Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 3
Perpetuating Tradition: The National Parks under Stephen T. Mather, 1916-1929

The Predator Problem

Of all of the natural resource management efforts in the parks, the most controversial was the killing of predators in order to protect more popular species. Predator control efforts in the parks were in accord with the ongoing, nationwide campaign to control carnivorous enemies of domestic livestock, as demanded by farmers and ranchers and promoted by the Biological Survey. Inherited from army and civilian park management, the programs attained legal justification through the Organic Act's authorization to destroy animals considered "detrimental to the use" of parks. [90] Determined to keep the national parks unimpaired, the Service acted as though the predators themselves were impairments-threats to be dealt with before they destroyed the peaceful scenes it wished to maintain. Mather believed predator control helped increase the populations of the "important species of wild animals," and he once stated that the national parks offered sanctuaries to all wildlife "except predatory animals." [91] Shortly after he succeeded Mather, Horace Albright defined predators as those species that preyed on "animals that add so much to the pleasure of park visitors""-clearly tying predator reduction to public enjoyment. Albright saw predator control as a means of protecting those "species of animals desirable for public observation and enjoyment," and declared that the "enemies of those species must be controlled." [92]

Bloodthirsty predators seemed to have no place in the beautiful pastoral parks, at least not in large numbers. From its beginning the Service practiced predator control "with thoroughness" (as an internal report later put it) and developed an expanded list of undesirable predatory animals-at times including the cougar, wolf, coyote, lynx, bobcat, fox, badger, mink, weasel, fisher, otter, and marten. For a time during the 1920s, rangers destroyed pelican eggs in an effort to reduce the numbers of pelicans in Yellowstone and protect trout populations to enhance sport fishing. [93]

As before 1916, implementation of predator control programs varied from park to park and remained largely at the discretion of the superintendents-depending on, in the words of a Park Service report, "local conditions and the Superintendents' ideas." Generally, the rangers were responsible for predator control; as a means of augmenting salaries and encouraging predator hunting, they were often allowed to sell for personal profit a percentage of the hides and pelts of the predators they killed. In addition, the parks sometimes hired predator hunters. [94] Perhaps the most noted was Jay Bruce, "official cougar killer" for the State of California (whom Mather once had entertain visitors to Yosemite with tales of killing mountain lions). Yosemite superintendent Washington ("Dusty") Lewis reported in 1919 that in the previous three or four years, Bruce had killed more than fifty cougars in or near the park. This had prevented, Lewis stated, the mountain lion's "slaughter" of Yosemite's deer. [95]

Reflecting the policy of borrowing expertise from other agencies, Mather commented in 1926 that most predator control in the parks was conducted by rangers or by the Biological Survey. [96] In parks such as Zion, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Grand Canyon, the Biological Survey supplied its own hunters or supervised contract hunters. Its classification of which animals were harmful predators was generally accepted as a guide by the Park Service. [97] The survey further influenced the Service in the means by which predators were exterminated: not only shooting, but poisoning, trapping, and tracking with dogs. Furthermore, the Park Service obtained support from state game and fish offices, especially in California, which supplied hunters (like cougar killer Jay Bruce) and information on predator and prey species.

The predator programs came under increasing criticism beginning in about the mid-1920s. Critics focused on the methods of control (especially the use of poisons and steel traps); the lack of scientific information to justify the programs; and, most fundamentally, the very idea of killing predators in the national parks. Moreover, by the early 1920s some parks had begun to report that the largest predators (wolves and cougars) were disappearing. Glacier, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain indicated in 1923 and 1924 that wolves and cougars were reduced to the point of extinction, making it unprofitable to hire special hunters. It is possible that both species were eradicated from these parks by the mid-1920s. [98]

Even though extinction of large predators was taking place in some parks, official and unofficial pronouncements of the Service began to maintain that it was only reducing predator populations, not eliminating them. In their 1922 conference, the superintendents stated that some nuisance animals such as the porcupine and the pelican should be reduced in number, but not eliminated. In all cases they agreed that predators should be killed only when they threatened "the natural balance of wild life." Each superintendent was to study conditions in his park and determine if and when any one species was becoming "too powerful for the safety of another." Already some superintendents (at Mount Rainier and Sequoia, for example) had largely ended control in their parks. Yet others continued their programs, as at Rocky Mountain National Park, where in 1922 Superintendent Roger Toll initiated a cooperative effort with the Biological Survey to poison predators or track them with dogs. Toll later stated that he wanted the predators reduced to the "lowest practicable numbers" and that the park had too many predators "for the good of the game." [99]

Throughout the remainder of the 1920s, the Service's basic predator policy included reducing rather than eliminating predators; killing mainly wolves, coyotes, and cougars, with declining emphasis on other predators; and allowing superintendents broad discretion in defining and implementing their predator programs. These policies were affirmed at superintendents conferences of 1923 and 1925. Still, even the smaller predators continued to be hunted, and not infrequently. In September 1926 a particularly striking example of elimination of smaller predatory animals occurred when otters at one of Yellowstone's lakes were killed because they were eating trout-some of which were probably nonnative species introduced for sportfishing. [100]

Criticism of predator control in the national parks intensified in the late 1920s, when organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club, the New York Zoological Society, and the American Society of Mammalogists protested the Service's policies. [101] These groups and their allies expressed concern that predator control did not have an adequate scientific basis, and stressed their views that predators had a natural place in the parks. University of California biologist Joseph Grinnell spoke to the 1928 superintendents conference (the last one held during Mather's tenure), emphasizing the need for scientific research to guide national park policy and the necessity to leave predators alone. [102]

In March 1929, two months after Mather left office, Director Albright reported to the secretary of the interior that predators were being "controlled but not eliminated." Although a gradual reduction in predator killing had taken place, the Service's overall policy had not changed substantively. The superintendents' continuing discretionary authority was apparent in that, even though they had adopted a strongly worded anti-steel-trap resolution at their 1928 conference (they voted to "forbid absolutely" the use of traps in national parks), such use continued in Grand Canyon until 1930 and in Yellowstone until 1931. Although parks such as Mount Rainier and Sequoia had largely discontinued predator control, Yellowstone aggressively killed coyotes throughout the Mather era and beyond. [103]

Even Albright's official declaration of a new predator policy, published in the May 1931 issue of the Journal of Mammalogy (and almost certainly influenced by newly hired Park Service wildlife biologists), kept open the option of killing predators "when they are actually found making serious inroads upon herds of game or other mammals needing special protection." Yet the new policy statement did help move the Service away from the traditional views that had dominated the bureau during Mather's time. Predators, in Albright's words, were to be "considered integral parts of the wild life protected within the national parks."

Albright summed up the new policy by underlining what he saw as the difference between the parks and other lands-that predators not tolerated elsewhere were to be given "definite attention" in the national parks. He pledged the Park Service to maintain "examples of the various interesting North American mammals under natural conditions for the pleasure and education of the visitors and for the purpose of scientific study." [104] But Albright's modification of predator control came only after populations of major predators had been eliminated or seriously reduced in some parks. In the years ahead, the new policy would be observed in varying degrees by different park superintendents. Indeed, Albright himself would staunchly advocate the continued killing of certain predators.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap3f.htm — 1-Jan-2003