Yellowstone’s wildlife have long been the subject of public interest and debate. Today’s visitors may not realize that the park has undergone considerable evolution in wildlife management throughout its history.While the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872 provided for the preservation “. . . of all. . . natural curiosities and wonders within . . .,” many early supporters believed that the new park would be operated in the manner of an English game preserve, in which “gentlemanly hunting” was allowed. In the 1880s, George Bird Grinnell, editor of the influential conservation journal Forest and Stream, appealed to his fellow sportsmen to support the idea of preservation because parks would serve as a “reservoir” for game that would seasonally disperse outside and be available for hunters.
In that early era, some commercial hunting and fishing was permitted in Yellowstone to supply the hotels and lodges. But this was not controlled, and poaching was prevalent. Only after some tremendous slaughters of park wildlife (such as in the winter of 1875, when nearly 4,000 elk were killed for their hides in the Mammoth Hot Springs area) did the Secretary of the Interior hire the first gamekeeper, Harry Yount, to protect park wildlife. One of the first white men to spend an entire winter in Yellowstone, he resigned in frustration over the difficulty of trying to do his job alone.
In part because of the poaching and wholesale slaughter of park wildlife, the U.S. Cavalry arrived in Yellowstone in 1886. It was then that the government finally took an active interest in protecting park resources from rampant overuse. Wildlife biology was in its infancy in that era, and ecology was not yet defined. A popular notion of the time that was adopted by the Army and carried on by the National Park Service after 1916 was the characterization of animals as either “good” (deer, elk, antelope, and bison) or “bad” (the various predator species such as wolves, coyotes, and cougars). National programs to eliminate predators were embraced by Yellowstone’s staff, and by the late 1930s the native mountain lion and wolf populations were gone from the park. It was only much later after years of scientific study that the disastrous, long-term effects of such a view of wildlife was recognized.
Efforts were also undertaken to feed the “desirable” animals. Beginning in 1907, the park developed the “Buffalo Ranch” in the Lamar Valley to raise an imported herd of bison brought into the park to augment Yellowstone’s natural bison population, thought to number less than 100 animals. Ranch staff irrigated the valley’s meadows and harvested hay to feed bison, elk, and other grazers. The Buffalo Ranch was also the headquarters for wildlife culling operations, which occurred throughout the 1960s. Again, it was after much scientific study that the manipulation of wildlife in this manner was changed.
Wildlife science first came to Yellowstone when biologist William Rush was hired to study large mammals in 1928. He and his successors struggled to bring more information about wildlife to park managers, but felt hampered by small budgets and their lack of status compared to “real rangers.” Nevertheless, they set into place a program of wildlife research that has grown in staff and funding, particularly since the 1960s. The Leopold Report, credited with sparking a servicewide policy change that culminated in the park ceasing its– by then-controversial– programs to roundup and shoot elk and bison, also strongly recommended the use of biological research in making management decisions. Since the 1970s, issues such as wolf restoration, elk grazing, grizzly bear recovery, and bison management have been accompanied by major research initiatives.
Today the Buffalo Ranch is preserved for its historic values, and it houses the Yellowstone Institute, which sponsors cooperative educational programs about park wildlife and other resources. And today’s park rangers, who helped to restore native wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, continue to enforce laws against illegal hunting and trapping. They honor one of their own each year by presenting the Harry Yount Memorial Award to a “ranger’s ranger.”