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

Grizzly Bears

Management of Yellowstone's grizzly bear population—another major move toward reestablishing natural conditions in the parks—sparked an angry dispute and again revealed the Service's ambivalence toward scientifically based management. The grizzly bear controversy began in the late 1960s, when Yellowstone superintendent Jack Anderson, backed by his lead biologist, Glen Cole, decided to close the park's garbage dumps, a reliable source of food for the grizzlies since the 1880s, virtually since tourists began coming to the park. This plan was intended to put the bears on a more natural regimen, where they would not depend on food supplies at the dumps and would disperse across the park seeking natural sources of food. As with the ending of elk reduction, the Service claimed that its new grizzly bear management was in accord with the Leopold Report. [122] However, focused more on ungulates, the report had not analyzed bear management in detail, leaving it essentially open-ended as to manipulation or natural regulation. The decision to close the dumps brought the Service into conflict with the recommendations of John and Frank Craighead, biologists (and twin brothers) who had been studying Yellowstone's grizzlies intensively since 1959 and were recognized as the world's leading experts on this species.

The Craigheads (who were not Park Service scientists) believed that if certain precautions were not taken, closure of the dumps would threaten the grizzlies' survival in the park. They judged that since late in the previous century, when garbage dumps had first attracted grizzlies, development and use of once-primitive lands in and adjacent to the park had possibly reduced the bears' natural food supplies below what was necessary to support a viable grizzly population. But the Park Service overrode this argument. Although it had no systematic population survey of its own, it asserted that the Craigheads had underestimated the number of grizzlies in the park, and that the bears had survived in the area for millennia and could continue to do so. [123]

The dispute narrowed to whether the dumps should be closed suddenly or gradually. The Craigheads argued that a gradual, monitored closing would give the grizzlies time to adjust and thus have less impact on their population. Entwined with this concern was the factor of human safety— whether the dispersal of bears seeking food after a sudden closing would be a greater threat to campers and hikers than after a gradual closing. All parties were keenly aware of the August 1967 incidents in Glacier National Park when, on a single night and in widely separated areas, two women were mauled to death by grizzlies. These remarkably coincidental killings had brought pressure on the Service to reevaluate its bear management. After first trying gradual closing, Superintendent Anderson concluded that a quick closing was safer for both humans and bears. In the fall of 1970, he abruptly announced that the last big dump—at Trout Creek, south of Canyon Village—would be shut down. [124] Following this decision, the controversy shifted to a kind of grim, competitive watch, with both sides counting population figures year to year to see how well the grizzlies survived.

Underlying the disagreements was the question of scientific research to enable the park to make informed management decisions on the grizzlies. Since Stephen Mather's time, the Service had used the availability of outside scientists as a rationale for not strengthening its own research capability —an attitude still pervasive in the late 1950s when the Craigheads began their studies. Indeed, their research funds (ultimately more than a million dollars) came from a variety of sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, Philco Corporation, and Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. The Park Service did not support the Craigheads substantially, covering only a small fraction of the cost, much of it in the form of staff and logistical support. Work space in an unused mess hall was provided by the park concessionaire. [125] Operating with limited Service support, the Craigheads' studies became what was at that time the most in-depth natural-history research ever conducted in a national park.

Still, an acrimonious debate arose over the Craigheads' progress in publishing their research and whether the information they made available was adequate to determine the effects that dump closure would have on the grizzlies. Rejecting the Craigheads' recommendations and asserting that their research did not address the specific concerns at hand, Superintendent Anderson closed the last dump. As had happened for decades— including the termination of the elk reduction program—the Park Service made a key management decision with little scientific information of its own. [126]

The disagreements intensified the fractious professional and personal differences that had arisen between the Craigheads and certain park staff. Early in the research project, the relations had seemed cordial and supportive. But in Frank Craighead's opinion, after Anderson's and Glen Cole's arrival in the park in 1967, the situation became increasingly "characterized by mistrust, suspicion, and . . . hostility." Part of the problem stemmed from the Craigheads' use of the public media. Even before beginning their Yellowstone research, the brothers were well-known naturalists—a "glamour family within the wildlife establishment," as one writer put it. Their grizzly bear studies attracted even greater attention, giving them a public platform from which they at times criticized park management. [127]

Park management's attitude toward research (and toward the Craigheads themselves) was clearly revealed when the Craigheads requested permission to continue monitoring the dispersal of the grizzlies following final closure of the dumps. This involved tracking the animals by means of multicolored tags, which the researchers had attached to a large number of bears (as well as some elk) for identification and tracking purposes. Their request, coming at the height of acrimony between the two sides, was rejected by Superintendent Anderson, who characterized the colored tags as an unwanted intrusion into the natural scene. Supported by biologist Cole, Anderson rejected the Craigheads' request and ordered that the tags be removed from any bears captured by park rangers for management purposes, thereby thwarting research use of the tags. [128]

The superintendent asserted that the public had complained about the colored tags, pointing out to John Craighead that there had been a "great deal of comment from the park visitor attempting to photograph the wildlife in their native habitat." Anderson believed that the tagging had "reached the point where it detracts from the scenic and esthetic values," and he wanted as many tags as possible removed by the time of the Yellowstone centennial, to be celebrated in the park in the summer of 1972. Thus, the park's excuse for obstructing this final aspect of the Craigheads' research was based on the claim that the tags, in effect, decreased public enjoyment of Yellowstone. The National Academy's 1963 report had specifically recommended that the Service "avoid interference with independent research which has been authorized within the parks," citing problems that had occurred in Mammoth Cave and Shenandoah. Chaired by Starker Leopold, a science advisory committee that met in the park in September 1969 had urged that the "response of [the bears] to the elimination of garbage" be studied. Yet to Anderson and Cole, the colored ear tags on an elusive animal rarely seen by the public were an intrusion on the natural scene and had to go. The park had effectively blocked the bear dispersal research. [129]

Anger and discord surrounded this celebrated conflict over the grizzlies, and a cloud of uncertainty and distrust still remains. Reflecting on the controversy more than a decade after its onset, Nathaniel Reed, who as assistant secretary of the interior had been a close observer of the dispute, voiced his opinion that "mistakes have been made" and "neither the Craigheads nor the Park Service have a perfect record." The Service's actions were, however, more crucial than those of the Craigheads, because it had the legal responsibility and decisionmaking authority to safeguard the public trust through ensuring survival of Yellowstone's grizzlies. [130] In making its decisions, the Service rejected the advice of internationally recognized experts who had studied the bears for more than a decade. The Craigheads estimated the grizzly population to be fewer than two hundred and believed that the dump closure increased the risk that the bears would become extinct in the park. During the first two years after closure, approximately eighty-eight grizzlies were killed in or near Yellowstone, mainly to ensure human safety. Even with this number slain, the grizzlies survived; but in Frank Craighead's opinion, there had been "very little margin for error." Indeed, in 1975, shortly after what had been by far the most intensive killing of grizzlies in the park's history, the grizzly was placed on the list of threatened species, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act. [131]

In the push toward natural regulation and in a concern for safety, the Park Service had been in a sudden hurry with grizzly bear management. It seemed compelled to change a feeding policy that had existed for nearly a century, during which time it had had ample opportunity to conduct its own research on the bears but had neglected to do so.

The Service began to expand its knowledge of the grizzlies in 1973 with the initiation of a bear monitoring program. That same year the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team was created to undertake long-term scientific studies; it included biologists from the Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the state governments of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. The 1975 listing of the grizzly as a threatened species triggered a close evaluation of the bears' critical habitat and the development of a "recovery plan" for the species. [132] Grizzly habitat had already been recognized as including expansive tracts of lands surrounding the park, an area constituting the central portion of what came to be called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The Craighead studies and the grizzly bear controversy helped spawn a coordinated approach to management of this species by federal and state agencies. Although the disagreement and controversy did not end, through extensive research the new approach sought to improve understanding of the grizzly and how it might best be managed.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap6g.htm — 1-Jan-2003