Historic Wildlife Observations

Using Historical Accounts (1796-1881) to Inform Contemporary Wildlife Management in the Yellowstone Area
Lee H. Whittlesey, Sarah Bone, Allison Klein, P. J. White, Ann W. Rodman, and David E. Hallac


Describing historic wildlife communities is important for evaluating changes in ecosystems over time and developing contemporary objectives for conservation and restoration. The early historical record in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) has been analyzed many times using a small number (~20) of written accounts, with interpretations vigorously disputed among historians, scientists, and other stakeholders.

We compiled a comprehensive narrative of thousands of first-hand accounts of wildlife in the GYE during 1796-1881 to enhance understanding of the native wildlife community. We quantitatively summarized and queried information in a georeferenced database to clarify conflicting past perceptions and gain insights for contemporary management. Analyses suggested wildlife was plentiful and widespread in the GYE prior to Euro-American colonization, with a community composition similar to modern times. However, bison were eliminated from some areas (e.g., Snake River Plain) by the 1840s and there was considerable slaughter of many wildlife species during 1871-1885. In their accounts, observers preferentially mentioned larger species based on their personal and professional interests. Mammals smaller than deer were rarely mentioned and there was a bias towards visual evidence rather than sign or sounds.This analytical approach of compiling large numbers of written accounts, categorizing them in a relational database, and analyzing output from queries could be used in many areas to clarify historic wildlife conditions and provide reference information for modern conservation decisions.

Download Database (.csv file)

Creating the Database

We created a relational database in Microsoft Access summarizing the wildlife information from each account in the narrative. An observation was defined as animal(s) reported by one observer at a single place and time. We started a new observation when the place or time changed enough that it was evident different animal(s) were being discussed or a different landscape was being described. Each observation contained one or more sightings. A sighting was defined as a report of an individual species of animal seen within one observation. Each observation and each sighting was assigned a unique identification number (ID) corresponding with the chronological order in which the narrative was organized. We created an ArcGIS feature class to spatially locate each observation based on the precision of information provided by the observer: 1) exact location; 2) within 5 miles (8 kilometers); 3) within 20 miles (32 kilometers); or 4) within a broad region, river way, valley, or other general area. Also, each observation was tied to the source of the quotation, including author, date and/or season, observer, and publication information.

Each observer was given a trip identification number (Trip ID) for their visit to the GYE. A new Trip ID was established each calendar year for observers who lived in the GYE and moved around the region. There were a number of observers who visited the study area in a party or group. If there was more than one observer in a party, they were assigned the same Trip ID.

A key aspect of the database is the Resighting ID, which was needed to maintain clarity and avoid redundancy. For example, a single observer could mention seeing an animal, killing the same animal, and then eating it or trading its hide. These events could have occurred over a period of several days, especially if a large amount of meat was obtained and consumed over an extended period. As a result, it was necessary to develop a system linking various reports referring to a single animal. Each sighting received a unique numerical ID, but repeated mentions of the same animal were linked in the database by assigning them the same Resighting ID. Another reason for the Resighting ID was a party of several observers might all mention seeing the same animal. Sightings of the same animal by various party members were individually important because each sighting potentially reinforced, clarified, or contrasted with other party members' sightings. However, we did not want to double count an animal by considering multiple sightings of the same animal by different party members as separate animals. The Resighting ID facilitated cross-checking of sightings and prevented erroneous over-counting.

Historical accounts mention animals in a variety of ways and contexts; some more conclusive than others. We developed the following system for categorizing those mentions: • Assumption of Animal Presence—An observer implied a particular animal was in the area by mentioning, for instance, they went hunting for the animal. • Attempt to Kill an Animal—An observer saw a specific animal and attempted to kill it but failed. • Described Parts—An observer described parts of an animal such as meat being consumed, cast antlers, bones, carcasses, or hides. • General Observation—A non-specific reference to an animal sighting, such as an observer commenting on the abundance of the animal or wildlife generally, but not actually describing specific animal(s) at that place and time. • Sounds—An observer heard, but did not see, the animal (e.g., elk bugles, wolf howls). • Killed Animal—An observer mentioned the killing of a specific animal. • Observed Animal—An observer viewed an animal, which obviously overlaps with the Attempt to Kill an Animal category. The two categories were differentiated because of potentially different motivations between hunters and other observers. • Observed Sign—An observer saw ephemeral signs left by a live animal, such as footprints, scat, diggings, or other markings, but did not actually see the animal. • Place Name Association—An observer was the first known person to apply a place name referring to an animal; thereby implying the animal had at some point been observed in the area.

Categorizing Observers

It is important to consider the reliability of observers because few were trained biologists or professional naturalists (Forman and Russell 1983). Eyewitness accounts of any event are notoriously problematic, and some observers unfamiliar with wildlife in the GYE may have misidentified animals; others may have inadvertently understated or inflated wildlife abundance. Most observers probably had unintentional biases regarding which species of wildlife were mentioned in their trip accounts, and some preferentially recorded information about certain species due to personal or professional reasons (e.g., trappers and fur-bearers; sport hunters and big game animals).

We were reluctant to categorize any group of travelers as less reliable than any other because such guesswork adds a layer of unnecessary subjectivity to an already difficult field of study. The celebrated mountain men of the American West kept a remarkable number of journals during 1810-1850, which have long been a primary research tool for historians. These men were notorious tall-tale tellers around campfires or to gullible strangers, but their personal written records contained important business and survival information such as geographical distances traveled, safe river crossings, relations with Native Americans, discoveries of new travel routes, fruitful hunting grounds, tallies of furs accumulated, and other business dealings and information. In only a few accounts was it obvious the observer was lying or the observation or sighting was completely erroneous. Even people misidentifying the species of animal (e.g., bighorn sheep as chamois; pronghorn as goats) still probably saw something similar to what was erroneously reported.

Accepting these realities, we characterized observers according to profession, official or non-official status, gender, point of origin, and year(s) of their visit(s). Generalized categories of profession were artists, businessmen, civilian officials, clergy, guides and travel support, hunters, journalists, military, native people, prospectors, ranchers, scientists, tourists, and trappers. Any visit supported by a federal or territorial agency was defined as official to indicate the government had a stake in the activities or findings of the party. Points of origin included residents of the GYE, other portions of the present three surrounding states, elsewhere in North America, and international travelers.

Data Elements

Data Element Data Description Data Type
Sighting Animal Type of animal sighted Text
Sighting Evidence Type of evidence for sighting Text
Sighting Evidence Comment Comment regarding Sighting Evidence Text
Sighting Quantity Number of Animals sighted Text
Sighting Presence Did sighting declare presence of identified animal? True/False
Sighting Evidence of Absence Evidence of the absence of any sighting Text
Sighting Provisions Related Was food, other than that taken from wildlife, mentioned in the observation? True/False
Sighting Evidence of Provision Evidence for a true Sighting Provisions Related Text
Sighting Native American Presence Sighting mentioned presence of American Indians True/False
Observation Year Year observation was made Number
Observation Season Season observation was made Text
Observation Month Month observation was made Text
Observation Day Day of month observation was made Number
Observer Name Name or description of person making observation Text
Observer ID Unique Identifier for person making observation. Can be used to differentiate similarly named individuals Text
Observer Years Years of observations made by observer Text
Observer Participation Level of participation of the observer (first hand, second hand, third hand, unknown) Text
Observer Point of Origin Observer's place of origin Text
Observer Notes Notes or questions regarding the observer Text
Observer Profession Observer's career or profession Text
Observer Official Status Whether the observer was a government official or not Text
Observer Gender Gender of observer Text
Observation Location Location of observation Text
Observation Comments Comment regarding observation Text
Trip Participants These are the known participants in the trip. They occur in the narrative, but may not make their own observations Text
Trip Number Participants Number of participants in the trip, if known Number
Trip Purpose Purpose of the trip, if known Text
Trip Comments General comments from the narrative that will help explain the trip Text
Trip Start Year The year in which the trip began Number
Trip Start Month The month in which the trip began Text
Trip Start Day The day in which the trip began Number
Trip End Year The year in which the trip ended Number
Trip End Month The month in which the trip ended Text
Trip End Day The day in which the trip ended Number
Trip Digital Route Available Availability of digital route in the Atlas ofYellowstone project True/False
Source Document Cited source document Text
Source Page Page of cited source document Text
Source Author Author of cited source document Text
Source Date of Publication Date of publication for source document Text
Source Title Title of source document Text
Source Subtitle Subtitle of source document Text
Source Publisher Publisher of source document Text
Source Publisher Location Location of Publisher of source document Text
Source Comments Comments regarding source document Text

Last updated: September 18, 2017

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