Learning to Let the Wild Be Wild in Yellowstone

Part one of our series on the iconic national park examines the challenge of managing nature.

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part story, appearing in the May 2016 issue of  National Geographic magazine. Read  an abridged version of this story, and find more at  natgeo.com/yellowstone

On August 7, 2015, in Yellowstone National Park, a ranger found the chewed-upon body of a man near a hiking trail not far from one of the park’s largest hotels. The deceased was soon identified as Lance Crosby, 63 years old, from Billings, Montana. He had worked seasonally as a nurse at a medical clinic in the park and been reported missing by co-workers that morning.

Investigation revealed that Crosby was hiking alone on the previous day, without bear spray, and ran afoul of a female grizzly with two cubs. The sow, after killing and partially eating him (not necessarily in that order), and allowing the cubs to eat too, cached his remains beneath dirt and pine duff, as grizzlies do when they intend to reclaim a piece of meat. Once trapped and persuasively linked to Crosby by DNA evidence, she was given a sedative and an anesthetic and then executed, on grounds that an adult grizzly bear that has eaten human flesh and cached a body is too dangerous to be spared, even if the fatal encounter wasn’t her fault. “We are deeply saddened by this tragedy and our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victim,” said Park Superintendent Dan Wenk, a reasonable man charged with a difficult task: keeping Yellowstone safe for both people and wildlife. 

Lance Crosby’s death was just the seventh bear-caused fatality in the park during the past hundred years. The next most recent occurred in the summer of 2011, when two people died in separate events, possibly killed by a single female grizzly. After the first killing, of a man named Brian Matayoshi, the bear had been spared by Wenk—with advice from bear managers—on grounds that she was defending her cubs and the attack on Matayoshi wasn’t predatory. Because the Matayoshi killing occurred on the Wapiti Lake trail, she became known as the Wapiti sow. Later she turned up near the second victim, a man named John Wallace, who died eight miles away in what might have been a predatory attack. Wallace’s body, like Lance Crosby’s, had been partially eaten and then cached. Physical evidence didn’t prove that the Wapiti sow had killed him but strongly suggested that she had at least fed on the body, and so she was put down. The sorry events of 2011, and that well-meant choice to give the Wapiti sow a reprieve after Matayoshi’s death, help explain the decision to condemn the 2015 sow after one incident.

Grizzly bears, clearly, can be dangerous animals. But the danger they represent should be seen in perspective: In the 144 years since Yellowstone was established, more people have died there of drowning and of scalding in thermal pools, and of suicide, than have been killed by bears. Almost as many people have died from lightning strikes. Two people have been killed by bison.

The real lesson inherent in the death of Lance Crosby, and in the equally regrettable death of the bear that killed him, is a reminder of something too easily forgotten: Yellowstone is a wild place, constrained imperfectly within human-imposed limits. It’s a wild place that we have embraced, surrounded, riddled with roads and hotels and souvenir shops, but not tamed, not conquered—a place we treasure because it still represents wildness. It’s filled with wonders of nature—fierce animals, deep canyons, scalding waters—that are magnificent to behold but fretful to engage. Most of us, when we visit Yellowstone, see it as if through a Plexiglas window. We gaze from our cars at a roadside bear, we stand at an overlook above a great river, we stroll boardwalks amid the geyser basins, experiencing the park as a diorama. We remain safe and dry. Our shoes don’t get muddy with sulfurous gunk. But the Plexiglas window doesn’t exist, and the diorama is real. It’s painted in blood—the blood of many wild creatures, dying violently in the natural course of relations with one another, predator and prey, and occasionally also the blood of humans. Walk just 200 yards off the road into a forested gully or a sagebrush flat, and you had better be carrying, as Lance Crosby wasn’t, a canister of bear spray. Your park entrance receipt won’t protect you. You can be killed and eaten. But if you are, despite the fact that you have freely made your own choices, there may be retribution.

This is the paradox of Yellowstone, and of most other national parks we have added since: wilderness contained, nature under management, wild animals obliged to abide by human rules. It’s the paradox of the cultivated wild. At a national park in Africa—Serengeti in Tanzania, for instance, or Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya, Kruger in South Africa—you wouldn’t face such ambiguity. You would view the dangerous beasts, the lions and elephants and leopards and buffalo, from the safety of your Land Rover or your safari van, seldom if ever strolling through their habitat on foot. But in America we’ve chosen to do things differently, and Yellowstone, because it’s the first national park, an iconic place known throughout the world, which millions of people visit each year, is where the paradox is most powerfully played out.

Yellowstone is also the eponym of the biggest and richest complex of mostly untamed landscape and wildlife within the lower 48 states. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an amoeboid expanse encompassing two national parks (Grand Teton is the second) as well as national forests, wildlife refuges, and other public and private holdings, the whole shebang amounting to 22.6 million acres, an order of magnitude bigger than Yellowstone Park itself. Surrounding this great amoeba is a modest transition zone, where you will more likely find cattle than elk, more likely see a grain elevator than a grizzly bear, and more likely hear the bark of a black Labrador than the howl of a wolf. Bounding that buffer is 21st-century America: highways, towns, parking lots, malls, endlessly sprawling suburbs, golf courses, Starbucks.

Question: Can we hope to preserve, in the midst of modern America, any such remnant of our continent’s primordial landscape, any such sample of true wildness—a gloriously inhospitable place, full of predators and prey, in which nature is still allowed to be red in tooth and claw? Can that sort of place be reconciled with human demands and human convenience? Time alone, and our choices, will tell. But if the answer is yes, the answer is Yellowstone.

The Bear That Eats Flowers

The best overview of Yellowstone Park comes from 300 feet airborne above the landscape itself. So on a clear summer morning, I met Roger Stradley at an airport near Bozeman, Montana, for an aerial tour of Yellowstone in his yellow 1956 Piper Super Cub. He issued me a flight suit and a helmet, then showed me how to insert myself into the rear seat, a cramped space directly behind the pilot’s. I’ve been in kayaks with more legroom.

“You don’t get into a Super Cub,” he said. “You put it on.” Small and light, the Super Cub is still favored by old-school bush pilots such as Stradley for its capacity to land on and take off from short strips, and to ride the thermals like a condor. Flying slow and low is especially useful for surveying wildlife, and Stradley is legendary among the biologists of Yellowstone Park who rely on overflights for their work. A robust, cheerful 76-year-old, he has flown in the mountains for 62 years, logging a mere 70,000 hours.

We rose up over Bozeman, crossed the Gallatin Range, and flew east along the gently sloped north side of Mount Everts, named for Truman Everts, an unlucky man who went missing from one of the first expeditions to Yellowstone in the late 19th century and survived a month of lonely misery before being rescued. We crossed the Blacktail Deer Plateau, a loaf of raised terrain, where Stradley alerted me through my helmet headphones to a wolf den, signaled by bare dirt and dig marks beneath the exposed roots of a large Douglas fir. Stradley saw, though I couldn’t, a single black wolf lying there in the shade. That animal would be part of the old Eight Mile pack, he said, which had since fissioned, as wolf packs do when they get too large.

We traced the Yellowstone River upstream past Tower Fall, catching a flash of rainbow through the mist, and then crossed Antelope Creek toward Mount Washburn, passing over uplands patched with brown, dead trees burned in a recent fire. Good bear habitat, Stradley said. Elk to eat, plus lots of mushrooms—morels, sprouting up from the burn. “You don’t want to go in there and pick them, because you’re going to have competition with the grizzlies.” Duly noted.

We swung back toward the Lamar Valley in the park’s northeast corner, broad and grassy between sage-covered hillsides, punctuated with glacial erratics, large boulders from elsewhere left behind by the moving ice of the Pleistocene. We circled above Rose Creek, site of one of the acclimation pens from which Canadian wolves were released into the park back in 1995, after an absence of almost 70 years following their systematic extirpation early in the century. We could see yellow flowers peppered across the meadows of grass and sage—the rich yellow of balsamroot, the paler yellow of biscuit-root, which signals a tuber that bears eat. Lacking geysers and a great canyon, the Lamar Valley isn’t for everyone, but to some eyes it’s the most exquisite corner of Yellowstone.

We flew down the east shore of Yellowstone Lake into a roadless area, protected on one side by water and on another by the crest of the Absaroka Range. Near the south tip of the lake’s Southeast Arm is the delta of the upper Yellowstone River, a broad bottomland of willows, grasses, and shrubs in five shades of green. This day the upper river was brownish olive, reflecting fast July runoff from melting snow, though I noticed one oxbow pond, its water a deep, tranquil blue. We buzzed upstream in stately progress, so low and slow that it felt as though we were riding a kite. We crossed the park boundary, an invisible line, and turned east to follow a tributary called Thorofare Creek toward its rocky headwaters, where the Yellowstone, which is America’s longest undammed river (outside of Alaska), has one of its sources. This area, known simply as the Thorofare, is the most remote spot in the lower 48 states. “Thirty miles from anything,” Stradley said.

After three hours of flying we pointed ourselves back toward the airport, but first we swung over the Norris Geyser Basin, getting a nice view of all the little hot springs and ponds dotting the area in shades of aquamarine, orange, yellow, and chartreuse. Ahead of us then was the Gallatin Range, not as lofty and jagged as the Absarokas though high enough to retain snow patches and cornices at this season. On one of those white patches we glimpsed a cluster of dark figures and, swooping closer, made out their forms: seven wolves plus a grizzly bear, sharing a little snowfield at uneasy proximity and 9,000 feet elevation.

Stradley pulled up his camera, wanting to get a photo of the animals as we circled back. Now he was flying the plane with his knees. “I don’t know why they’re up so high,” he said. “What’s the attraction?”

Before I knew it, we were two mountains along, looking down on another bear, a huge one. This grizzly was on a flat above Fan Creek, munching contentedly amid a patch of yellow balsamroot and other vegetation. Again we circled. Stradley seemed puzzled. Balsamroot is not usually mentioned as a grizzly food, although the bear’s dietary choices in Yellowstone are formidably diverse, according to a recent authoritative paper. The list includes 266 kinds of plant, animal, and fungus, ranging from bison flesh to morels, from western waterweed to moose, and from chipmunks to 25 kinds of grass. Was the bear grazing? Didn’t seem to be. Digging up tubers? No. “Might be eating the flowers,” Stradley said. And it was possible: Kerry Gunther, the park’s senior bear biologist, later told me that balsamroot flowers have indeed been found in grizzly scat. So that’s what I took away, my last vivid impression from our eagle-view tour: a humongous grizzly bear alone on a hill above the Gallatin River, eating flowers.

A Work in Progress

The park lies atop what geologists call the Yellowstone Plateau, with an average elevation of 8,000 feet. Dense stands of lodgepole pine cover this great uplift, and high meadows of grass and sage, as well as some lesser bulges such as Blacktail Deer Plateau and a network of gently undulant roads, all across ground that appears cold and static. Don’t be fooled.

There’s a dramatic geological reason for the height of the Yellowstone Plateau. Directly beneath it lies a vast volcanic hot spot, a gigantic channel in Earth’s mantle and crust, through which magma rises, releasing heat that further melts the rocks, creating a massive plume. That thermal torrent comprises two magma chambers of partly molten rock, one atop the other, bulging the land surface into an enormous pustule. Around the bulge, like disorderly ramparts, loom mountains that are older and higher—most notably the Tetons, the Absarokas, the Gallatins. On the plateau itself, geologists have traced the evidence of three huge calderas, representing the scars left by three stupendous explosions over the past 2.1 million years. Those explosions, and the volcanic forces that powered them, have earned Yellowstone’s hot spot the label “supervolcano.” Ordinary volcanoes generally occur along the edges of tectonic plates; supervolcanoes blaze directly through those plates, like a stationary torch burning blisters through a sliding sheet of steel. And the Yellowstone torch, feeding heat toward preposterous eruptions, is likely the largest beneath any continent on Earth.

“It all starts with heat,” according to Robert B. Smith of the University of Utah, who has studied Yellowstone’s geology for more than five decades. While the North American plate has drifted southwestward over the mantle plume during the past 16 million years, the hot spot has left its marks in a northeastward series of volcanic centers, 500 miles long, from what we now call southeastern Oregon and across Idaho to its current location. The most recent of the three giant upheavals at Yellowstone occurred about 640,000 years ago, spewing 240 cubic miles of volcanic ash into the atmosphere and leaving a rimmed crater that now encompasses Old Faithful, the Hayden Valley, and half of Yellowstone Lake. That one is known as the Yellowstone Caldera. There have also been many smaller volcanic eruptions in the millennia since.

The implications of these geological facts are fateful. After the ash settled and the land cooled, the Yellowstone Plateau remained a site of extraordinary volcanic activity, its relatively thin earthly crust floating above the hot spot’s upper magma chamber, which heats the subterranean waters that emanate as geysers and fumaroles and mud pots and colorful hot springs, all penetrating the surface like whistles on a great calliope. Gradually the plateau’s forests regrew, its animal populations recolonized. Meanwhile a combination of gouging and splitting forces, including ice, flowing water, and geological faulting, opened a notch along which the Yellowstone River carved its own Grand Canyon (big and impressive, though not nearly so vast as Arizona’s), thundering over a pair of spectacular drops.

Humans arrived, distant ancestors of the Sheep Eater, Bannock, Crow, and other native peoples whose traditions still connect them to this place, moving on and off the plateau as their nomadism led them in search of food and furs and seasonally comfortable living. The place-name itself, Yellowstone, according to the late historian Aubrey L. Haines, may have come as translation of a Hidatsa phrase, Mi tse a-da-zi, referring to yellowish sandstone bluffs along a lower stretch of the river. In part because the plateau’s high elevation made for especially severe winters, Yellowstone wasn’t fought over, seized, and settled during the early waves of Euro-American invasion. Some mountain men and fur trappers saw a bit of it, including John Colter and Jim Bridger, who told tales. Much later, in the years 1869 to 1871, three different expeditions of more citified white men, along with some military personnel, visited the area and were impressed, in particular, by the geysers and the canyon.

One of those men, Nathaniel Langford, was described by Haines as “a sickly St. Paul bank clerk” who made his timely exit from Minnesota and went west after a family-owned bank failed. While playing a catalytic role in the 1870 Yellowstone expedition, Langford was a paid publicist for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Another member of that 1870 expedition, Walter Trumbull, noted afterward in a magazine article that the plateau seemed promising as sheep pasture, but he predicted, “When, however, by means of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the falls of the Yellowstone and the geyser basin are rendered easy of access, probably no portion of America will be more popular as a watering place or summer resort.” Langford and his cronies saw that such popularity would mean money in the tills of the Northern Pacific and of whoever else got a piece of the action, selling rail tickets, filling hotels.

The 1871 expedition, led by Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories, was more official—supported by a congressional appropriation—and included the photographer William Henry Jackson and the painter Thomas Moran, visual artists whose images subsequently helped people back East (most crucially, those in Congress) see and imagine Yellowstone. Moran created one especially thunderous painting in 1872, seven feet by twelve, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.” An agent for the Northern Pacific then planted a suggestion that lawmakers protect the “Great Geyser Basin” as a public park. Hayden seized that idea and, along with Langford and other minions of the railroad, lobbied for it, as delineated in a bill encompassing not just the geyser basins but also the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Lake, the Lamar Valley, and other terrain, altogether a rectangle of some two million acres.

The Yosemite Valley in California, which earlier had been granted to that state for protection as a state park, served as a rough precedent; Niagara Falls back in New York, on the other hand, stood as a negative paradigm. Niagara was infamous to anyone who cared about America’s natural majesties, because private operators there had bought up the overlooks and blocked the views, turning that spectacle into a commercial peep show. Yellowstone, as a great public attraction promising to bring visitors and money westward, would be different.

Congress embraced what the Northern Pacific, Ferdinand Hayden, and others had proposed, and on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant, compliant but no great advocate of scenic protection himself, signed a bill creating the world’s first national park. That law, not surprisingly for its time, ignored any prior claims by the Sheep Eater or other native groups. It specified “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” meaning implicitly non-Indian people. Within this park “wanton destruction of the fish and game,” whatever “wanton” might mean, as well as commercial exploitation of such game, was prohibited. The boundaries were rectilinear, although ecology isn’t. The paradox had been framed.

‘This Massive Slaughter’

At the outset, the park was an orphan idea with no clarity of purpose, no staff, no budget. Congress seemed to lose interest as soon as the ink of Grant’s signature dried. Yellowstone became a disaster zone, neglected and abused, for more than a decade. Nathaniel Langford, the failed bank clerk and railroad publicist, served as its first superintendent, at zero salary, and during his five years in the post he barely earned that, revisiting the park only two or three times. Market hunters established themselves brazenly in the park, killing elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and other ungulates in industrial quantities. By one account, a pair called the Bottler brothers shot about 2,000 elk near Mammoth Hot Springs in early 1875, generally taking only the tongue and the hide from each animal, leaving the carcasses to rot or be scavenged. That account doesn’t say how many grizzly bears the Bottlers killed over those carcasses, for convenience or profit, but undoubtedly the elk meat was a dangerous attractant that brought bears near guns. An elk hide was worth six to eight dollars, serious money, and a man might kill 25 to 50 elk in a day. “There was this massive slaughter that occurred here, from 1871 through at least 1881,” according to Lee Whittlesey, currently Yellowstone’s historian. Antlers littered the hillsides. Wagon tourists came and went unsupervised, at low numbers but with relatively high impact, some of them vandalizing geyser cones, carving their names on the scenery, killing a trumpeter swan or other wildlife for the hell of it. Ungulate populations fell, and then the carnage gradually petered out, Whittlesey told me, “until the Army arrived here in 1886.”

As an act of desperation, in the absence of any congressional appropriation for managing Yellowstone or any trained body of park police to enforce its rules, the secretary of the interior in 1886 asked the U.S. Army to take over. And with that event, an unlikely hero enters the story: Gen. Philip H. Sheridan.

Philip Sheridan is best known, and most infamously remembered, as a ruthless cavalry leader under Grant during the Civil War and, later, as commander of the horrific military campaigns against the Plains Indians. He advocated exterminating the buffalo as a means of crushing tribal cultures and resistance. But after he visited Yellowstone in 1882, a more appealing side of Sheridan’s character emerged. In this very different context, he deplored the slaughter of “our noble game,” evidently even the bison, and offered troops to prevent it. He also was appalled that a commercial monopoly on visitor services had been granted to the so-called Yellowstone Park Improvement Company, a new entity closely allied with the Northern Pacific Railroad. “I regretted exceedingly to learn,” he reported to Washington, “that the national park had been rented out to private parties.” And he made one radically percipient observation: Congress had made the park too small.

Returning to Washington, Sheridan led a campaign by sportsmen and sympathetic lawmakers to extend Yellowstone’s boundaries by 40 miles along the east side and 10 miles along the south. That would have increased the park area by 2.1 million acres, almost doubling its size. More crucially, it would have added adjacent lowlands to which elk and other ungulates migrate in winter.

Carried into Congress by Senator George G. Vest of Missouri, the Sheridan proposal failed. The boundaries stood. Those boundaries were tweaked in the 1920s and 1930s, to reflect stream drainages rather than abstract linearity. But the need for safe winter range by big herbivores—especially elk and bison—remained a festering problem, and it still festers today. 

The Untamed

Yellowstone nowadays is a great sanctum for wild animals. The wolf is back. The grizzly bear population has rebounded since a perilous nadir in the 1970s, now filling areas of the ecosystem, including Grand Teton National Park, where it hadn’t been seen in decades. The beaver has recovered from a long decline. The bison is secure, reproducing only too well, and spilling out beyond the park boundaries. Efforts have been made to protect the crucial migration corridors of the American pronghorn. Elk are abundant but not so overabundant as during the decades when they lived free of wolf predation. Bald eagles are doing well. By these measures, Yellowstone is a magnificently effective wildlife refuge.

It wasn’t always so. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, predatory animals suffered ruthless persecution within Yellowstone Park, both as a matter of neglect (while poaching was rampant) and as a matter of ill-conceived policy. The very idea that the park should protect wildlife as well as geysers and canyons was an afterthought, initially applied only to the “good” creatures, the game animals that hunters prized, the trout that fishermen wanted, the benign herbivores that visitors could comfortably admire, such as elk and deer, pronghorn and moose, bison and bighorn sheep. Although the U.S. Army had assumed custodianship of the park, it wasn’t until passage of the Lacey Act in 1894—an act “to protect the birds and animals in Yellowstone National Park, and to punish crimes in said park”—that Yellowstone’s caretakers had authority to arrest and prosecute poachers. The Lacey Act helped both the Army and then the National Park Service (established in 1916) protect Yellowstone wildlife, but it came almost too late for the bison.

By 1901 only a few hundred bison remained in America, about two dozen of which had found refuge in the Pelican Valley, a remote drainage northeast of Yellowstone Lake. Park officials managed to save those few, breed them with captive bison brought from ranches elsewhere, and eventually create a bison-ranching operation in the Lamar Valley—straightforwardly called the Buffalo Ranch—with its animals ranging free during summer and herded back in autumn, to spend winter in corrals eating hay. Another instance of the cultivated wild. The merits of the Buffalo Ranch were questionable from an ecological perspective, but as a reaction to the scare over bison extinction it was understandable. The ranch operated until 1952.

Horace Albright, superintendent of Yellowstone from 1919 to 1929, worried that America’s elk might also face extinction, because of uncontrolled slaughter outside the park and the harsh winters they faced on the Yellowstone Plateau. Albright is remembered fondly, but his legacy, like Sheridan’s, is ambivalent. He had served as a young assistant to Stephen Mather, the man chiefly responsible for creating the National Park Service, and he shared Mather’s commitment to raising Yellowstone’s value, and that of the national parks system generally, by increasing tourism. Large, visible herds of elk represented popular attractions, so Albright wanted them—even at the expense of other native Yellowstone animals. He instituted a program of feeding hay to elk during winter, hoping to keep them from migrating out of the park and into danger from hunters, and he encouraged his rangers to kill predators. Sport fishing was another visitor draw, so white pelicans, those nefarious trout-eaters, were suppressed by crushing eggs and killing hatchlings at their breeding colonies.

Persecution of the “bad” animals in Yellowstone dated back to well before Albright. Predators had been shot, trapped, and poisoned since the 1870s. One superintendent even encouraged commercial trappers to kill beavers by the hundreds, so that they wouldn’t build dams and flood his park. Otters were classified as predatory, that damning label, and for a while there was a fatwa against skunks. During the Army years noncommissioned officers and civilian scouts were “authorized and directed to kill mountain lions, coyotes, and timber wolves,” by order of the secretary of the interior. Wolf killing ended only when the wolves were all gone, not just from Yellowstone (by around 1930) but throughout the American West. Poisoning and shooting of coyotes continued until about 1935. But bears were different.

Bears were omnivorous and, as some people saw them, cute. They were also smart and opportunistic. Beginning as early as 1883, they adjusted to feeding on food refuse from garbage dumps near the park hotels, and that behavior made them easily visible and therefore a popular tourist attraction. They also learned to accept handouts from passing visitors, a trend that started in the stagecoach era and continued after private automobiles were allowed into the park, beginning in 1915. Albright himself encouraged the handouts game, leading people to think that bears—even grizzlies—were companionable, benign, and feckless. By the hotels at Old Faithful, on the lake, and near the Grand Canyon, the dumps became theaters where tourists sat on bleacher seats to watch the “bear show” on summer evenings. For 80 years Yellowstone’s grizzlies and black bears consumed humans’ garbage in enormous quantities, coming to depend on it unwholesomely, with the blessings of the park managers and to the amusement of the visiting public. “One of the duties of the National Park Service,” Albright wrote, after succeeding Mather as head of the service in 1929, “is to present wild life ‘as a spectacle.’ This can only be accomplished where game is abundant and where it is tame.”

But the grizzlies of Yellowstone were never tame.

Read part two of this story: Beyond the Yellowstone Tourists See, a Daily Struggle of Life and Death 

In a spectacular yearlong event, the National Geographic Channel series America’s National Parks will show you the parks’ natural wonders—both big and small—as you have never experienced them before. Learn more about the series.

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