Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly bears are once again under federal protection, a Reuters article said last week. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restored their protected status after pushing for rights for Yellowstone grizzlies based on conservation of the species. The park itself shares a similar history.
According to Reuters, the decision to remove the Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of protected species was made in 2016, during President Barack Obama’s time in office, then enacted and enforced after President Donald Trump was elected. At that point, wildlife officials believed that the grizzly population had successfully grown back to sufficient numbers that they could be hunted again. However, with the help of several American Indian tribes, environmentalists sued to overturn the decision. This activism and government action is reminiscent of how Yellowstone National Park came to be in the first place.
The World’s First National Park
In 1871, geologist Ferdinand Hayden made a geological survey of the western Rocky Mountains with the financial help of railroad mogul Jay Cooke, who was developing a train route across Montana to the Pacific Ocean. “Cooke realized that if he could promote tourism to Yellowstone, his railroad would attract high-paying customers,” said Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Calhoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. “He, therefore, supported the inclusion in Hayden’s survey team of a painter, Thomas Moran, and a photographer, William Henry Jackson. Weeks or months of hard travel over the Oregon Trail had been necessary until the first transcontinental railroad was finished in May 1869; and even then, the journey north from the train stop in Green River to Yellowstone was far from straightforward.”
Despite this, the men persevered and, among other things, produced a 500-page report and Moran’s career-defining painting The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This work of art and Jackson’s photography impressed the public so much that the following year, in 1872, Congress and President Grant chose to pass legislation protecting the park. “Congress justified itself by arguing that the land’s commercial value was insignificant by comparison with its scientific value and scenic beauty,” Dr. Allitt said.
Saving Wildlife with the Lacey Act
In 1883, 12 years after sending Hayden to Yellowstone, Jay Cooke completed the Northern Pacific Railroad’s transcontinental line. “It also built a luxurious hotel and advertised Yellowstone heavily, gradually turning it into one of the West’s premier tourist destinations,” Dr. Allitt said. However, there was one major problem—an embarrassing lack of animals. “This was the era in which the buffalo had been hunted right to the brink of extinction, and in which antelope, elk, mule deer, wolves, bears, coyotes, and many other species were all becoming scarce for the same reason.”
According to Dr. Allitt, the Interior Department sent soldiers to patrol the park in 1886. “They also set about rounding up wild animals elsewhere and herding them into Yellowstone,” he said. “Congress followed up with the passage of the Lacey Act in 1894, which prohibited ‘all hunting or the killing, wounding, or capture, at any time, of any wild animal or bird, except dangerous animals when it is necessary to prevent them from destroying human life or inflicting injury.'” Moving into the 20th century, these actions worked so well that the park was almost overrun with prey species.
The cycle continues today as environmentalists strive to maintain balance between too few animals and too many on park grounds. As last week’s decision shows, wildlife preservation is an ongoing process.
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt—an Oxford University graduate—has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School.