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

Exotic Species

In addressing the question of naturalness posed by the Leopold Report, the Service reinvigorated its efforts to eliminate—or at least reduce— populations of nonnative species from the parks. Although some exotics barely survived or were a benign presence, other highly adaptable species, such as wild goats, burros, hogs, and the prolific kudzu vine, greatly expanded their territory, altering park habitat and threatening the existence of native flora and fauna. A 1967 report listed thirty parks with active programs to eradicate or control exotic plant species, and nine parks with exotic mammal control programs. The Service's new policies briefly mentioned exotics, declaring that nonnative plants and animals would be "eliminated where it is possible to do so by approved methods" (a reflection of policies recommended in Fauna No. 1). [147]

More than with exotic plants, attempts to eradicate exotic mammals sometimes precipitated difficult political problems for the Park Service. Strenuous objection to killing nonnative mammals—intensified by political pressure and by media coverage—came mainly from two sources. Animalrights activists sought to protect appealing species such as burros, which seriously damaged native vegetation and caused erosion of topsoil in Bandelier National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park. Hunters opposed efforts by rangers to eradicate animals like the European wild boar in Great Smoky Mountains, where the voracious animal caused extensive damage to native vegetation. Hunting organizations in Tennessee and North Carolina wanted to maintain viable populations to ensure good hunting outside park boundaries, and some also demanded participation in any killings that took place within the park.

Such interest groups, often politically well connected, put the Park Service on the defensive; and the threat of litigation stimulated research to document habitat destruction by nonnative species. In the mid-1970s a reduction program was initiated at Bandelier National Monument. As recalled by biologist Milford Fletcher, the Service believed that, of the parks affected by burros, Bandelier had gathered the most scientific data on damage to soils and vegetation and could thus make the best legal case for eliminating burros. The program was promptly contested in court by the Fund for Animals. The court ruled that the Service had a legal mandate to remove such destructive exotic animals. Following an agreement to allow the Fund to attempt live removal—an effort that proved unsuccessful—the park completed eradication of the burro population. By contrast, passionate denunciation of the proposed shooting of burros in Grand Canyon led to a successful removal program of live trapping and transplanting, again largely undertaken by the Fund for Animals. This effort was supplemented by limited shooting (supported by the court decision at Bandelier) and by fencing off areas where burros might reenter the park.

Similarly, managers at Great Smoky Mountains initiated research on the wild boar population and the boar's effects on park habitats. In this instance, however, belligerent opposition by North Carolinians to rangers shooting wild boars in the park prompted the Service to devise a split policy. Under pressure, it discontinued killing the animals in the North Carolina part of the park, relying mainly on trapping and removal of the wild boars (aided in some instances by private individuals supervised by park staff ) and on fencing. Rangers continued to shoot boars on the Tennessee side of the park. [148]

Faced with angry, outspoken opposition to the control of certain exotic mammals, yet aware of the damage the animals were inflicting on natural resources, the Park Service at times seemed caught in a no-win situation. Efforts to reach an acceptable compromise sometimes seemed awkward at best, as illustrated not only in Great Smoky Mountains, but especially in the attempt to control feral goats in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the 1970s. Despite decades of reduction (more than seventy thousand goats had been killed since the park was established in 1916), the goats maintained a high population, about fifteen thousand in 1970. [149] By the early 1970s, local pressure prompted the Park Service to allow hunters to participate in the reduction. To some, this highly unusual agreement to allow public hunting seemed justified because the animals being killed were exotics. (Contrary to the situation in Great Smoky Mountains and Hawaii Volcanoes, the public hunting issues in Yellowstone and Grand Teton involved both native animals and a federal law specifically allowing public hunting in Grand Teton as a means of population control.) However, even with hunting, reduction in Hawaii Volcanoes was not significantly diminishing the goat population, and an unfunded fencing program did not promise a solution in the near future. Thus, some park staff viewed the agreement to allow public hunting in the park as ensuring perpetual, "sustained-yield recreation" for the hunters, as then—park ranger Donald W. Reeser later stated. [150]

Moreover, in October 1970, to quell the hunters' apprehension that an ambitious proposed fencing program would jeopardize their opportunity to hunt in the park, Director Hartzog made a public promise that he had "no intention of exterminating goats from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park." The Service adopted the position that it wanted to "control goats, not to eliminate them." Reeser recalled that after Hartzog's pronouncement a perpetual "goat ranching operation loomed on the horizon as [the park's] new goal." Submitting to local pressure, the Park Service had strayed far afield from its official policy of eliminating nonnative species "where it is possible to do so." [151]

The strategy of reducing but not eliminating the goats was a clear instance of disregard of policy in an effort to achieve a political solution. The Service got into even greater difficulty when its new goat policy drew criticism from conservation groups, angry that Hawaii's native resources were being sacrificed to the goats and to the hunters' lobby. [152] Park Service leadership then resorted to the argument that "it is conceivable" that the goats benefited the park by keeping some exotic plants from spreading. In June 1971 Hartzog wrote to Anthony Wayne Smith, head of the National Parks and Conservation Association, that "some of [the exotic plants] may be held in a state of equilibrium by the pressure of the exotic goat." [153]

Yet the director did not even have the support of his own on-site scientific staff. Hawaii Volcanoes biologist Ken Baker characterized as "poor thinking" the idea to "perpetuate goats as biological controls on exotic plants." Baker saw this as an attempt to "evade the issues and . . . not really tell it like it is." He feared that the situation actually amounted to public hunting "in perpetuity," and that "a rose by any other name is still a rose. What we have is nothing more than public hunting." So long as there are goats in the park, he declared, "we are only kidding ourselves about 'restoring and maintaining natural ecosystems.' " In line with Baker's thoughts, the park superintendent, Gene J. Balaz, wrote to the National Parks and Conservation Association in early May 1971 (six months after Hartzog had disavowed any intention of eliminating the goats) that "the aim of this program is to reduce the number of goats—any goats." In June, with Balaz's determination to remove the goats at odds with Hartzog's statements, the director abruptly removed Balaz from the Hawaii Volcanoes superintendency. [154]

Only when the park moved determinedly ahead (at first on its own) with a fencing and killing program aimed at eliminating the goat population was the Service able to correct its course and stay in line with official policy. In late 1971 newly arrived park superintendent G. Bryan Harry stubbornly pushed forward a major fencing program, drawing heavily from the park's annual maintenance funds, until the Washington office finally agreed to provide special funding to construct the fences. Indeed, given the goats' reproductive capacity, almost certainly the only long-range solution lay in fencing important habitats, coupled with killing the goats in and near the areas being fenced. A three-thousand-acre tract enclosed by July 1972 became, Donald Reeser recalled, the "first area of goat range that had been made lastingly free of goats" since the park's establishment. A dramatic recovery of vegetation after exclusion of the goats provided substantial reason for continuing the program. By 1980, goats in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park were, in Reeser's words, "virtually gone." A few remain today in remote, unfenced areas. [155]

With greater understanding of nonnative species in the parks came realization of the magnitude and persistence of the exotics issue. Certain exotics can be successfully contained in some parks but, overall, the problem will never go away and will continue to create management quandaries. In 1981 Olympic National Park managers initiated a program to rid the park of appealing but habitat-destructive mountain goats, on the grounds (hotly disputed by opponents of the program) that the goats are not native to the park, although they occur naturally very close by. Even at Isle Royale National Park, where efforts have been made to preserve wolf populations, managers have had to confront the question of whether wolves (as well as moose, their chief prey) are truly native to the park. [156]


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap6i.htm — 1-Jan-2003