Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 3
Perpetuating Tradition: The National Parks under Stephen T. Mather, 1916-1929

Popular Wildlife Species

The Service's treatment of large-mammal populations did not follow a policy of letting nature take its course; rather, it involved frequent and sometimes intensive manipulation, such as killing predators or nurturing favored species. In his annual reports to the secretary of the interior, Mather regularly and enthusiastically commented on wildlife management activities in the national parks. Yet the 1918 Lane Letter mentioned wildlife only in passing, merely stating that for the "care of wild animals" the Service would use experts from other bureaus. (The Biological Survey, while routinely providing assistance in national park wildlife management activities, actually had full responsibility for "game preserves" in two national parks-Wind Cave in South Dakota and Sully's Hill in North Dakota.) [105]

Ranching techniques applied to national park wildlife were particularly evident with Yellowstone's bison. The Park Service inherited the bison program that the U.S. Army had established in the early twentieth century in an effort to save the species from extinction in the United States. With activities centered at the Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley of northeastern Yellowstone, the Service continued the practice of treating bison much like domestic livestock. The park's "chief buffalo keeper" allowed the animals to roam the valley under the watchful eye of a herdsman during the months when forage was readily available, then rounded up and corralled the herd at the Buffalo Ranch for a time during the winter. There the bison were fed hay raised on approximately six hundred acres of plowed, seeded, and irrigated park land-the most intensive of several haying operations in the park (and one that lasted until 1956). In the corrals, the keepers separated the calves, then castrated many of the young bulls to reduce the number of intact males, who were usually difficult to manage. Despite problems with disease, by early 1929 the herd had reached a population of about 950, up from fewer than 50 when the program began in 1902. [106] (Bison populations in other areas of the park existed at population levels usually not of concern to management, particularly given their more remote locations and lack of contact with the public. In comparison with the Lamar Valley herd, they were easier to ignore.)

By the late 1920s, the Service came to believe that the areas most practical for growing hay for winter feeding were used to capacity, and that the Buffalo Ranch and rangelands in the Lamar Valley could support only about a thousand bison. Already, as a means of thinning the herd, the park sold bison to be slaughtered for market. Superintendent Albright's suggestion in 1924 that the park establish a pemmican plant as possibly "the only feasible way of dispensing of buffalo meat in large quantities" was never realized. The first slaughtering occurred in 1925, when Mather gave permission for seventeen animals to be killed in conjunction with "Buffalo Plains Week," a local summer celebration. This was followed by several years of slaughtering for market. For instance, Chief Ranger Sam Woodring noted in 1929 that the park had "disposed of 100 [bison] steers this fall, the slaughter contract being awarded to the highest bidder." The park also began donating meat to local Indian tribes. [107]

In another practice that helped control herd size throughout most of Mather's tenure and well beyond, the Service obtained authority from Congress to ship "surplus" bison to state and federal preserves and to local parks and zoos across the country. Those bison remaining in Yellowstone constituted a major tourist attraction, with the greatest spectacles being roundups and stampedes, the latter held for a few years in the 1920s, especially to entertain distinguished visitors. [108]

Following precedents set by army and civilian park managers and by the Biological Survey, the Park Service gave constant attention to other ungulates, such as deer, antelope (pronghorn), bighorn sheep, and especially elk. Attempting to maintain "ideal" wildlife populations, the Service usually sought to increase herds-or to reduce them when they were believed to be too large. The desire to control populations led managers to concentrate on the animals' food supply-mainly the condition and sufficiency of their range, particularly in winter when snow cover limited the areas available for grazing and browsing. [109] It seems the Service valued park grasslands mainly as pasturage for ungulates, rather than as areas biologically important for plants and other life forms.

To augment the food supply when the range appeared to be insufficient, the army had begun winter feeding of antelope, deer, and bighorn sheep in Yellowstone in 1904. Later the Park Service undertook supplemental feeding of hay in several other western parks during harsh winter weather. In Yellowstone, according to Superintendent Albright, the winter feeding program used fifteen hundred tons of hay by 1919. Ten years later, the park reported that in addition to obtaining hay from neighboring sources, it had three hay "ranches" for winter feeding of elk. [110] This was in addition to hay raised for bison and for large numbers of horses used by park rangers and by concessionaire-operated trail rides. In Jackson Hole, south of Yellowstone, the Biological Survey had managed a similar winter feed program since 1912 at its National Elk Refuge, feeding hay to thousands of elk that migrated to the south end of Jackson Hole from Yellowstone and other nearby high country. By this means, the Biological Survey helped care for Yellowstone's "southern elk herd."

The winter feeding program was also intended to entice the animals to stay in the parks. Human settlement and domestic livestock grazing in adjacent areas (whether public or private lands) greatly complicated wildlife park management by impeding the ability of wildlife to use winter grazing areas in lower valleys outside the parks. In addition, migration out of the parks usually meant that the animals were subjected to hunting. Thus, as a further means of protecting elk, Yellowstone's rangers sometimes sought to block winter migration (except to Jackson Hole) by herding the animals back into the park, but apparently this approach met with little success. [111]

Even though Mather and Albright promoted national parks as a source of game for hunting on adjacent lands, they frequently objected to the slaughter that took place outside parks during fall migration. Basically, they wanted well-controlled hunting, not wanton killing of the animals. Despite the Service's protests to the appropriate state governments, excessive hunting often occurred on adjoining lands. [112] Yellowstone chief ranger Sam Woodring reported in January 1929 that he had seen hunters north of the park so thick that they looked like a "skirmish line of troops." Woodring recalled that several years earlier he had watched while Montana hunters just outside Yellowstone surrounded a herd of elk at 7:00 a.m. and held them for an hour, at which time state laws permitted hunting. Then half the herd was "shot down in less than thirty minutes." [113]

With care and feeding, populations of the large grazing and browsing animals appeared to increase in the national parks during the 1920s. Yet at times under such protected conditions, the animals' population fluctuations seemed much more pronounced. Lacking systematically obtained data, it is probable that population and mortality counts by the parks were not very accurate. Still, park management concluded that Yellowstone experienced an unusually high die-off during the winter of 1919-20, when it estimated that perhaps as many as fourteen thousand elk had starved to death. It also believed that another elk population crash occurred in the winter of 1927-28. [114]

The greatest controversy involving animal populations took place in the Kaibab National Forest, on the plateau north of Grand Canyon and adjacent to the new national park created from Forest Service lands in 1919. The protected deer population on the Kaibab Plateau increased rapidly until by 1920 the Forest Service believed the herd was far too large for the forage available. Concerned about the importance of the deer to the visitors at Grand Canyon National Park (and not convinced that there were too many deer), Mather objected to the Forest Service proposal to shoot about half the herd. His objections helped delay the kill. With no artificial reduction, the deer population in the Kaibab crashed during the winter of 1924-25, when thousands died from starvation and cold. Although the very high mortality rate continued through the 1920s, Mather-without well-researched data-never accepted that there had been too many deer. [115] (In the 1930s the Kaibab situation would directly influence Park Service ungulate reduction policy.)

Having fostered an apparent increase in big-game populations in the parks, the Service obtained specific authority from Congress to ship "surplus" animals to state and federal preserves and to city parks and zoos in different parts of the country. In addition to the bison shipments, by the early 1920s Yellowstone had become, in Mather's words, a "source of supply" and a "distributing center" for elk, with the park having shipped the animals to twenty-five states, plus various locations in Canada. [116] Some of the elk went to other national parks; for instance, prior to the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park, the Forest Service began introducing Yellowstone elk to replenish that area's dwindling elk population. Besides elk and bison, Yellowstone shipped out bear. Mather noted in 1921 that at times it had even been possible "to give away families of beaver, and these interesting animals have been captured and shipped with encouraging success." [117]

Building on precedent, the Service set up zoos in the parks to ensure that tourists would have a chance to see the more popular animals. Mather approved a zoo in the Wawona area of Yosemite, and for a while the park maintained caged cougars that had been captured as cubs. In the early 1920s, "for the pleasure and education of the visitors," as Mather stated it, the Park Service imported from the San Joaquin Valley to Yosemite a small herd of Tule elk, which were not native to the park and which were kept behind fences. [118] In Yellowstone, visitors to the Buffalo Ranch often had the opportunity to see bison feeding in fenced areas. And in 1925 the park set up a zoo at Mammoth, with bears, coyotes, and a badger exhibited in captivity with bison. Foretelling an even greater effort to exhibit bison, Horace Albright wrote in 1929 that the bison should be made "more readily accessible to the visiting public." He argued that the Park Service needed to solve the problem of "how to handle this herd under nearly natural conditions and at the same time get it near the main highways where it can be easily and safely observed." [119]

Shipping the large mammals out of the parks, placing them in park zoos, or slaughtering them for market did not adequately solve the perceived problem of excessive animal populations. As early as 1921, Mather noted that the demand for bison to be shipped out had not "kept pace with the supply" available in Yellowstone. [120] By the late 1920s, the pressure that large numbers of animals were believed to be placing on their rangelands had become a matter of widespread concern. The increased deer population in Yosemite, for example, caused Albright to comment at the 1928 superintendents conference that "it looks as if when we protect the deer we are going to lose the flowers." Rocky Mountain National Park, which earlier had built up its elk herd through importation and winter feeding and protected them by killing predators, also had begun to worry about excess populations. [121] The Mather era ended with populations of most ungulates believed to have increased, and with gathering alarm about overgrazed, deteriorating rangelands burdened by an apparent surplus of animals.

The management of bears in the parks presented fewer problems than that of ungulates, and, perhaps more than with any other large mammal, was most directly aimed at public enjoyment. Virtually all bear management during Mather's time had to do with controlling their interaction with park visitors, rather than manipulating their population to a desired level. On the one hand, the Service sought to bring bears and people together, particularly with the bear shows at garbage dumps and by allowing roadside feeding. On the other hand, it removed "problem" bears that threatened visitors or their possessions.

From early in national park history, the public could feed black bears along park roadsides. Even though it officially frowned on such activity, the Park Service allowed roadside bear feeding to continue in Yellowstone and other parks as automobile travel stimulated public interest. [122] Also popular were the bear shows at garbage dumps, where visitors could enjoy the bears at close range. A major attraction well before 1916, the shows continued without interruption under Park Service managers aware that bears were especially popular animals. Horace Albright noted in 1924 that bears "seriously compete with geysers and waterfalls and magnificent canyons" for the public's attention, and attract greater interest than any other animal in the parks. [123] In a number of national parks, the shows became a regular feature, as in Sequoia, where on summer evenings hundreds of tourists gathered at Bear Hill to watch black bears feed. In Yellowstone the larger and more dangerous grizzly bears came to dominate the feeding shows.

Although bears are predatory, they seem not to have been subjected to predator control programs, perhaps largely because of the public's fascination with these animals. However, coupled with the Park Service's efforts to let the public view bears was the need to remove the animals when they became troublesome-and this often meant killing them. As tourism increased, so did the conflicts between people and bears, in campgrounds, near hotels, and along roadsides. The Service frequently shot the most recalcitrant animals, as in Sequoia, where by the 1920s the practice had become common. The parks also shipped problem bears to zoos. [124] With roadside feeding and bear shows being feature attractions, bear management continued essentially unchanged through Mather's administration and beyond.

More extensively than any other wildlife, the Park Service manipulated fish populations. It aggressively promoted sportfishing, building on pre-1916 precedent to make fishing a premier national park attraction and a major aspect of tourism management. Although the Service sought to halt the poaching of mammals in the parks, it enthusiastically sanctioned not only the regulated taking of fish but also the introduction of numerous nonnative species.

Mather reported annually on fish management, noting in 1922 that "fish planting on a grand scale" in Yellowstone had resulted in a public catch of about sixty thousand trout in one year. That same year the park planted 1.2 million fingerlings of trout and almost 7.4 million fry and eyed eggs, and installed a hatchery at Fish Lake. Mather stated that the "magnificent results" of these efforts proved the necessity of establishing hatcheries in other parks; thus Yellowstone, Glacier, Mount Rainier, and Yosemite, for example, got new hatcheries. In 1925 a study of Glacier's "fisheries needs" determined that the park had a "great deal more fish food... than was formerly believed." Based on this finding, Mather believed that more intensive stocking of Glacier's streams and lakes was justified. [125] The following year the park planted close to 3.3 million trout fry, all from its own hatchery. Also in 1926, Yellowstone planted 5 million eyed native cutthroat trout eggs, and the Oregon state game commission shipped "several carloads" of trout to Crater Lake. Although many of the fish planted in the parks were native species, others were not. For example, fish introduced in Yellowstone Park included nonnative rainbow, brook, brown, and lake trout. [126]

For staffing and operating the hatcheries and for stocking lakes and streams, the Service continually relied on the Bureau of Fisheries, a commodity-oriented and production-oriented bureau devoted to assisting the nation's commercial fishing industry and sportfishing enthusiasts. Similarly, game and fish commissions in states such as California, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon worked closely with the Park Service in managing fish. The state commission in Oregon, for example, assisted the Service in the stocking of Crater Lake. [127] Reflecting a continuing dependence on outside expertise, Horace Albright reported in 1929 on the detailing of a fisheries expert from the Bureau of Fisheries to supervise "fish operations" in the parks. Albright viewed this as the "first step" in coordinating National Park Service fish management. He anticipated that the Service could be sure that the employee so detailed would "take our point of view in developing the sport of fishing in the National Parks, and see to it that the parks are stocked with fish." [128]

Earlier, the Service's fish programs aroused concern on the part of the Ecological Society of America, which passed a resolution in late 1921 strongly opposing the introduction of nonnative species. The resolution referred not just to fish but to all plants and animals not native to the parks. The society urged that such introductions be "strictly forbidden by the park authorities." Albright responded in regard to Yellowstone's fish programs, disingenuously stating that his park was "averse" to planting nonnative species. He added that the park was continuing to stock nonnative fish, but was limiting them to streams where these species had previously been introduced. Moreover, he asserted that the Service was adhering to a policy that "foreign plant and animal life are not to be brought in." [129]

In actuality, the Park Service had developed no stringent prohibition of such practices. Planting of fish, including nonnative species, continued on a ``grand scale," along with introduction of nonnative trees, shrubs, and grasses for landscaping developed areas. Also, nonnative grasses (for instance timothy, now recognized as an aggressively invading species) were planted in Yellowstone's irrigated fields to supply hay for winter; and Tule elk were displayed behind fences in Yosemite. [130] The Park Service's attitude toward nonnative species was equivocating. Indeed, neither of the major policy statements of the Service's first decade (the Lane and Work letters) prohibited introduction of nonnative flora and fauna. Both specifically approved the propagation and stocking of fish, without limiting these activities to native species. [131]

In March 1929, shortly after Mather's resignation, Director Albright repeated his claim (this time to the secretary of the interior) that "exotic plants, animals, and birds, are excluded" from the parks. In truth, there were still exceptions to this policy, such as the continued introduction of nonnative fish. [132 On the other hand, the Service had started trying to eliminate certain nonnative species, fearful that they were harming native flora and fauna. In 1924 it began eradicating feral burros from Grand Canyon, killing more than twelve hundred in the first five years. In the late 1920s, rangers in Hawaii National Park began a campaign to eradicate feral goats from the park. [133] Many years later, both of these programs would bring the Service into heated public controversy.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap3g.htm — 1-Jan-2003