Yellowstone National Park is one of the most famous parks in the world. It covers almost 3,500 miles of lakes, canyons, rivers, and mountains. But underneath the idyllic scenery lies a cold, hard truth. Yellowstone has been in danger since its establishment…from the very people designated to protect it.
The (Mis)management of Yellowstone?
Yellowstone is the world’s oldest national park. It was created on March 1, 1872 when Ulysses S. Grant signed its existence into law. Early visitors such as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt praised the Park’s management of the wild land. But by 1934, a sinister truth began to emerge. Yellowstone had not been preserved at all. In fact, the very people managing it had driven it straight into the ground.
“It is probable that white-tailed deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone fauna. Add the grizzly to this list, and you have the carnivore situation at Rocky Mountain.” – Fauna of the National Parks of the United States, 1934
How did something that seemed so right go so wrong? The whole sordid tale was told by the brilliant author Michael Crichton in a speech entitled: Fear and Complexity and Environmental Management in the 21st Century.
What went wrong at Yellowstone?
The basics go something like this. During the 1890s, Park rangers believed that elk were close to extinction. They began quietly feeding the elk and encouraging population growth. By 1915, officials began to notice that other animal populations, such as antelope and deer, were in decline. Convinced that predators were to blame, rangers began to illegally hunt the wolf, cougar, and coyote. They succeeded in eliminating the wolf and cougar populations and were well on their way to doing the same thing with the coyote population when the truth of their activities came out.
Soon after, studies showed that the problem wasn’t an abundance of predators. Rather, it was an explosion in the elk population. The elk ate heavily. With less food to eat, animals such as the antelope and deer died or fled their homes. Overgrazing also reduced Yellowstone’s trees, nearly wiping out aspens and willows. Unable to make dams, beavers disappeared. Without the dams, the meadows dried, causing even more animals to disappear.
The oversized elk population was a massive problem with far-reaching side effects no one had ever envisioned. So, how did the National Park Service respond?
“Pretty soon the park service initiated a PR campaign to prove that excessive numbers of elk were not responsible for the park’s problems, even though they were. This campaign went on for a decade, during which time the bighorn sheep virtually disappeared.” ~ Michael Crichton
“Simplistic, Cause-and-Effect Thinking”
The National Park Service’s attempts to engineer Yellowstone didn’t end with the elk. For example, in the 1970’s, rangers began to move grizzly bears away from publicly-accessible areas in order to reduce lawsuit risk. Quickly, grizzlies became an endangered species. These sorts of manipulations continue today, with officials treating Yellowstone like some kind of giant experiment in scientific management.
While the National Park Service acted illegally and in secrecy, it didn’t knowingly set out to cause irreparable damage. Still, its good intentions led it to commit nothing less than an environmental disaster. In his speech, Crichton argues that the Yellowstone problem developed due to a reliance on “simplistic, cause-and-effect thinking.”
“So, in conclusion: What happened at Yellowstone? I would say, somebody really believed the world operated like this schematic diagram. And they acted on that belief. Because the diagram implies that things are simple: Kill the wolves, and save the elk. Move the grizzlies, and avoid the lawyers. And on, and on. It’s this simplistic, cause-and-effect thinking that must go.” ~ Michael Crichton
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Yellowstone is a giant slice of land, filled with all kinds of life and all sorts of interlocking factors that escape even our current level of understanding. I would argue that it’s far too complex to ever be “managed” by any single person or group of people. Unfortunately, this isn’t always apparent since actions taken today may not yield unintended consequences for years, decades, or even centuries. Hopefully however, it is a lesson that the National Park Service will someday take to heart.