Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Events that helped mold Yellowstone

December 4, 2009, 12:12 pm
What would Yellowstone National Park be without its geysers, bison, waterfalls and vistas? While many of the park’s natural features seem eternal and unchanging, important human events have helped shape Yellowstone as an amazing American treasure.

“You can think of Yellowstone as a giant experiment, as a learn-as-you-go experience,” said Julianne Baker, an instructor with the Yellowstone Association Institute who spoke Thursday at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

Baker outlined a list of the 10 most important human events in Yellowstone, from the establishment of the park in 1872 to the reintroduction of gray wolves in 1995. Compiled by National Park Service historian Lee Whittlesey, the list focuses on human changes to the park that have had lasting influence.

Early visitors to Yellowstone arrived at a time when there were no hotels and restaurants, and park managers had scant funds or authority.

As early as 1875, the widespread killing of elk and other animals became a concern for many visitors, Baker said, adding that commercial hunters killed about 4,000 elk during the winter of 1874, earning $7 for each hide.

“This was the time when we first became concerned about wildlife” in Yellowstone, she said.

The arrival in 1883 of the railroad at Cinnabar, now a ghost town just north of Gardiner, pushed annual visitor numbers from 1,000 to 5,000. The influx taxed park managers and resources, and raised concerns about preserving Yellowstone’s unique features.

Baker said the arrival of the U.S. Army in 1886 “saved the park,” as poaching was rampant, and some factions were calling for removing a northern section of land from the park, or for returning all of Yellowstone to the states.

Soldiers camped the first year in temporary housing at Mammoth, where the January high temperature was 20 below zero and 67 inches of snow fell in that month alone.

“And they didn’t have Gore-Tex, just cotton and wool,” Baker said.

Publicity surrounding the exploits and eventual capture of Edgar Howell, an infamous poacher from Cooke City, highlighted the absurd penalty he endured for killing one of only a few dozen buffalo left in Yellowstone: expulsion from the park.

Public outrage at the lack of stiff punishment for Howell spurred the passage of the Lacey Act of 1894, which still provides penalties for harming the park’s wildlife and other “natural curiosities or wonderful objects.”

Baker said that automobiles, like the railroad, brought swift and sweeping changes when first allowed in Yellowstone in 1915.

Horses and cars traveled the same one-way roads through the park in 1916, but “they didn’t get along very well,” she said.

A year later, no horses were allowed, and a fleet of 100 touring cars whisked tourists around the park’s interior.

The creation of the National Park Service in 1916 defined that agency’s mission to “provide for the enjoyment of today’s people, while also conserving the wildlife and scenery, leaving it unimpaired” for tomorrow, Baker said.

“Therein lies the razor’s edge,” she said. “That opens the way to all kinds of interesting conversations.”

In 1963, the U.S. Department of the Interior released the Leopold Report, a series of ecological management recommendations that “established the framework for present-day park management,” Baker said.

The report advised using the latest science and conducting independent research to help maintain — or re-establish — the overall ecology of the area that existed before the arrival of white settlers, she said.

The fires of 1988, including several that were started by people, burned across one-third of Yellowstone. They focused national attention on the park, left lasting changes on the landscape and spurred intense study and debate about the role of wildland fire and how best to manage it.

Strong opinions about Yellowstone are healthy, showing how beloved the park is to many Americans, Baker said, adding that she would be more worried if people lacked such passionate views.

“No matter what controversies Yellowstone has gone through, that park belongs to you — to all of us,” she said.