The Embattled Wilderness
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter Nine:
The Science of Sanctuary

As Joseph Grinnell realized, a consistent and rational policy of natural resources management in national parks would be far more difficult to effect than outdoor education. Resources meant science, and scientific information that might influence management decisions was constantly evolving. In university circles, change was the rule. However in most bureaucracies, the National Park Services included, deep-seated prejudices were not as quickly erased just by new ways of thinking. Yosemite again served as a telling example. Despite Grinnell and Tracy Storer's plea in 1916 to respect biological relationships in national parks, the Park Service still permitted its rangers to hunt and trap Yosemite's wildlife for personal profit. Initially Grinnell had resigned himself to the practice and in fact had used it to good advantage, purchasing skeletons, skins, and carcasses for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and its research collections. But that use was limited and strictly for science. The possible extinction of certain species of fur-bearing animals in the park convinced him that trapping for its own sake was not only wrong but untenable. "I believe it would be in the interests of... the Yosemite National Park as a wild life refuge," he therefore wrote the superintendent on July 8, 1920, "if all trapping of wild animals were henceforth absolutely prohibited." [1]

As a scientist Grinnell was already suspect; as a critic he multiplied his problem severalfold. The protection of predators ran contrary to every existing policy of eradicating those animals from the national parks. The burden of proof was his; he had to convince the Park Service bureaucracy that his reasons were compelling. Meanwhile, the National Park Service showed far less interest in science and far more concern about accommodating visitors. Yet Grinnell was still determined to bring about change. The establishment of Yosemite's interpretive program reassured him that the rudiments of biological awareness were finally in place. He now set about the difficult and time-consuming task of bridging the gap between scientific research and Park Service application of that research directly in the field.

Grinnell's basic premise in his article in Science—that national parks should be managed as islands of biological diversity—already clashed with preconceived notions that the parks' constituency was much too small. Almost from the moment of its inception, the National Park Service had waged an intensive campaign intended solely to attract more visitors to national park areas. Washington B. Lewis, appointed superintendent of Yosemite on March 3, 1916, testified, in microcosm, to the significance of that effort. Like every superintendent managing a major park facility, Lewis devoted most of his time to matters affecting Yosemite's physical plant, especially its roads, bridges, buildings, and concessions. Days spent outside the park generally were taken up by meetings with railroad executives, chamber of commerce officials, politicians, and journalists—anyone, in other words, whose position and influence might help boost visitation. Conversely, whenever those same individuals toured Yosemite, again it usually fell to the superintendent to meet and entertain them. [2]

Invariably, the best testimony that a superintendent could offer to his success was a demonstration that visitation to his park was constantly on the rise. No other statistic was more compelling proof to anyone associated with a national park as a business or political opportunity. Local chambers of commerce in particular were delighted to see hard evidence for the argument that national parks were indeed beneficial to their surrounding communities. Merced and Fresno, among other bustling towns in the San Joaquin Valley, already looked to Yosemite National Park as a source of tourist revenues. As the western terminus of the Yosemite Valley Railroad, Merced especially had taken full advantage of the boom in Yosemite travel that had begun with the completion of the railway in 1907. Park-bound passengers from both the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads changed trains in Merced. Even if that stopover required only one or two hours, the town was host every year to thousands of potential customers whose one and only reason for passing through in the first place was Merced's strategic importance as the gateway to Yosemite National Park. [3]

Predictably, communities that were denied an opportunity for rail access to Yosemite eagerly supported the construction of better highways. Ever mindful of the automobile's skyrocketing popularity, the Park Service planned for a future when cars would dominate travel to all major parks. As early as 1916, visitation to Yosemite by car slightly exceeded the number of people arriving by rail, 14,527 as opposed to 14,251. [4] Afterward the push for better roads to the park accelerated annually, culminating in 1926 with the completion of the All-Year Highway between Yosemite Valley and Merced. Passenger travel on the Yosemite Valley Railroad plummeted virtually overnight. [5] More significant, however, park visitation soared, reaching an all-time high of 490,430 people for the fiscal travel year ending September 30, 1927, up nearly 1,700 percent from the average visitation figures of only ten or twelve years earlier. [6]

Once more, it followed, management decisions affecting Yosemite National Park were strongly dictated by such numbers. Especially in Yosemite Valley, there was little scientific evidence to gauge what effect tens of thousands of new visitors annually would have on vegetation and wildlife. At best, planning was reactive. That was the circumstance Grinnell and his students sought to change, not only by demonstrating that park planning could be more rational and predictable but also by insisting that natural resources should always be part of the planning equation.

As ever, the scientists' competition was traditional park values, above all the belief that national parks were set aside primarily for human recreation. The growing problems with that philosophy aside, the Park Service heralded every increase in visitation as another convincing example of management success. Grinnell remained confident that visitors would gradually come to appreciate, through education, the biological importance of the park. Meanwhile, instructing Park Service officials themselves in scientific principles seemed crucial to redirecting latent management priorities. Thus with the same optimism and conviction that underlay his campaign for park interpretation, Grinnell adopted as his personal crusade every effort to infuse the National Park Service with a far greater sensitivity to biological resources.

Inevitably, Grinnell's research of the natural history of Yosemite National Park motivated his immersion in its resource and management issues. Ideally, the park would be a sanctuary for endangered plants and animals. In 1915, for example, he proposed that breeding pairs of the California beaver—believed to be threatened with extinction—might find suitable refuge in Yosemite National Park. The project was disallowed by Stephen T Mather, but not before Grinnell had learned some valuable lessons on biology and politics. In his anxiety to save the beavers he had proposed their introduction into Yosemite Valley itself, even before he could say with certainty that they would not materially interfere with vegetation or stream flow. Although the animals might be saved, what other park resources might be affected in the process? In a rare moment of indecisiveness, Grinnell did not have an answer, at least not one with sufficient credibility to satisfy government officials. The scientist had learned his lesson. In any attempt to move government, one's research must be definitive. [7] Also as a result of this incident, he came to realize that good science did not always flow from good intentions. The reintroduction of exotic or long since extirpated species into national parks might only threaten the existing biological relationships. It followed that if Yosemite was to be a refuge, then animals already living there should have first priority. Likewise, no species' welfare should purposely be advanced over that of another.

As early as 1915, in an exchange with Robert Sterling Yard, special assistant to Stephen T Mather, Grinnell revealed how rapidly those principles had evolved. Yard proposed that the population of gray squirrels in Yosemite Valley be reduced. Would the professor agree to write "a very brief article on this subject" that Yard could submit to newspapers nationwide? "This should not be perhaps more than four or five hundred words long," he indicated, "and should state the facts with unmistakable authority." And those "facts" seemed to be as follows: "The destruction of the natural balance of life due to the disappearance of the squirrels' natural enemies should be brought out very clearly and particular emphasis should be laid upon the theory that squirrels feed on birds' eggs and thus make of the beautiful Yosemite a songless forest." [8]

Yard obviously intended to use Grinnell's article as a bureaucratic shield. "Otherwise," he admitted, "news of the destruction of squirrels in the Yosemite would be altogether misunderstood," resulting in "unjust criticism" of the Interior Department. "I must insist," Grinnell replied, elevating science above politics, "that the amount of actual data as yet in hand concerning the gray squirrels is not sufficient to warrant any such emphatic statements against it." Perhaps by the conclusion of his fieldwork in Yosemite "something" more substantive would have been found. "We must have the facts," he declared emphatically, then added an even more significant revelation. "My field experience already this summer is bringing about revision of opinion in a number of other respects, and it may modify decidedly my 'theories' as well as the impressions of others in regard to the extreme perniciousness of the gray squirrel." [9]

Neither Grinnell nor Yard could have foreseen that just five years later, in a strange twist of irony, a devastating epidemic would practically wipe out Yosemite's gray squirrel population. Virtually overnight, debate about their abundance turned into universal concern about their chances for recovery. Meanwhile, Grinnell had long since made a convincing case for rethinking existing prejudices about squirrels as enemies of birds. A more scientific and less emotionally charged terminology held that birds and squirrels might compete at times for the same sources of food. "I am sure I do not wish to bring any unmerited punishment upon the gray squirrel," Yard confessed, acknowledging his enjoyment of its presence at his "home place in New Jersey." Granted too, the birds apparently were not being harmed. There simply was "a fairly prevalent belief all over the United States," he argued, still defending his prejudice, "that squirrels destroy birds' eggs." As a result, whatever the professor found would undoubtedly "prove most interesting and valuable." [10]

The key point in Grinnell's argument was the need to separate emotion from scientific research. Because gray squirrels were native to Yosemite they undoubtedly belonged there. Their toll on other species in the park had invariably been accounted for in the existing biological equation. If any animal could in fact be labeled an "enemy" or a "nuisance," more likely that animal had been thoughtlessly or accidentally introduced. "We would urge the rigid exclusion of domestic dogs and cats from national parks," he and Tracy Storer argued by way of example. Cats especially could "not be trusted, however well fed they may have been at home, to let birds alone." Allowing cats to revert to the feral state simply risked adding "one more predator to the original fauna," thus tending "to disturb the original balance, by making the maintenance of a normal bird population difficult or impossible." [11]

Much as terms such as normal and original indicated the depth of Grinnell's commitment to protecting all species of wildlife, so also was his sincerity nowhere more evident than in his defense of native predators. The long-held view of predators as enemies of national parks was partially suggestive of Grinnell's initial ambivalence. At the very least, predator reduction programs in Yosemite National Park provided an abundant source of specimens for his research and museum. Park rangers found the arrangement equally attractive as a means of earning additional income. Grinnell cautioned, however, that the museum could accept only unblemished specimens. "It is very important that animals be killed without breaking the skulls," he therefore remarked in a letter to Ranger Forest S. Townsley. "A broken skull is almost useless." Otherwise, the museum would reimburse Townsley "$2.00 each for as many as four entire coyotes (sent unskinned just as you catch them); 4 Lynx Cats at $2.00; 2 Gray Foxes at $1.25; 2 Red Foxes at $4.00; 1 Fisher at $8.00; 2 Martens at $5.00; 1 Wolverine at $15.00"; and five weasels at fifty cents each. It was "understood," of course, that animals would be trapped only with the permission of the chief ranger. "It may be that you will only be authorized to kill such animals as are believed to be a nuisance in the Park, such as coyotes. At any rate, make sure of this," he declared, "before trapping for anything." [12]

Townsley quickly set his lines, reporting to Grinnell on January 28, 1915, that the skulls of one female coyote and two male skunks had already been shipped. "I caught the coyote and largest skunk near Cascade Falls, altitude about 3500 ft.," he noted. "The smaller skunk was caught near Mirror Lake, altitude about 4000 ft." That the ranger had so carefully followed instructions merited an obvious hint of praise from the meticulous scientist. "The information you transmitted concerning the coyote and skunk skulls has been received and recorded on the labels and in our catalogs," Grinnell replied. "This renders the specimens you have contributed of greatest value to us in our natural history work." [13]

On February 19 Ranger Townsley wrote again to confirm the shipment of a coyote "caught near Mirror Lake, elevation 4100 ft." Just two weeks later he reported the shipment of another Mirror Lake coyote and "the skull of a male Lynx cat, also feet of same." Grinnell acknowledged his receipt of the original coyote with a reminder that he was looking for the bigger mountain variety. "To make the situation clear, let me repeat that we cannot pay more than $2.50 each for any of the common coyotes. I certainly hope you get some of the other things that we need," he concluded, "and as I listed to you before." [14]

Always the scientist, Grinnell defended the right of any legitimate scholar to collect specimens for research, even in national parks. Parks, for obvious reasons, were a most important source. But with that possible use of their fauna aside, he began to argue the distinction between trapping limited numbers of animals strictly for science and frivolously trapping wildlife solely as a means of supplementing salaries, which was obviously the case in Yosemite National Park. In that regard Townsley's letters were both informative and troubling. "Coyotes, Lions, bob-cats seem to be very much on the decrease," he reported to Grinnell on October 22, 1916, for example. "We trapped and shot about 50 coyotes last winter and you already know what J. Bruce did to lions out this way." Praise for Jay Bruce, the state lion-hunter, was just another example of the government's official prejudice toward predatory animals. [15]

Grinnell's doubts about that policy had already been suggested in Science magazine, but he said nothing to Townsley. Still, it was evident that his conclusions had pretty much jelled: With the exception of a few animals removed strictly for scientific research, no species of wildlife—not even predators—ought to be purposely eradicated from the national parks. And so he argued once again, this time even more forcefully, on July 8, 1920. Writing to Superintendent Washington B. Lewis, he called for an absolute ban on all trapping in Yosemite. "I am inclined to be in entire accord with your views on the matter," Lewis replied. He would, however, have to discuss the issue "with Mr. Mather and others in the Park Service before taking any definite action." Grinnell realized that this qualification did not bode well for his plan. "I shall be glad to know what the result of the discussion of the matter with Mr. Mather will be," he responded. Then he repeated Lewis's words: "I certainly hope it leads to definite action." [16]

Wisely, Grinnell left Lewis a bit of room to maneuver. In his reply to the superintendent, Grinnell qualified his statement. "I should say: protect every sort of animal life in National Parks—except mountain lions and rattlesnakes!" In part the qualification revealed lingering vestiges of Grinnell's true ambivalence; in part it was simply a concession to political reality. Although mountain lions and rattlesnakes filled biological roles of their own, park visitors in general did not support the protection of species they so feared and misunderstood. As yet the public seemed to favor eradicating those animals from national parks. For the moment, winning protection for species threatened with outright extinction—"namely," Grinnell indicated, "marten, fisher, wolverine, red fox and the like"—seemed far more important than risking everything in support of animals so strongly associated with human prejudice and emotions. [17]

Meanwhile, Grinnell kept subtle pressure on the National Park Service, writing to Lewis the following month to ask how many fur-bearing animals each ranger had trapped in Yosemite the previous season. "I do not propose to make use of this data in any way to the dis-interests of yourself or the rangers in question," he remarked, reassuring the superintendent that his motives were purely scientific. "These statistics would simply indicate the possible product of the area in question, in terms of furs." But of course those statistics would further reveal the kinds and total number of animals in fact being killed. The welfare of predators especially was still uppermost in his mind. "I hope you have gotten in touch with Mr. Mather by this time," he concluded, "and gotten his views with regard to the absolute protection of carnivorous animals in Yosemite Park, save for mountain lions and, possibly, coyotes." [18]

Whether or not it was intentional, Grinnell's afterthought about coyotes relaxed Lewis's guard. Back came the inventory the professor had requested, along with the superintendent's acknowledgment of Grinnell's apparent sympathy for eradicating coyotes. "Reports from the Rangers seem to indicate an increase in the number of coyotes in the Park," Lewis wrote, still totally unaware of Grinnell's true feelings. Thus Lewis was also "inclined to think that for the protection of the deer, trapping of these animals should be continued." [19]

Grinnell's prompt and unqualified reply must have taken the superintendent by surprise. He did not in fact agree with further trapping for coyotes. Instead he questioned whether the animals could indeed be trapped effectively "without at the same time catching numbers of the other carnivores which it is desirable to protect." Besides, with deer naturally on the increase was it not logical "to expect a commensurate increase in their natural enemies? And is not this state of affairs the perfectly normal thing? In other words," he concluded, "would it not be best to let nature take its course?" [20]

Possible exceptions to the rule should be perfectly obvious, such as the occasionally dangerous animal that needed to be killed. Indeed Grinnell was never one to support absolute protection for individual animals. Otherwise he was constantly troubled by what appeared to be purposeful and expedient relaxations of park philosophy. "It would seem to me," he further confided to Lewis, "that national parks should comprise pieces of the country in which natural conditions are to be left altogether undisturbed by man. The greatest value of parks from both a scientific and recreational standpoint will thereby be conserved." [21]

Much as that conviction helped realize his ambitions for public education in the parks, so it sustained him in his dual campaign to eliminate trapping and to recognize the role of predators. From the outset, his scientific arguments on both endeavors ran exactly opposite to government policy. To be sure, since its establishment the National Park Service had worked ceaselessly to eliminate predators from all major parks. Accordingly, the director's annual reports noted proudly year to year that the largest species, among them wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats, were everywhere in decline. Ironically, the director's statement about predator control for the fiscal year ending July 1, 1920, appeared in the Annual Report directly beneath a paragraph praising Joseph Grinnell and Tracy Storer for their educational work in Yosemite. "The hunting of predatory animals by our ranger forces within the various parks," Director Mather declared, "is carried on annually with great diligence and good results." Indeed he concluded, "A very gratifying increase in deer and other species that always suffer through the depradations of mountain lion, wolves, and other 'killers' has been observed." [22]

Here again, the depth of Grinnell's patience was very much in evidence. Although the callousness in Mather's statement invited an indignant response, Grinnell was never one to place combat before education. As always, he preferred the role of conscience and advisor; criticism for its own sake was often pointless and ineffective. Even among bureaucrats, he realized, learning was basically incremental. In the long run, patience was the key to every educator's success. The challenge was to persuade the Park Service without demeaning its management or its motives. Grinnell may have wished for much faster results; professionally he realized why those results were often so elusive. Instead he took confidence in the power of knowledge. At least if the Park Service was receptive to new ideas, ultimately the decisions of its leadership should reflect that new awareness.

Persuasion, in other words, was much to be preferred over self-righteous indignation. Grinnell wrote literally thousands of letters, memos, and notes to park officials; in each he was careful never to badger or accuse, but always to advance new ideas solely as food for thought. "It seems to me," another of his letters argued softly in this vein, "that while the lakes and waterfalls and forests each and together tend to stimulate the senses and the mind to pleasurable excitement, the animal life, provided interest in it is once aroused, undoubtedly constitutes a much more subtle and alluring objective." Granted, the natural history of wildlife was "only one of the channels of reaching" the park-going public, "but it happens to be," he closed with both emphasis and diplomacy, "the one that looms importantly in my own mind." [23]

As always, Yosemite was his proving ground for testing those ideas. That was only logical; the park was closest to Berkeley and dearest to his heart. He also maintained throughout his life that California provided enough subject matter for any natural scientist. Like the state, Yosemite was so enticing by virtue of its size, which assured a broader diversity of objects for study. And predators must always be a part of that biological legacy, Grinnell declared, his conviction still growing. As further proof of his sincerity, by 1927 he had abandoned even his qualification that mountain lions might be controlled. "I wish to repeat my belief," he thus wrote E. P. Leavitt, acting superintendent of Yosemite National Park, "that it is wrong to kill mountain lions within Yosemite, or within any other of our National Parks of large area. They belong there, as part of the perfectly normal, native fauna, to the presence of which the population of other native animals such as the deer is adjusted." [24] At the very least, no one could accuse Grinnell of being inconsistent. His resolve was unshaken. Any interference, even to eliminate mountain lions, was bound to have unforeseen consequences for Yosemite's ecology.

Another object lesson in the need to avoid interference was the case of the missing California gray squirrel. As late as 1914 Grinnell and Tracy Storer had estimated that four thousand animals lived in and near the valley; by 1921 that entire population had apparently fallen victim to an epidemic of skin mites, or scabies. "Of course there must be some Gray Squirrels left," Grinnell argued the following year. "The rate at which they 'come back' will be interesting to determine." Eventually, he elaborated, survivors of the epidemic elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada should find their way to Yosemite Valley and allow for the natural restoration of the former population. Meanwhile, he was further intrigued by reports that the disappearance of the squirrels had led to an increase in nut-eating birds. "Nature apparently abhors a vacuum," he concluded enthusiastically. "If one ecologic type of animal disappears another promptly takes its place." [2]5

Ten years earlier Grinnell might have thought otherwise; in 1915, it will be recalled, he had strongly promoted introducing beaver to Yosemite Valley. But now he was convinced that such introductions were in error, especially when the species in question had developed in separate and distinct areas remote from the park. The Park Service, however, was still uncertain what its policy should be and, like most bureaucracies, kept swinging from one extreme to the other. In May 1925 Superintendent Lewis called Grinnell from Yosemite and suggested that gray squirrels be transplanted from the California coast. "I do not think it wise," Grinnell replied, following up their conversation with his usual tact. Simply put, the two species were different. "Even if the transplanted form should thrive," he argued, "it would inevitably result then in taking the place of the native squirrel." The smart choice was patience. "Even though your native squirrel is now scarce, almost to the point of extermination," Grinnell admitted, "it is my belief that it will 'come back'." Individual squirrels had already been sighted in the park. "It will only be a matter of a few years before they get back to normal status," he reassured Lewis, then closed with what had become his unqualified philosophy. "And it is much the best plan to conserve and encourage the native fauna, especially in a National Park." [26]

Although Superintendent Lewis left open the possibility of bringing gray squirrels to Yosemite from nearby Sequoia National Park, Grinnell's argument was convincing, and no exotic animals were introduced. Much as Grinnell had predicted, the native population gradually recovered, until finally, by World War II, gray squirrels in the valley were no longer a rarity. Grinnell achieved another significant breakthrough in November 1925, when W. B. Lewis finally banned all trapping in the park. "I have just learned of your official action," Grinnell wrote him enthusiastically. "This is mighty good news to me, for I believe that you have acted in the best interests of the Park, as regards its best use." Of course the people most affected by the ban would object "for a time," but those objections would gradually "die out." Meanwhile, Grinnell hoped the precedent would catch on in other national parks, "to the end that no native animals in them will be any longer considered as 'vermin,' to be continually harassed." Nor could he resist another opportunity to close philosophically. "The old phrase, 'let nature take its course,' applies rightly to National Parks, if to no other areas in our land." [27]

Here again, Grinnell's weapon had been soft-spoken but uncompromising repetition. If the right thing was said often enough, it would be heard eventually. The ban against trapping had been ten years in the making and was, to be certain, very unpopular among the rangers most affected. "But time is ever a mitigator," Grinnell further confided to one young admirer in Yosemite, the naturalist Carl P. Russell, "and I feel sure that in due time, the situation will become a matter of course and be accepted as the best way to conserve animal life as a whole, for the uses for which National Parks were established." To Stephen T. Mather went a similar admonition. "I hope that Superintendent Lewis's action will be duplicated in our other National Parks. There is no such thing as 'vermin' among the animals comprising the native life within park areas." [28]

Grinnell obviously was winning converts; the question was whether government officials as a whole would be convinced before predators were totally eliminated from most western parks. The answer proved to be no, at least for wolves, mountain lions, and other so-called dangerous species. Some predators drifted back into the parks from surrounding wilderness areas or survived in scattered remnants within the parks themselves. But other species, especially wolves, were apparently lost forever. "I cannot concur in the recommendation that it is wrong to kill mountain lions in Yosemite," E. P. Leavitt, acting superintendent, wrote Director Mather in response to Grinnell's views, "but feel that they should be killed so as to limit their numbers sufficiently to give reasonable protection to the park deer, which are more desirable." [29] And Leavitt's bias against predators was only one example of the deep-seated prejudice that still permeated the National Park Service. Grinnell's reluctant pupils, it appeared, still had much to learn.

In all management there is inconsistency; nor, Grinnell realized, were government officials solely responsible for favoring some species of wildlife over others considered less desirable. Rather, that temptation appeared to be universal. Even well-meaning friends of Yosemite never lacked for suggestions and schemes, and among them the introduction of exotic animals remained high in priority. The addition of the adjective endangered was also certain to arouse the requisite amount of public and official sympathy. A notable example was the proposed introduction to Yosemite Valley of a herd of Tule elk, a species native to the San Joaquin Valley but not to Yosemite itself. At most, the animals may have climbed into the Sierra Nevada foothills a thousand feet or so. The elk did face extinction, having lost their lowland habitat to human encroachment. Activists, as a result, were searching for suitable locations to place remnants of the herd. One of those activists, M. Hall McAllister, fixed his attention on Yosemite National Park.

An affiliate of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, McAllister wrote Stephen Mather in December 1918, urging him to consider placing Tule elk in Yosemite Valley proper. "A herd of these beautiful animals," McAllister later wrote, further adding to his argument, "which game writers unquestionably give the title 'The King of all Deer,' will prove a great attraction and surely add to the appearance of the meadows bordering the highway." Nor would McAllister stop there. "It would seem to me most laudable to restore the Yosemite to its pristine glory of years ago and have grizzly and black bear among the talus, elk and deer on the meadows, beaver and mink in the streams, and mountain lion and mountain sheep on the cliffs." But that left the problem of keeping the animals where they supposedly belonged. McAllister proposed fencing; fortunately, he maintained, the elk or deer paddocks "could be so large or camouflaged so the animals would not know that they were controlled." [30]

Mather referred McAllister's correspondence to Superintendent Lewis for review. He replied, "I am unqualifiedly in favor of any such a movement that will increase the variety of attractions to the visitor to the park." Lewis further believed that Yosemite had been at "one time a native home of the California Elk." [31] He was mistaken, but that was not the point. McAllister's credibility rested on the conviction that visitors would enjoy seeing the animals. The Park Service was in a race for more visitors, and anything that might stimulate visitation was bound to be compelling.

Understandably, Joseph Grinnell disapproved "because of the fact," as Lewis reported back to Washington, "that contrary to the general belief, the California elk was never a native of this particular section." Lewis further remarked, "Professor Grinnell not only doubts that they would survive at this high altitude and the climatic conditions of Yosemite, but also doubts the advisability of attempting to stock the Valley with animals other than those indigenous to this section." Lewis advised further discussion, including a consultation with Dr. T. S. Palmer, chief of the Biological Survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "I beg to say that the proposition seems to narrow down to two questions," Palmer replied. "Is it practicable, and is it worth while?" [32]

The answer to the first was a qualified yes. Palmer appreciated "fully the objections mentioned by Dr. Grinnell that the elk is not indigenous to the valley, and that it belongs to a lower life zone and does not naturally range in the mountains." However, he was given to understand that no one was proposing a full-fledged introduction "in a wild state." More to the point, the elk were intended as "a small exhibit herd" for visitors, a herd maintained "more or less" under "artificial conditions." Accordingly, if the animals' preferences and needs were fully considered, such as by locating their enclosure to receive as much sunlight as possible throughout the winter months, then undoubtedly the herd would not be in jeopardy. [33]

Regarding the worth of the exhibit, there could not be any question. "Next to the Buffalo," Palmer maintained, "the Elk is of more interest to the general public than any other kind of native big game." The California elk in particular was a stirring example of American conservation. "These and other facts, particularly the part taken by the California Academy of Sciences in securing the reestablishment of the species, should be brought to the attention of visitors by appropriate labels on the enclosure, by notices on the Yosemite publications, and otherwise." Indeed, it was "highly appropriate that the exhibit should be made in Yosemite Valley where it will be seen by visitors from all parts of the world." In this fashion the enclosure might also serve as "an object lesson illustrating the great work which the National Park Service is doing for the conservation of Wild Life." In short, Palmer hoped McAllister's "generous offer" would be approved. [34]

It was, in retrospect, too much good publicity for the Park Service to pass it up. By 1921 the herd—originally numbering twelve animals—had been established in Cook's Meadow. All told, the paddock enclosed twenty-eight acres. Although Grinnell obviously was disappointed, he remained diplomatic, objecting only to the result and not to the spirit of the enterprise. As the decade drew to a close the Park Service itself began having second thoughts. "A difficult administrative situation is developing in Yosemite," reported Ansel F. Hall, chief naturalist, in 1928, "on account of the comparatively large area set aside several years ago as an elk paddock." And even that was too small. Simply, no one had foreseen the herd's abundant growth rate, now averaging 25 percent annually, which presented "a continually growing problem in the matter of the necessary care." [35]

The decision in 1933 to relocate the herd to a refuge in the Owens Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada, marked another satisfying victory for Joseph Grinnell. "You cannot over-estimate my personal satisfaction," he wrote Charles Goff Thomson, Superintendent Lewis's successor, "that the transfer of the elk out of Yosemite Valley was so successfully accomplished." Grinnell had further praise for those handling the enterprise, noting in a letter to Arno B. Cammerer, director of the Park Service, that everyone involved displayed "a high grade of ingenuity and knowledge of animal behavior." That again was Grinnell, always balancing informed criticism with genuine compliment. Nor could he resist another moment of reflection and interpretation. "I have always myself held the opinion that a National Park is not the place in which to maintain any sorts of animals in captivity. It is the free-living native wild animal life that the Park gives such rich opportunity for seeing and studying." [36]

One final inconsistency therefore merited Grinnell's skepticism and displeasure—the establishment and maintenance of the Yosemite Valley "zoo." The facility began inauspiciously in 1918 with the display of three orphaned lion cubs. Soon afterward a bear cub was added to the exhibit; at best, the zoo was an unattractive assortment of enclosures and cages. To Colonel John R. White, superintendent of Sequoia National Park, Grinnell confided his reaction of distaste and dismay. "I am particularly glad that you agree with me that any sort of zoo has no place whatsoever in a National Park," he wrote. "I, too, hate like anything to see wild animals in cages." To kill an animal outright was one thing, "but I am burdened with guilt," he confessed, "if I ever attempt to place under captivity any wild creature." [37]

Grinnell made that point formally at the superintendents' conference of 1928. "It is the chipmunk, the squirrel, the deer, the bear, out-of doors," he declared emphatically to the gathering of park officials, "that the visitor must be directed to seek, for his own best enjoyment—his own good." Generally, animals in captivity were "unhappy, unnatural,... more or less diseased," and "relatively uninteresting as objectives of study." Rather, "the free, unfettered, wild animals out-of-doors, behaving normally," proved "most thrilling to the beholder, and far and away the most instructive." Granted, zoos had their place "in a crowded city, for benefit of people who cannot reach the open spaces." A national park, on the other hand, should not be artificial, for it already provided a "zoological park in the widest and best sense." [38]

Again, someone with less understanding of bureaucracy might have lost patience. Grinnell persisted, however, and finally, in November 1932, the Yosemite zoo was abolished. Even so it ended on another note of irony. With the approval of Park Service Director Horace M. Albright, the three remaining lions were killed and two of the pelts sent back to the California State Fish and Game Commission. In that manner the state's lion-hunter, Jay Bruce, was finally able to collect on the bounties that he had previously forfeited by donating those animals to Yosemite in the first place. [39]

By now it was nearly twenty years since Joseph Grinnell had first taken an active interest in the study and management of Yosemite National Park. Although he borrowed occasionally from colleagues and students—debts he repeatedly and carefully acknowledged—no other scientist came close to the hours that he spent writing, cajoling, and educating park officials. If the Park Service had a conscience, it was Joseph Grinnell. From the abolishment of trapping in Yosemite to the removal of its zoo and exotic Tule elk, no one figured more prominently in laying down sound principles of biological regulation, principles whose wisdom had relevance far beyond the boundaries of Yosemite.

Consistently Grinnell had put his faith in education and research. Only the best training, he believed, would motivate both park officials and the general public to respond to their natural surroundings with insight and sensitivity. But even education, of course, could accomplish only so much. In truth, many people openly resented being told how to act, especially when preservation somehow seemed to impinge on their enjoyment of the park. Administrators too were susceptible to expedience and prejudice. Simply, too many actors were competing for attention on Yosemite's grand stage. Accordingly, even as Grinnell laid down his science of sanctuary, it remained to be seen whether all of the forces that had been historically adverse to preservation could indeed be reversed or at least better controlled.


Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness
©1990, University of Nebraska Press
runte2/chap9.htm — 17-Mar-2004