Yellowstone – The United States First National Park

Yellowstone National Park is internationally known and was first established in 1872 after a campfire suggestion a few years before. Members of the Washington-Langford-Doane expedition recognized and discussed the need to turn Yellowstone into a protected area, due to the expansion that was taking place since the end of the Civil War. They predicted that the natural wildlife and scenery would be destroyed, if uncontrolled development was allowed. They left the site after agreeing that each of them would try to ensure that the area became protected.

There were others who joined the cause and two years of lobbying ensued which included: presenting a bill to the House of Representatives in December 1871, displaying geological finds from Yellowstone and showcasing photographs and paintings of the landscape and wildlife. On March 1, 1872 President Ulysses Grant, agreed to the petition made, and declared Yellowstone the country’s first national park by signing it into law.

The Early Years

Yellowstone National Park covers at least 3300 square miles and offers visitors to the area the opportunity to observe geysers, animals and unique scenery. During the first decade, there were very few visitors to the park due to the difficulty in traversing the area. Those who braved the tour would have to do so on horseback as there were no roads and the trails were poor. Even after they had been cleaned up, they were still difficult to manoeuvre and riders would only be able to travel a maximum distance of 20 miles per day.

In 1883, the US Army Corps of Engineers began the construction of park roads, and other members of the armed forces started offering tours. This became the beginning of the popularity of the park as an attraction, as the number of visitors in that year rose to 5 times the previous annual count.

Poachers in the Park 

The difficulty moving around the park was not a deterrent to poachers, however, and as the bison population there decreased officials realized that intervention would be key to their survival. In the mid-1800s there had been as many as 1000 bison, which declined drastically by the 1880s because of two major reasons: 

1. Poachers – with an increase in the demand for bison meat and hides for tanning, coupled with the ease in locating the animals in the area meant that those who were trying to profit from the sale of these products multiplied daily. Bison were also hunted both inside and outside the park for sport.

2. The Government – Before Yellowstone became a national park it had been the home to several Native American tribes for more than 8000 years.  It had also been recognized as Indian territory in treaties with the American government. The land was seized from these tribes, who in turn became uncooperative when they were ordered to leave. The federal government realized that one of the ways to control the actions of the Indians, and force them off the land, would be to eliminate their food sources. Soldiers were dispatched to the park with orders to slaughter the bison, to get rid of the native ‘problem’. After the Indians had been dispersed, officials recognized the adverse effects of their action and in 1886, the Secretary of the Interior began using the army to protect the bison instead of killing them.

By 1894, The Lacey Act was implemented and stipulated that anybody caught killing bison, or other animals, in the park would be fined up to $1000. It also gave the army authorization to prosecute criminal activity which included hunting, capturing or killing any bison in the park. The protection of the Lacey Act extended to other animals including bears, moose, antelope and elk. The protection of wolves and coyotes was not a part of the act, as they were also seen as threats to the bison population. The passing of The Lacey Act encouraged other wildlife and environmental movements to begin.

One of the greatest influences in the implementation of the act was a highly-publicized photograph which was taken after army officials captured bison poacher, Edgar Howell. They posed with eight of the bison heads that he had in his possession at the time, to illustrate the horror of the ongoing hunting. Media coverage was extensive, and the public’s outrage was the final step in the act being implemented.

The passing of the act did not prevent the bison population from continuing to decline, however, and by 1902, it is estimated that there were only about 25 left in the free roaming tribe. Officials in charge of dealing with the dwindling population began to import animals from ranches in Texas and Montana, and they were monitored like cattle until 1936 when they decided that the population had grown enough to continue to survive without human intervention. By 1954, there were over 1400 bison in Yellowstone National Park and the population continues to expand.

National Park Service

After the government began conserving natural areas by declaring them national parks, there became problems with managing and controlling each one. It was decided that to regulate control a unified organisation would need to be responsible for their management. Stephen Mather began the petition for its implementation, which resulted in The National Park Service (NPS) being formed on August 25, 1916 by Congress through the National Park Service Organic Act. Mather became the first director of the NPS on May 16, 1917 and maintained the position until January 8, 1929.

As a government agency, the NPS is still in charge of managing all US national parks, as well as many national monuments, and historical properties. Its two key roles are: to preserve the ecological and historical identity of the regions, while making them pleasantly accessible to visitors.

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