Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 6
Science and the Struggle for Bureaucratic Power: The Leopold Era, 1963—1981

Natural Regulation and Elk

Like the Leopold Report, the new policies sanctioned both "naturalness" and manipulation in resource management. They also endorsed what was becoming known as "natural regulation" or "natural processes" management, stating that managers would "minimize, give direction to, or control" the "changes in the native environment and scenic landscape resulting from human influences on natural processes of ecological succession." By attempting to "neutralize" human influences, the Service aimed to allow the "natural environment to be maintained essentially by nature." [115]

In contrast, though, the new policies provided for the manipulation of populations, such as the taking of fish, a practice long accepted in national parks. They also permitted—and seem even to have taken for granted—the continued reduction of ungulate populations. Wildlife populations would be controlled "when necessary to maintain the health of the species, the native environment and scenic landscape," or to ensure public safety and health. Included in the appendix to the policy book was a September 1967 memorandum from Director Hartzog that dealt solely with control of ungulate populations. Overall, the new policies stressed manipulation more than natural regulation, but left the Service with the option of taking whichever approach it might deem necessary. [116]

Already, with Yellowstone's northern elk herd, the Park Service had suddenly made what would become one of its most controversial natural regulation decisions. Despite the Leopold Report's recommendations to the contrary, sportsmen's organizations and state game officials had continued to lobby for hunters' participation in national park reduction programs. At the same time, reacting to increased media coverage, the public became uneasy about the killing of elk and other park ungulates. In response, Director Hartzog met in early March 1967 with Secretary Udall and U.S. Senator Gale McGee of Wyoming and agreed to halt the shooting of elk on Yellowstone's northern range, a decision that immediately preceded Senator McGee's public hearings on the issue.

At the hearings Hartzog declared that the "direct kill of elk in the park is stopped." In a separate announcement, he stated that the "most desirable means of controlling elk numbers" was through public hunting on lands adjacent to Yellowstone. Winter migration of elk from the park to neighboring lands, where the animals could be hunted, would be "facilitated whenever possible." The park would also intensify its trapping and shipping of elk to other areas. But Hartzog made it clear that if the new policy did not work, the Service would resume direct reduction. Termination of the long-standing population control program did not take effect until the following winter. The policy change was applied to other parks, particularly Rocky Mountain, and soon resulted in termination of the killing of any native ungulate species for purposes of population control. [117]

The policy decision arrived at by Hartzog, Udall, and McGee came not as a result of scientific findings, but because of political pressure. Adding to the pressure was Senator Clifford Hansen's resolution pending before the Senate Interior Committee to prohibit direct reduction of elk in Yellowstone (apparently retaliation for the fact that the hunting community had not been allowed to participate in the killing). The agreement to end the reduction program thus provided a quick solution to increasingly difficult problems: the angry crossfire of public alarm over shooting elk, the demands of hunters to participate in the reduction, and rising concern in Congress.

Soon, however, the Service justified its new policy on the basis of the natural regulation theory. A September 1967 park information paper outlined a program to "encourage the natural regulation of elk" in Yellowstone. The following December a similar park document, entitled "Natural Control of Elk," declared natural regulation to be the preferred management approach. Rather than by shooting, elk populations would be determined by "winter food [availability], by periodic severe winter weather and native predators." The Park Service asserted that "historical and recent knowledge" indicated that such factors would limit the number of elk. (Park biologists soon came to view predators as a much less important factor than the other two.) [118]

With management primarily focused on the most conspicuous plants and animals, the Park Service had, in effect, always practiced a form of natural regulation of the less obvious species by ignoring them (although many were affected by fire suppression, forest insect and disease control, and other park activity). As the Service's earliest official natural resource policy, Fauna No. 1 declared that "every species" that was not threatened with extinction in a park should be "left to carry on its struggle for existence unaided." Natural regulation theory began to be more fully articulated in the 1950s and 1960s as an alternative to artificial control of ungulate populations. However, despite claims of "historical and recent knowledge," the Park Service had virtually no scientific data on the overall ecological effects of a naturally regulated elk herd on the northern range. Nor, since the Service lacked supporting data and had prepared no formal research plans, did it begin the politically motivated program as a truly scientific experiment. Initiated as a comprehensive program without prior testing, it was more than anything else a political experiment.

One of Yellowstone's own scientists, William J. Barmore, protested to the park's lead biologist, Glen Cole, that the Service was "abruptly 'scrapping' current objectives with no . . . supporting information." He seriously doubted that the park could "come up with a satisfactory explanation of the proposed change [to natural regulation] on the basis of objective information available at this time." In fact, in February 1967, immediately before the policy change that had a reasonable chance of resulting in an increase in elk population, Barmore had presented a professional paper stating that aspen on the northern range were in poor condition from overbrowsing by "excessive numbers of elk" that were blocked from their traditional winter grasslands by development outside the park." [119]

In adopting a natural regulation policy, the Park Service disregarded the urgent call from both the Leopold and National Academy reports for scientifically grounded decisionmaking. It also went against the Leopold Report's recommendation that elk reductions continue (a recommendation made in one instance in the context of the report's discussion of "habitat manipulation"—the exact opposite of natural regulation). Although the report had laid out a series of elk management options, it clearly favored direct reduction of the herd, stating that "direct removal by killing is the most economical and effective way of regulating ungulates within a park." At the March 1967 Senate hearings, Leopold himself reaffirmed the need for direct reduction, stating that he had not changed his mind on the matter. Nevertheless, in a somewhat disingenuous effort to justify its change of elk policy, the Service asserted that it was acting in accord with the Leopold Report. As Hartzog stated in his announcement of the new elk policy, it was "based on the recommendations approved by an advisory board to the Secretary of the Interior" (the Leopold Committee). Similarly, Yellowstone superintendent Jack Anderson held that the Service had "followed the recommendations" of the Leopold Report. [120]

Maintaining close involvement with the national parks, Leopold held to his belief that the natural regulation policy was resulting in overgrazing and deterioration of the northern range—a position shared by other critics. In a June 1983 interview—more than a decade and a half after the policy was initiated—he remarked that because of increased elk browsing Yellowstone's "aspen patches . . . shrink every single year. . . . The aspen are simply just vanishing." Blaming in part the absence of recurring fire in the area, he believed that the "other part [of the problem] is elk chewing the remaining aspens." The elk "simply girdle" the trees, "eat the bark right off, and the aspens die and fall down and disappear."

That same month Leopold discussed the issue more fully in a letter to Sequoia—Kings Canyon superintendent Boyd Evison. Coming only a few weeks before Leopold's sudden death, this may have been his final statement on natural regulation. Worried about the "progressive disappearance of aspen," he stated that when ungulates are "destroying vegetation, they should be reduced in number, by predators if possible, if not, by trapping or shooting." He believed that such management issues "are not resolved simply by 'allowing natural ecosystem processes to operate.' " To Leopold, the national parks were "too small in area to be relegated to the forces of nature that shaped a continent." [121]

Although for many species natural regulation had in essence always operated in national park management, the Park Service had acted almost as if the Leopold Report had "discovered" natural regulation. The Service then applied it to elk management and embraced it, proclaiming it to be sound policy. Yellowstone became perhaps the chief focus of the natural regulation policy—in part because the policy significantly affected management of large mammals of interest to the public, animals that Yellowstone had in much greater numbers than other parks in the contiguous fortyeight states. Also, at about two million acres, the park was large enough to encourage belief that it contained some approximation of a "complete ecosystem," where natural regulation of large mammals might be feasible.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap6f.htm — 1-Jan-2003