The Wilds of Yellowstone

Wild then. Wild now. Our first national park resulted from a desire to protect all that was wild in the West and to let the people see it. Remarkably, not much has changed.
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Wild then. Wild now. Our first national park resulted from a desire to protect all that was wild in the West and to let the people see it. Remarkably, not much has changed.
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Born out of an act of Congress on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park set precedent for America’s extraordinary and wild places. Even since before its creation as an iconic American destination, the Yellowstone Valley—nearly encompassing 3,500 square miles mostly in Wyoming’s northwestern corner and spilling westward into Idaho, as well as northward into Montana—has been a source of inspiration and legend, a place of geologic mystery and absolute wildness. The changes it has seen in its years are countless, including the people exploring within its boundaries, the animals subsisting off its bounties, and even the earthly face of Yellowstone itself. Nonetheless, once hailed as the emblem of the West, Yellowstone National Park remains a living monument of America’s wilderness.

It’s true—visiting Yellowstone in late July can make anyone doubt claims to the park’s lasting wilderness. Bison noisily lumber across park roads, causing back-ups for miles, and get comfortable if a bear has been sighted from the road. Despite valiant efforts from the National Park Service men and women who govern the park, it seems impossible to convince a minivan full of wide-eyed tourists that moving their car is more important than capturing a blurry picture of a grizzly in the wild.

Still, this is a place where bison and grizzly bears can be seen from the car—not to mention elk, foxes, raptors, wolves, black bears, moose, and countless other flora and fauna that are exponentially rewarding to witness when venturing away from the car. Yellowstone is the place where you can see trout jump out of the shimmering, meandering waters of the countless creeks and rivers, or hear wolf packs' harmonious howls in the night, or—true story—watch a brave and curious black bear startle a herd of grazing bison, causing them to stampede up a low-rising bluff where a throng of tourists were photographing the herd in Lamar Valley.

(While the word tourists often negatively suggests lesser beings of sorts, rest assured, they are impressively spry creatures when chased by archaic beasts that can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and run as fast as 40 miles per hour.)

An incredible geologic feature of the park is that Yellowstone Lake is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera—the largest supervolcano on the planet. Considered to be the reason for the park’s thermal activities, it is likely why visitors can—and should—soak in the Gardner River, where spring water too hot to touch pours from the aptly named Boiling River into the Gardner’s icy waters, creating luxuriously warm pools by the riverbank. Further south in the park, the geyser basins are home to the world’s largest collection of geysers, contributing to the park’s array of more than 10,000 hydrothermal features. There are about as many hydrothermal features in all the rest of the world.

In winter, the warm grounds around the hot springs and geysers provide a foraging ground that would otherwise be buried under the park’s snowfall, which can average anywhere from 64 inches at Mammoth Hot Springs to 292 inches at the Snake River Ranger Station (the park’s south entrance). In turn, the predators in the park enjoy the luxury of knowing where to find their prey during the snowy months.

These otherworldly fascinations have attracted both man and beast to the Yellowstone Valley. Native tribes, thought to have maintained a presence in the area for at least 11,000 years, considered the land to be holy and valued the lush hunting grounds it provided. When the first white men came to the area, their accounts of the land they discovered were so wild that civilized populations found the stories to be impossible.

Jim Bridger, a fur trapper, guide, and translator who was introduced to the valley in the 1820s and for whom national forests in Wyoming and mountain ranges in Montana are now named, told such accounts. It was widely accepted that Bridger knew the Yellowstone Valley best, but folks had a hard time swallowing tales of petrified trees near today’s Tower Junction when Bridger wittily added stories of petrified birds and their petrified songs.

Regardless of who told the tales and how, westward expansion was under way and people were developing opinions of how it ought to be accomplished. As civilization had spread northward, natural attractions, such as Niagara Falls, were overrun with prospectors, merchants, and tourists. The concepts of nature and wilderness were gaining public recognition, as was the need for protecting them.

Having traveled to the Dakota Territory in 1832, George Catlin—popularly known for his portraits of various tribesmen and women and the shocking Mandan sun ceremonies—returned to the East, arguing for a federally sanctioned park that would allow for the continued existence of the tribes and the elk and bison herds. In 1858, Henry David Thoreau had a similar sentiment published in Atlantic Monthly, asking, “should not we… have our national preserves…? Or shall we, like villains, grub them all up, poaching on our own national domains?”

At the close of the Civil War in the spring of 1865, grub up we did. With things tidied up in the South, all eyes turned to the wild and wonderful West, and the Army led the charge.

Fort Ellis, a few miles east of what is now Bozeman, Mont., was established in 1867 to protect the Gallatin Valley’s settlers and miners from local tribes. From it, some of the most influential expeditions were dispatched into the Yellowstone.

In 1871, Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane of the U.S. Second Cavalry submitted a report of the 1870 Washburn Expedition—for which Doane provided military escort— that, while being read at the Philosophical Society of Washington, fell on the ears of the Army’s commanding general, William Tecumseh Sherman. So impressive was this report on the strange wilds of Yellowstone that the general had the document officially presented to the Senate.

Shortly thereafter, the public was also able to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the travertine-walled Mammoth Hot Springs when images from the 1871 Hayden Expedition by artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson were commissioned and published by Scribner’s. This new public awareness then combined with the timely building of the Northern Pacific Railroad, providing Yellowstone with a solid set-up to be not only the world’s first national park, but also a world-class destination spot for tourists.

One year after Doane’s report went public, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill stating, “That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming… is hereby… dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people….”

Immediately, how to maintain and govern the park became a primary concern, but for the first many years, how people were to enjoy the park was originally left up to them, as resources for park management were scarce at best.

Instead, the government in the West continued to manage its engagements with American Indian tribes. Over the years, encounters and conflicts were numerous. The Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, Piegan, Sheepeaters, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Lakota, and Cheyenne were all tribes the Army came in contact with in and around Yellowstone. Some were considered friendly while others were regarded as fierce, but none were safe from westward expansion. As the railroad moved into their territories, tribes were corralled together and bison herds were slaughtered so as not to cause a derailment.

At the completion of the Northern Pacific in 1883, Chief Iron Bull—a leader of the Crow tribe who was not only known for his exceptional hospitality to explorers and soldiers, but also was a sanctioned U.S. postal carrier between Fort C. F. Smith and Fort Phil Kearney—made this statement at a ceremony celebrating Livingston as a newly accessible gateway to the national park:

The days of my people are numbered; already they are dropping off like rays of sunlight in the western sky. Of our once powerful nation there are now few left—just a little handful, and we, too, will soon be gone.

From that point forward, Yellowstone proudly advertised itself as “Indian-free.”

In the park’s inaugural year, 300 tourists made it to Yellowstone. In 1883, when the railroad made travel to the valley possible from both the East and West Coasts, 5,000 people visited the park, and hey did so with just a handful of authorities to remind them of the rules, which were largely unenforceable.

Thermal features were taken to with picks and shovels as tourists seized the perfect souvenir to put on their shelves at home. Park animals were subjected to such incredible sport hunting that many reached near-levels of extinction. Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, paints a stark picture of these events when he writes, “That summer buffalo herds were disappearing from the entire northern range…. Back in 1881 one Montana dealer had acquired more than 250,000 buffalo for his little operation; now, just two years later, he was lucky to get ten.”

For this and other atrocities in the park, the government came under fire for creating a national refuge but dragging their heels on offering it any protection.

Finally in 1886, three years after the arrival of the Northern Pacific, Fort Ellis closed down and Company M of Fort Custer’s First Cavalry took over governing the park from the new Camp Sheridan headquarters located at Mammoth Hot Springs.

The U.S. Army played an integral role in developing the park of today. Its tactical background helped to create the park’s infrastructure and its soldiers commanded respect from the visiting public. In 1900, the Lacey Act was passed, making poaching a federal crime, and a few years later, President Teddy Roosevelt—known best for championing the preservation of America’s wilds—allotted $15,000 to bison management in the park and banned cougar hunting in Yellowstone in 1908.

Of course, even today, wildlife management in the park remains a hot topic. Wolves were effectively exterminated from the park by 1926 and then reintroduced in 1995 amidst a firestorm of debate. According to a film illustrating the 2011 research findings on trophic cascades in Yellowstone National Park by the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University, the presence of wolves within the park’s boundaries has a beneficial impact on the park’s ecosystem by decreasing the number of elk in the park, allowing for better vegetation growth, which has led to improved habitat for songbirds, as well as a decrease in erosion, thus improving the quality of the rivers, which then benefits the species that rely on the rivers for food and habitat.

Because wolves pay regard to the boundaries of their pack’s territory instead of the boundaries of the park, they often travel into territories where they are not protected. A map in the 2012 Wolf Project Annual Report from the Natural and Cultural Resources of Yellowstone National Park illustrates that about one half of the 12 packs represented show movement outside of park boundaries.

When the packs do move outside park boundaries, they become an economic threat to the ranching communities that surround the park. Montana’s Department of Livestock reports that in 2013, 73 head of livestock were confirmed wolf kills. To protect the livelihood of these communities and in an effort to perform population management, each of the park’s bordering states facilitate legal wolf hunting. In 2012, a dozen of the wolves that primarily functioned within the park were harvested, leaving end of year totals at 83 wolves in 10 packs with six breeding pairs.

Within the park, however, the decision to bring wolves back into Yellowstone falls in line with the original motive for creating a national park—to preserve it. It is also the policy of the National Park Service, created in 1916, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein,” as well as “restoring native species that have been eliminated as a result of human activity.” Additionally, the park and the NPS were both founded with the responsibility of creating a place for public enjoyment and the wolves draw an impressive number of Yellowstone’s 3 million visitors throughout the year.

Those 3 million visitors per year, as mentioned, are a good reason to get off the beaten path. The establishment of the park was a direct result of those who were willing to explore. It can easily be argued that, even today, Yellowstone will reward those who are willing to tap into their inner Jim Bridgers.

By all means, view the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from Artist Point, where it is believed that Thomas Moran created his famous works. Regardless of the need to throw elbows to reach the railing and enjoy the view (unless you can manage to get there around sunrise), the view is spectacularly worth it. But, so is the view from the base of Osprey Falls in Sheepeater Canyon, attained by an 8-mile, out-and-back day hike.

Hiking opportunities are endless throughout the park and can accommodate all levels, but if you, understandably, prefer to view the lay of the land from the back of a trusty steed, Yellowstone offers guided rides from their corrals in Mammoth Hot Springs, Canyon Village, and Roosevelt Lodge. The Roosevelt location also offers stagecoach rides, as well as sunset dinner rides. And to really tap into your inner explorer, get in touch with one of the park’s many licensed outfitters, and follow the pack train into the vast Yellowstone backcountry—don’t forget your fishing pole!

Like its backcountry, the story of Yellowstone National Park is immense. It has the power to evoke emotions as varied as the characters who played a role in its development: the sense of something sacred, as the natives must have thought of this wild place; a sense of devastation when regarding all that was lost and taken in the process; a sense of pride, knowing that Yellowstone was preserved to represent all that is best about the American West; or a sense of supreme awe, because as grand as its story is, nothing printed on a page can ever do justice to the actual experience of hearing that noisily grunting buffalo, or feeling those bath-like river waters wash the dirt from your smiling face.