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The Art and Science behind Yellowstone’s Conservation History

05/08/17 By Hannah Davis


When most people think about Yellowstone National Park, they probably think about its 10,000 geysers – more than anywhere in the entire world – or they may think about its expansive plains full of bears, wolves, elk and the endangered bison. However, for Heather White, president and CEO of Yellowstone Forever, “Yellowstone is a reflection of our idea of conservation management.” 


Heather White told an audience at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College on April 27 how the history of Yellowstone has influenced the United States’ conservation management today. 


Yellowstone National Park was the first national park due to the efforts of brave western explorers and artists. In the very beginning, there were tales of western expansion explorers, such as Jim Bridger, who brought back stories of “mountains made of glass,” “boiling rivers,” and “hissing fumaroles,” which are volcanic vents. However, it wasn’t until artists started to accompany mountain explorers on these journeys that people actually started to believe these accounts. In fact, paintings by Thomas Moran and photographs by William Henry Jackson were some of the strongest arguments used in the lobbying efforts to convince congress that Yellowstone was a land so uniquely beautiful that it needed to be protected. And so in 1872, it was established as the first national park.


Photography was also mildly responsible for the first law in Yellowstone and one of the first conservation regulations, the Lacey Act. This act came about because of a bison poacher named Edgar Howell. In 1914, there were only around 200 bison left in the entire world. When the photos of the poached bison were published in the widely circulated ancestor to Field and Stream magazine, they surprised the world. The Lacey Act, which prohibits the trade of illegally-taken wildlife, passed soon after. 


However, White admitted that there have been some bumps along the way with the preservation of Yellowstone. For instance, the park administration decided in its infancy that getting rid of all of the wolves was a good idea so they would not harm tourists. They also set up lights and lookouts around the dumpsters so tourists could watch bears dig through the trash. They were quick to realize, later, that these ideas were the best in terms of the conservation of the natural elements of the park. White believes that these incidents serve as good tools to look back on “what our best thinking [was] in that time period” and that “as conservation management has grown, so have our laws in Yellowstone.” 


Since then, wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone and National Park Service personnel were able to witness firsthand the positive ecological impact of their return. For instance, the overpopulated elk numbers soon came under control with the reintroduction of the wolves. Then, with fewer elk, there was an increase in the number of aspen trees in the forests, which elk used for food. Then finally, with more aspen trees, there were more trees for beavers to make dams that help filter toxins out of the streams. These conservation efforts are why White believes that everyone should get “a moment to experience the magic and mystery” of Yellowstone National Park. 


Yellowstone Forever is the official nonprofit partner of Yellowstone National Park. It is a merger between the two non-profits, Yellowstone Association and the Yellowstone Park Foundation, which now has the goal of giving everyone the opportunity to experience, enhance and preserve the Yellowstone National Park forever.

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