Pre-National Park Service (1872-1916):

  • In 1872 Yellowstone became the nation’s first National Park, established to protect the park’s thermal and geologic wonders, not its wilderness.  In the early years of the park, market hunting was allowed on big-game species, namely elk.  In addition, the aggressive reduction by park managers of predators such as wolves, coyotes and mountain lions, was also occurring.  However, Congress did not provide funding to the Secretary of Interior for protection of natural features or wildlife in the park.  As a result, poachers were rampant in the park, and elk were significantly reduced.
  • In 1883 park managers recognized the loss of park wildlife and subsequently banned all public hunting in the park. 
  • Punishment for poaching was removal from the park.  But in 1884 a notorious poacher was arrested by army officials after he had already killed several bison.  The incident brought about the passing of a bill “to protect the birds and animals of Yellowstone National Park.”  This was the first time a National Park was given legal authority to arrest and prosecute poachers.
  • In 1886 the U.S. Cavalry took over responsibility for Yellowstone.  This came about as a result of an earlier army expedition to the park where it was discovered that massive herds of ungulates, especially elk, had been slaughtered for their hides.  They issued an order against all removal from the park.  Although Congress had not financially supported the Secretary of Interior in managing the park, it now supported the military administration of the park for the next thirty years.

Early days of National Park Service (1916-late 1960’s):

  • In the early years of the NPS, park officials continued to aggressively reduce predators in YNP.  Consequently, wolves were completely eliminated from the park by 1930, thus releasing the elk from loss due to predation.
  • From about 1935 to 1968, park officials controlled elk and bison with a "cull program" which aimed to shoot and/or trap and remove animals to meet an area’s carrying capacity. In the early 1960’s, the size of man-induced herd reductions led to public outcry and U.S. Senate hearings reviewing wildlife management policy in Yellowstone.  By the late 1960’s, wildlife management policy shifted direction.  They began a trial period of  “hands-off” management.

The shift to natural systems management (late 1960’s to present):

  • Although little information regarding the natural function of elk and bison populations existed to date, park managers were of the opinion that Yellowstone would be a good place to learn about how animal populations work in an uncontrolled setting. In addition, letting nature "take its course" allowed the National Park to resolve the controversy surrounding elk management. Public critics would be less likely to implicate park officials for faulty management when natural regulation policy has been applied.
  • The "Natural Regulation" Paradigm: In 1974, the park master plan states, “Yellowstone should be a place where all the resources in a wild land environment are subject to minimal management."  Under natural regulation, human interference should be minimal to non-existent, thereby allowing nature to control animal numbers. This policy is still implemented in YNP today.  In fact, Yellowstone is the only National Park in the lower 48 thought to be large enough to test natural regulation. Today, climate, forage quantity and quality, predation and animal behavior are relied upon to regulate elk in Yellowstone.