Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 4
The Rise and Decline of Ecological Attitudes, 1929—1940

Rangelands and the Grazing Species

In contrast to the research reserve program, which was intended to leave selected natural areas undisturbed, the biologists believed that in other instances it was necessary to interfere with nature and, as stated in Fauna No. 1, assist certain species to combat the "harmful effects of human influence" in order to restore the "primitive state" of the parks. Fauna No. 1 also specifically called for preservation of ungulate range and advocated that a park's "deteriorated range" should be "brought back to [its] original productiveness." [64] Of all the Park Service's attempts to interfere with nature during the 1930s, the manipulation of Yellowstone's northern elk herd received the greatest attention and ultimately became the most controversial.

To many familiar with Yellowstone, the park's northern elk herd seemed to have become so large that it was overgrazing its range (mostly consisting of the Lamar and Yellowstone river basins). The resulting deterioration appeared to limit use of the range by competing ungulates such as deer and pronghorn. The wildlife biologists determined that the northern herd needed to be reduced, in line with Fauna No. 1's recommendations, a proposal that would entail shooting large numbers of elk. For humane reasons, shooting the animals seemed far preferable to allowing them to die of winter kill when heavy snows restricted their range. Furthermore, reduction could bring the population to a specified level.

The biologists concluded that "human influence" had caused the winter range problems in Yellowstone. This understanding in the 1930s (which decades later would become strongly disputed) was based on some fundamental assumptions: prior to Anglo-American settlement of the lower valleys to the north of the park, the herd had wintered in those valleys; and after the park was established, its protected elk population had expanded enormously. The scientists also believed that the elk population had crashed in the period 1917—20, and that this dramatic decline had been caused by range deterioration through overgrazing. With drought conditions affecting the range in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and with elk populations believed to have increased due to protection in the park, a second population crash was seen as imminent—one that the Wildlife Division expected to bring "hideous starvation and wastage." [65]

In 1931 Joseph Dixon and Ben Thompson (who were working with George Wright on Fauna No. 1) had participated in a reconnaissance of the deer population explosion in the Kaibab National Forest, north of Grand Canyon. Reporting that an overpopulation of deer threatened the national forest, they recommended reducing the deer herds. Probably influenced by what seemed to have happened in the Kaibab, the biologists made their recommendation that Yellowstone's elk population also be reduced. In a February 1934 report documented with numerous photographs (and reprinted in Fauna No. 2 the following year) the Wildlife Division announced that, as a result of an overpopulation of elk, Yellowstone's northern range had been overused to the point that it was in "deplorable" condition. The biologists believed that the situation had worsened since they first saw the area in 1929, and that it now threatened the survival of other animals dependent on the range. Arguing that the overpopulated herd was on the "brink of disaster," the report warned that the next hard winter would cause starvation and death for thousands of elk. [66]

The elk reduction program had strong, apparently unanimous support among the Park Service's wildlife biologists. Their statements and reports did not equivocate on the wisdom of artificially lowering Yellowstone's elk population. Commenting in the late winter of 1935 that without reduction the problems of overgrazing and winter starvation would continue—the "old winter range ghost will be walking again"—Wright himself saw the program as critical to the success of the park's wildlife and range management. [67] Olaus Murie, who had overseen the Bureau of Biological Survey's elk management in Jackson Hole, south of Yellowstone, also urged reducing the northern herd, as did his brother, Adolph, a highly respected National Park Service wildlife biologist. In late December 1934, just before the first big reduction began, Olaus Murie wrote to Ben Thompson approving elk reduction, noting that "if carefully handled it will be successful," and adding that he looked forward "with great interest to the outcome of the experiment." [68]

Beyond their own observations, the biologists based their elk policy on research conducted in the region in the 1920s and early 1930s by U.S. Forest Service biologist W. M. Rush, whose work was privately funded with money obtained by Park Service director Horace Albright. Rush's conclusions supported the biologists' views. [69] Also, because they believed that longer hunting seasons and increased bag limits in Montana and on adjacent Forest Service lands would provide only limited help, the biologists recommended that the park itself undertake reduction to ensure that the proper number of elk would be killed each winter. Until the desired population level was reached, Yellowstone must be prepared "to slaughter elk as it does buffalo." [70]

Much more cautious was the opinion of Joseph Grinnell, mentor to numerous Park Service biologists. Asked by Director Cammerer to comment on the proposed reduction, Grinnell observed that the elk situation in Yellowstone was "truly disturbing from any point of view." He remarked on the "damage" that he believed elk grazing had done to the winter range, and agreed that human influences had been an important factor in bringing on the situation. Although he carefully avoided criticizing the decisions of his former students and close friends, Grinnell withheld support for the reduction program. Rather, he expressed hope that the killing of any park animals, predators as well as elk, would become a thing of the past. In his summation Grinnell advocated "adjustments through natural processes" to restore the "primeval biotic set-up." More than the Park Service biologists of the 1930s, Grinnell expressed faith in allowing "natural processes" to control elk populations, with aggressive measures taken to reduce adverse human influences on the animals. [71]

Reduction began in January 1935, with Yellowstone's rangers shooting the elk and preparing their carcasses for shipment to tribes on nearby reservations. With the intention of reducing elk populations to the range's "carrying capacity," the Park Service's goal of killing 3,000 elk the first winter included animals to be taken outside the park under Forest Service and Montana State Fish and Game Department regulations liberalized to increase the number killed by hunters. During the first reduction effort, hunters on lands adjacent to Yellowstone took 2,598 elk and park rangers killed 667, for a total of nearly 3,300. [72]

Responding to an inquiry from the American Museum of Natural History in March 1935, George Wright expressed relief that the Park Service itself had not had to kill large numbers of elk during the initial reduction; yet he wrote that "we are glad to have established a satisfactory precedent" regarding the "propriety of direct control" in the national parks. Even after further reduction in 1936, biologist Adolph Murie studied Yellowstone's range and found it "undoubtedly worse" than it had been in six or seven years. He recommended that the kill be increased to 4,000 the following winter. A lengthy 1938 report by Yellowstone ranger Rudolph L. Grimm again confirmed the belief that the range was overgrazed, and advocated continued reduction. [73]

With a "satisfactory precedent" established in the mid-1930s, Yellowstone's elk reduction program began its long history, with the policy eventually being applied in other areas, particularly Rocky Mountain National Park. At the end of the decade, the wildlife biologists reported that the "basic and most important problem" at Yellowstone was still the condition of the park's range. "As in the past," they asserted, the abundance of elk "depletes the forage of other ungulates using the same range." [74] Although he did not speak out aggressively against the reduction program, Grinnell continued to oppose it, writing to Director Cammerer in January 1939 that he did not approve of regulating "the numbers of certain animals in certain Parks." Grinnell urged that the Service submit the problem to a group of specially trained ecologists. [75]

[] Throughout the 1930s, management of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley bison—the herd of most concern to the Park Service—remained more intensive and varied than management of the park's elk. Using domestic livestock ranching methods first developed by the U.S. Army and then expanded during Mather's time, bison management changed little during the decade. Still headquartered at Buffalo Ranch, it continued to involve roundups, winter feeding in the corrals, and removal of surplus animals (including those not wanted for breeding), which were slaughtered or shipped live to other areas.

In Fauna No. 1, the biologists had had little to recommend concerning bison management, stating only that winter feeding of the animals was "absolutely necessary." Regarding park fauna in general, the report's recommendations called for allowing threatened species to exist on a "selfsustaining basis" when such measures as feeding were no longer necessary. Similar counsel was given in Fauna No. 2, which urged returning bison to their "wild state" to the degree that the "inherent limitations" of each park would permit. But such measures as winter feeding and slaughtering would have to continue until "artificial management" was no longer necessary. [76]

Based on recommendations made during the late 1920s and early 1930s, the park sought to keep Yellowstone's Lamar Valley herd limited in size, at first seeking a population level of 1,000 animals, then 800 beginning about 1934—levels believed to be within the "carrying capacity" of the bison range and what the Buffalo Ranch facilities could accommodate. Even by the following year, some concern was being expressed that the population was much too high. Harlow B. Mills, a biologist at Montana State College who had worked in Yellowstone, wrote an extensive report on wildlife conditions in the park in 1935, recommending that the Lamar Valley herd be reduced to "100 or less animals." Mills believed there were too many bison in Yellowstone, and that the current population was probably greater than under primitive conditions. The ranching operations seemed to be a loss of "energy, time, and money." Although Yellowstone had helped save America's bison from extinction in the United States, Mills added that the bison "has been saved and there is now no necessity of fearing that the species will disappear." In spite of Mills' much lower recommendations, the Service maintained the population level at close to 800 through the remainder of the 1930s. [77]

Fauna No. 2 also provided statistics on bison losses in recent decades. Since the army began its bison management in 1902, 682 animals had been slaughtered, 279 had been shipped live, and 48 "outlaws and cripples" had been destroyed. In addition, 124 bison had died from disease. [78] In 1935, the year Fauna No. 2 was published, George Wright expressed his displeasure with live shipping, whether of bison or elk, and whether to other national parks or to state or local parks. He believed that such activity involved the "inadvised mixing of related forms and the liberation of certain species in areas unsuited to their requirements," which brought "great and irreparable damage in many instances." [79]

Regardless of such disapproval, live shipping remained a regular activity in the parks, as did slaughtering and occasional destruction of "outlaws." Yellowstone superintendent Edmund Rogers reported in late 1937 that 59 bison, including "some old animals that we wish to take from the herd," were being held for live shipment. The park planned shipments to the Springfield, Massachusetts, zoo; to an individual in Wolf Creek, Montana; and to Prince Ri Gin, in Korea. In addition, plans were made to send bison carcasses to the Wind River Agency in Wyoming for distribution to local Indians. In Wind Cave National Park, where until the mid-1930s the Bureau of Biological Survey had been in charge of wildlife management, efforts were begun to reduce bison and elk to satisfactory numbers. The Service reported the following year that both Wind Cave and Platt national parks were reducing their bison populations and shipping carcasses to nearby Indian tribes.

These live shipments and distributions of carcasses may not have won much political advantage, but the distribution of buffalo robes was at times intended to reap political gain. Recognizing this potential, Director Cammerer wrote to Secretary Ickes in 1936 that disposition of the hides "to friends of the Service and the Department, upon their special request, has been and will be helpful in maintaining a special interest in matters relating to this Department and the Service." Yellowstone superintendent Rogers noted that requests for hides had been received from a number of highly placed individuals, such as Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York and Clyde A. Tolson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. [80]

Platt and Wind Cave shared another management practice with Yellowstone, as all of these parks set up fenced-in areas for wildlife (particularly bison) to be viewed by the public. Only a few hundred acres in size, Platt had no choice but to build a display area for viewing bison that had originally been shipped in from a nearby wildlife preserve. The Park Service took over wildlife management in Wind Cave with fences already in place, and despite declared intentions to remove the fences, continued to maintain an animal enclosure for public viewing. [81] As for Yellowstone's bison, Director Albright had stated in 1929 his determination to make the animals "more accessible to the visiting public." The problem as he saw it was how to manage the bison population "under nearly natural conditions and at the same time get it near the main highways where it can be easily and safely observed." [82]

Predictably, the biologists opposed confining park wildlife. In 1931 George Wright made his opposition clear to Albright, pointedly reminding the director that the purpose of park wildlife "does not end with their being seen by every tourist," and chiding that people see many such animals "when the circus comes to town." To Wright and his fellow biologists, an animal enclosure had the appearance of a "game farm" and was an inappropriate display of park wildlife to the public. [83]

Wright's position was reflected in Joseph Grinnell's remarks to Director Cammerer in 1933, after Yosemite's fenced-in Tule elk herd (not native to the park) had been returned to its native habitat in California's Owens Valley. Keeping a close watch on Yosemite's wildlife management, Grinnell wrote to Cammerer applauding Superintendent Charles Thomson's decision to remove the elk from the park. In reference to overall national park policy, Grinnell remarked that parks were not places "in which to maintain any sorts of animals in captivity," adding that it was the "free-living native wild animal life that . . . gives such rich opportunity for seeing and studying." He took it for granted that maintenance of free-roaming wild animals was the Service's "general policy." [84]

Grinnell was mistaken, however. Yellowstone's most ambitious effort to display bison came in 1935, only two years after Grinnell's letter to Cammerer, when the park established "Antelope Creek Buffalo Pasture"—an approximately 530-acre tract south of Tower Falls in the northeast section of the park. Located along the park's main tourist road, the pasture accommodated about thirty bison and included a five-acre "show corral" to assure visitors a view of the animals. [] An important part of the park's wildlife display for several years, the Antelope Creek enclosure would be discontinued in the 1940s by Director Newton B. Drury, sparking a heated controversy over the very policy issues that Grinnell and the wildlife biologists had raised.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap4d.htm — 1-Jan-2003