that time confirms my belief that prior to the advent of the white man the Yellowstone region was well stocked with game as were also the foothills and the open plains country. On the east and from the railroad on the south the game was being rapidly slaughtered by the advancing settlers and ranchers; at the same time on the western edge of the open country and in the foothills there were numerous hide hunters, market hunters, miners, and so-called sportsmen who worked eastward. After the game had been destroyed in the open country the hide hunters and market hunters continued their activities in the more difficult mountainous regions.
"The slaughter was prodigious even after the boundaries of the Yellowstone Park had been established. Thousands of elk and many bighorn sheep were slaughtered annually within the park for their hides and meat until a Federal law had been enacted for their protection, so it is quite apparent that instead of being driven into the park the original inhabitants were given the same treatment as was accorded to those in the open country and were slaughtered to near extinction, so there is good reason to believe that all the elk in the Yellowstone Park today have descended from the original inhabitants."