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


Park Service leadership in the 1930s still harbored antipathy toward large native predators—a serious matter to the wildlife biologists, who wanted them protected. Again, the Service's actions in this regard exposed internal disagreements over policy and underscored difficulties that the biologists faced in seeking to change traditional practices. Already by 1931, when Director Albright announced the policy of limiting predator control to what was absolutely necessary, wolves and cougars had been virtually eradicated from all national parks in the forty-eight states.

The new predator policy had only limited effectiveness. Of the triumvirate of carnivores most targeted for reduction by the Park Service in past decades (wolves, cougars, and coyotes), only the coyote remained in substantial numbers, except that the Alaska parks had populations of wolves. Despite the new predator policies, coyotes continued to be hunted during most of the decade, mainly on an occasional basis; and limited control of wolves was undertaken in the Alaska parks. [86]

Indeed, the 1931 predator policy itself reflected long-standing bias against the coyote. Instead of a flat prohibition, the policy stated that there would be "no widespread campaign" against predators, and that "coyotes and other predators" would be shot only when they endangered other species. Thus, the policy did not totally eliminate predator control; rather, it only restricted control to no "widespread" campaigns. And it specifically identified the coyote as a potential target—the only species so designated. Moreover, at the 1932 superintendents conference, a lengthy discussion of predator policy focused mainly on how to deal with coyotes. The consensus was that coyotes were to be subject to "local control," and that reducing this species would be a matter of each superintendent's discretion. In fact, two biologists in attendance, Joseph Dixon and Harold Bryant, conceded that coyote reduction might at times be necessary. []

By far the strongest support for coyote control came from park management circles. Horace Albright wanted to kill coyotes when they did damage to "more useful species." He particularly feared that antelope populations were threatened, and that without the current "intensive" control of coyotes there would soon be no antelope in Yellowstone. Roger Toll, Yellowstone's superintendent, concurred, asserting that a herd of antelope and deer was "more valuable than a herd of coyotes." He stated that it was not predators, but elk, deer, and antelope that were "the type of animal the park was for." [88]

With support from leaders such as Albright and Toll, "wholesale coyote killing" (in the words of a Park Service report) continued in Yellowstone until the fall of 1933. Earlier that year, in Fauna No. 1, George Wright's team of wildlife biologists had declared a more restrictive predator policy than before, which may have been a factor in easing Yellowstone's aggressive coyote control. As stated in Fauna No. 1, predators were to be "special charges" of the Park Service and would be killed only when the prey species was "in immediate danger of extermination," and then only if the predator species itself was not endangered. [89]

In truth, the 1930s did witness a decline in the killing of coyotes. Under the guidance of Sequoia superintendent John White, biologist Harold Bryant, and especially George Wright, the Service began to rely on "increased scientific data rather than ancestral prejudice" to address the predator issue. In November 1934 Director Cammerer issued a prohibition of all predator control unless written authority was obtained from his office. Yet the following year, in Fauna No. 2, Wright and Ben Thompson acknowledged that coyote management was still controversial. They defined Park Service policy as allowing "judicious control of coyotes" to be undertaken in any park with the necessary authorization from Washington. [90]

Ongoing coyote control demonstrated that these predators were still not true "special charges" of the Park Service. Particularly in Yellowstone, pressure to reduce coyote populations continued, although it apparently diminished after 1933. A matter-of-fact report in March 1935 revealed a cavalier attitude toward eliminating coyotes, as one ranger described how he spied a pair of coyotes copulating "just at daylight" near lower Slough Creek, then shot one of the animals dead. [91] By contrast, some Yellowstone staff doubted the wisdom of continued coyote control. Assistant Chief Ranger Frank W. Childs recommended in April 1935 that the park suspend the killing of coyotes for at least two years, with the intention of carefully studying the resulting effect on prey populations. Childs and others recognized the conflict between, on the one hand, efforts to reduce elk populations, and on the other, killing predators that were presumed to reduce the numbers of elk. He suggested that scientific research might prove that ending coyote control permanently would be best for the "general wildlife balance" in the park. [92] Despite such opinions, evidence indicates that by 1937 interest in further coyote reduction had intensified. [93]

Demands for predator reduction in Yellowstone and other parks were based on concern for the protection of the ungulate species, so that they could be both enjoyed in the parks and hunted on adjacent lands. Also, ranchers ranged livestock on nearby lands and wanted protection from predators. Hunters and ranchers urged the Park Service to reduce or entirely remove major carnivores from the parks. In effect, this stance allied them with Albright and those in the Service opposing predators. Others argued for a more cautious approach. In November 1935 Crater Lake superintendent David H. Canfield responded to the Southern Oregon Livestock Association's "sweeping condemnation" of predatory animals in national parks. The association was particularly anxious about coyotes in the vicinity of Lava Beds National Monument, a park under Canfield's supervision. Canfield countered that the wildlife problems of the area would be addressed through scientific research. Subsequent research in Lava Beds supported protection, rather than control, of coyotes. [94]

Although not bold, the Service's official policy for protection of predators motivated sportsmen's associations and other groups to oppose initiatives for new national parks in the Kings Canyon area of California and Olympic Mountains in Washington. As elsewhere, such groups wanted predators eliminated to protect game species. Resentment of Service policies led the California state legislature to petition Congress to force strict predator reduction in the national parks—to no avail. [95] As viewed by Joseph Grinnell, longtime opponent of predator control, this proposal would have been a "calamity" to those "who see in national park administration the last chance of saving [for] the future entire species of certain animal groups." Putting predators in an ecological context, Grinnell wrote to Director Cammerer about the need to preserve the "biotic mosaic" of each park, including predators. The Service should maintain the whole "biotic superorganism uninjured—to the benefit of all its constituent species and populations." [96]

In striking contrast to Grinnell, Horace Albright remained alarmed about what effects the discontinuance of coyote control would have on the grazing species, particularly antelope. His letters to Cammerer on predators and antelope were plainly worded. In October 1937 Albright deplored the ongoing, as yet inconclusive, studies of the coyote's impact on Yellowstone's antelope population. He advocated "open war" on coyotes for the purpose of studying stomach contents to determine the extent to which coyotes fed on antelope. In fact, he urged reducing the coyote population under almost any pretext, stating that in spite of Park Service policy or the results of the studies of coyote stomachs, he would "continue to kill coyotes on the antelope range for the reason that the coyotes are of no possible advantage in that part of the park, can rarely be seen by tourists . . . while on the other hand there will always be danger of depleting the antelope herd. It must be remembered that one of the animals most interesting to tourists is the antelope." Albright also feared that, if protected, the coyotes would "over-run adjacent country," causing conflict with land managers and owners outside the park. [97]

Even as Albright campaigned against the coyotes, the Park Service planned more research on this predator, and in 1937 Adolph Murie initiated a study of Yellowstone's coyotes. Murie's report, Ecology of the Coyote in the Yellowstone, appeared in 1940. It indicated that coyote predation did not appreciably affect prey populations, having only a "negligible" impact on elk populations. Murie noted that in view of the National Park Service's "high purpose" of preserving "selected samples of primitive America," the parks' flora and fauna should be subjected to "minimal disturbance." He concluded that coyote control was "not advisable under present conditions." [98]

Coming from one of the most outspoken Park Service biologists, Murie's conclusions drew severe criticism from within the Service. Indeed, some individuals in top management apparently wanted Murie fired. [99] Moreover, already aware of Murie's findings and the Wildlife Division's opposition to coyote reduction, Albright wrote to Cammerer in January 1939, repeating his disagreement with the biologists. Believing there was nothing to be gained "either in wildlife management or in service to the public" by protecting the coyotes, Albright feared that, if not controlled very strictly, "powerful predators" such as the coyote were certain to menace the "more desirable species of wildlife." Despite the criticism, Murie's findings gained support from Director Cammerer. As Cammerer stated in his 1939 annual report, the coyote was a "natural and desirable component of the primitive biotic picture," not affecting the well-being of any of its prey species and "not requiring any control at present"—words that sound as if they were written by Murie himself. [100]

Cammerer also noted in his 1939 report that Murie had begun longrange studies of the wolves in Mt. McKinley National Park. Public demands for wolf control in McKinley (which resulted from fear that this predator was reducing Dall sheep and other popular wildlife populations) prompted Murie's study, which would extend into the mid-1940s. As with the coyotes in Yellowstone, the Service sought to establish a scientific basis for its treatment of Mt. McKinley's wolves. Again, however, Horace Albright's comments highlighted the differences between the recommendations of the wildlife biologists and traditional Park Service attitudes. In his January 1939 letter to Cammerer, the former director stated that he found it "very difficult" to accept the idea of protecting McKinley's wolf population in the "territory of the beautiful Dall sheep." Albright believed it was a "grave risk" to spend so much time and effort caring for predators, a responsibility that in his opinion "does not or need not fall on the National Park Service at all." [101]

Writing to Cammerer in May 1939, Park Service biologist David Madsen reflected on the state of national park predator management. He noted the ambivalence that still existed and cited Adolph Murie's belief that the Service was troubled with "confused thinking" and did not have a "philosophical point of view" on predators. In part, Madsen attributed this indecisive attitude to a lack of scientific information that affected the thinking of all Service personnel, both managers and biologists. He saw a "need for enlightenment" on the predator issue, to help the Service handle the "crossfire" between the scientists and groups such as sportsmen and livestock owners. [102]

Influenced by the wildlife biologists (who found some support from park management—from Director Cammerer to Yellowstone ranger Childs), the Park Service moved very slowly and erratically during the 1930s toward a scientific understanding of predator and prey populations and the discontinuance of predator control. Murie's work at Yellowstone and Mt. McKinley and the coyote studies at Lava Beds evidenced a willingness in the Service to use scientific research to address specific predator concerns. Nevertheless, as Madsen recognized, a strong ambivalence attended the issue. The scientific perspective was countered by traditional attitudes favoring popular game species over carnivores and by agitation from organizations of livestock owners and sportsmen. Such pressures would persist.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap4e.htm — 1-Jan-2003