When a group of leading Montana citizens 90 years ago laid out the first great national park in the beautiful area of the Yellowstone River, one contingency they could scarcely have foreseen was that some day there might be more wild animals there than the park could hold. Yet that is the agonizing situation that has arisen today in Yellowstone and 19 of the other parks created since and entrusted to the National Park Service's care. And, confronted with a superabundance of wild animals and rising pressure from hunting organizations, the Service is about to come to a major decision: to permit public participation in a program of killing off the surplus game in some of the national park areas.
The mere suggestion that any form of public hunting be allowed in these traditional sanctuaries has started a controversy that promises to be the most bitter in their history. But the National Park Service now admits that it has not faced up to an issue that threatens the destruction of some of the very things it strives to preserve. Most of the millions of visitors will be astonished to know that in many national parks wild animals have multiplied to a point where they are destroying range grasses, shrubs, trees, streams and other park features, and that in these regions smaller species of animals have already disappeared.
Overabundance of large mammals in the parks has always been handled on a skimpy, hope-for-a-break basis. Operating on meager funds, park rangers have tried to keep animal populations under control by trapping animals for restocking game lands elsewhere or by shooting elk and buffalo and selling the carcasses to the Indians or to institutions. They have tried driving animals out of the parks to be shot by hunters across the borders, or have waited for severe winters to force them out. But despite all these efforts, animal populations have continued to grow. Now a drastic reduction is imperative. Last week Conrad L. Wirth, director of the National Park Service, told me that a system of public hunting will be tried this fall in an area yet to be decided upon.
Wirth avoided the term "hunting," preferring to call it "public participation in herd reduction" or "a tool to be used in wildlife management." He insisted that no general program of shooting by the public was being considered. Hunters would be carefully screened, he said, and would operate under strict control.
But Wirth's proposal, no matter how it is phrased, is still looked upon by many as the first step in opening the national parks to public hunting. Protests already have been voiced by conservation organizations, first among them the National Parks Association and the National Audubon Society. And protests also have come from numerous career men within the National Park Service itself.
An ill-prepared public
Now the question will come up for public discussion, and the public is ill-prepared for it. Americans have come to take their national parks for granted, looking upon them as wildernesses where wild animals are left entirely to their own devices. Not so. In the past 34 years 70,000 elk have been eliminated from the northern Yellowstone herd alone, but even so that is where the situation is most critical today. This herd once migrated out of the park into Montana, but with the country outside being cut up into ranches the animals now elect to stay inside. Only a severe winter forces them out—in 1955-56 hunters shot 3,900 outside the park, rangers killed 1,974 inside the park and 645 were trapped live and sent to state game ranges and zoos. But the total reduction of 6,519 set the herd back only temporarily.
Recently the rangers tried to drive some elk out of the park with a helicopter. The machine got about 200 elk started, but then they panicked. Finally some 75 frightened and exhausted animals staggered across the boundary, and hunters shot all of them. The park personnel decided never to try that again.
Two weeks ago Lemuel A. Garrison, superintendent of Yellowstone Park, took me on an inspection tour of this northern herd's range. In the Lamar River Valley he pointed out the sparsity of range grasses, the lack of new growth among the aspens, the willows along the river grazed down to almost nothing.
"The last time a white-tail deer was seen here was in 1929," he said. "Yet there used to be a sizable herd. About the same time the beaver went out along the Lamar River. With the beaver gone, we lose nesting grounds for ducks and geese. With the deterioration of the range we get silting, which gives us poorer fishing. We suspect the mountain sheep are going downhill. The winter range of the antelope has been invaded by elk and is in horrible shape. The mule deer are probably holding their own."
$30,000 for a crash program
Garrison has worked out a crash program for using rangers to reduce the herd. By trapping and shooting 3,500 animals each winter for two years the herd could be brought down to about 5,000 from its present population of about 9,800, and could be kept at about that figure. He estimates that the program would add $30,000 a year to present reduction costs.
Many of those who have studied the problem feel that public hunting would not solve the problem. They point out that in Grand Teton National Park, where a special act of Congress permitted hunting because of particular migration problems, only a comparatively few animals have been killed by hunters. From 1951 through 1958 an annual total of 1,200 elk hunting permits were issued, but the average kill was only 166 animals.
The same problem as that posed by the Yellowstone elk exists in other parks, though on a lesser scale. Seeing these opportunities, hunters' organizations continue to press for the opening of park areas to hunting. Resolutions to that effect have been adopted by both the Western Association of State Game and Fish Commissioners and the International Association of Game, Fish and Conservation Commissioners.
Most of the people who visit the parks are yet to be heard from. The few who know of the proposal feel that intensive shooting by large numbers of hunters would make the remaining animals more shy of man. But it is a question of hunters or money, and the public will have to make its views known.