History of Wyoming/Yellowstone National Park, 1872 to present

National Parks Development and Organization


To understand Yellowstone National Park's importance in Wyoming history, one must look at how national parks began to expand into educational, organized resources for the public in the United States of America.

A 1938 poster done by the Ranger Naturalist Service in the hopes of bringing more people to experience the natural history of Yellowstone.

In the late 19th century, it became apparent there was need for a sense of organization and management within national parks, which both were sorely lacking. This was an issue which began to draw attention early into the 20th century. At this time, Washington was dominated by men of science, and these individuals were vocal in promoting protection of parks because of the lessons they felt the public could learn from the natural history within national parks. When those also voicing opinions on a need for an organization asked for help in promoting educational and scientific use of national parks, many of the prominent Washington scientists responded. This lead to the creation of the National Parks Association (NPA).

Stephen Tyng Mather (first director of the United States National Park Service) and his staff in Washington, D.C., 1927 or 1928. From left to right: Arno B. Cammerer, Arthur E. Demaray, Stephen T. Mather, George A. Moskey and Horace M. Albright.

The creation was made official on May 19th, 1919 in Washington, D.C. A small group of notable male figures such as J. Walter Fewkes, a prominent anthropologist, H.K Bush-Brown, a sculptor famous in the United States and many more got together and signed articles of incorporation to form the NPA. The NPA was not the only service advocating for the conservation and protection of parks.

There was also the National Park Service (NPS). An important part of the NPS was educating the public about national parks. Two prominent figures at this time were Stephen Mather and Horace Albright. During the early efforts of Mather and Albright, it grew clear that there was a need for an organized national park system. For congress to recognize such a need and pass the proper legislation, Mather and Albright worked to generate public support for national parks, increasing accessibility and publicity. The NPS sought to establish firm educational standards for the national parks. It was on August 25, 1916 that Congress passed legislation giving birth to the NPS. The “Organic Act” as it was called, laid out the basic mission the NPS wished to achieve: “to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future nations.” The significance of the NPS was extremely important for national park's growth and development. NPS Bureau Historian, Barry Mackintosh, believes that the NPS, as well as systematic park administration, paved the way for comparable agencies. As time passed, parks grew significantly more organized, manageable, and educational, thanks to organizations like the NPA and the NPS.

Early Years and Animal Protection


Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant, covers more than 3300 square miles in area. While mostly located in the upper northwest corner of Wyoming, parts of Yellowstone also extend into Idaho and Montana. For generations, people from all over the world have come to Yellowstone to experience everything that it has to offer, including the geysers, animals, and scenery. Among the people attracted to Yellowstone were poachers, drawn by the large variety and number of animals in the park. In 1886, the Secretary of the Interior took more action to protect the park and Yellowstone came

Grizzly Bear at Yellowstone

under military jurisdiction. In 1894, greater action was taken and the Lacey Act was passed by Congress which gave full protection to wildlife in Yellowstone Park, with the exception of wolves and coyotes. This paved the way for future wildlife and environmental movements. The Lacey Act also imposed a $1000 fine on anyone who was convicted of shooting bison. Regardless, by 1902 there were less than 25 bison in some herds.

Moose in Yellowstone

Eventually bison from private ranches in Texas and Montana were brought into Yellowstone and managed intensively like cattle until 1936. Other animals that roam the park include bears, moose, coyotes, elk, and the Pronghorn antelope. In addition to bison, bears were also a main attraction of Yellowstone. For hundreds of years they wandered the park, eating berries, shrubs, and carcasses of winter killed bison and elk, but once humans arrived they disrupted the bears natural habitat. By the 1930s the bears search for food became troublesome, and with campgrounds popping up the bears were beginning to eat from the garbage. By the 1960s, it had gotten so far out of hand that the bears were approaching cars and begging for food. Yellowstone had to initiate an intensive bear management program to restore the grizzly and black bears' subsistence on natural foods. As part of the program, regulations that prohibited the feeding of bears was strictly enforced. The park is also home to elk, which is has the most abundant large animal population within Yellowstone. With the forest fires destroying their most heavily relied on source of food, the Douglas-fir, the moose population is also consistently decreasing. In this way, Yellowstone has a fragile ecosystem which has to be carefully managed.

Yellowstone and the Civilian Conservation Corps


The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was vital force in the development of national parks across the United States. Developed after World War I and during the Depression, this organization aimed to help decrease the number of unemployed youths in America. As a result of devastation from the war, the jobs provided by the CCC often involved forms of environmental restoration and disaster-prevention. There was a very strong sense of the need to re-create beauty among nationally and publicly recognized sites. To achieve this, many members of the CCC were put to work creating camp grounds and buildings within the national parks, many of which still exist today. The CCC are known to have helped to generate Acadia National Park (Maine), Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona), and Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota), among others.

The CCC was also vital to the restoration of Yellowstone National Park in the 1930s. In the height of the depression, funding for maintenance and improvements for national parks was scarce. As a result, public attendance at Yellowstone decreased by 12% in 1931, 3% during 1932, and 29% in 1933, and threatened to continue declining if action was not taken. To stop this trend, the Franklin Roosevelt government provided Yellowstone with a group of CCC workers who were mainly responsible for the construction of lodgings and camping areas, as well as garages for the Yellowstone employees. Some of these projects included the Lamar Buffalo Ranch and the residential area just below Mammoth headquarters. They were also responsible for basic maintenance of trails, basic security, and environmental protection against forest fires, invasive pests, and overpopulation.

Another main contributing factor to the decline of Yellowstone in this period were the forest fires that raged during 1931. These fires devastated the forests in the park, removing a significant amount of the natural beauty. With the goal of beautification in mind, the CCC workers developed a nursery where they grew trees to replace those that had perished in the fires. This nursery provided all the greenery for the park’s reforestation and beautification projects. The CCC were also in charge of developing fire-prevention methods to avoid another similar tragedy. They organized a flying squad to monitor designated areas for signs of fire outbreaks, as well as specialized crews on the ground.

Without the construction and beautification efforts of the CCC, the revival of Yellowstone would not have been possible.

Bison and Wolves in Yellowstone National Park

Bison near a hot spring in Yellowstone

It is estimated that bison arrived in the Yellowstone area before the most recent period of intermountain glaciation. By synthesizing several historical accounts from the time, it is believed that the bison population in Yellowstone in the mid-1800s exceeded one thousand. At this time, the area that become Yellowstone National Park was recognized through treaties as Indian territory. The Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, and Blackfeet bands had lived in the Yellowstone region for over 8,000 years and many other groups often visited the area. However, when Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, the land was seized from these tribes.

This appropriation was the beginning of the demise of the bison. Not only were the bison hunted for sport, both within and outside the park boundaries, but there was also a market for bison meat and hides for tanning. This demand inspired a surge in poachers who killed the bison indiscriminately. Others were captured for private herds. Despite the dramatic effect of poachers on the bison population, the most damage to the herds was done by the federal government. While the original mission of Yellowstone National Park was to protect the wildlife, it was quickly realized that by controlling the bison, one could control the Indians. Fueled by racial discrimination, the government dispatched soldiers with the express purpose of slaughtering the bison in order to control the ‘Indian problem’. By the late 1880s, nearly every Indian tribe was forced out of Yellowstone and confined to reservations and by 1902, only 23 bison remained in Yellowstone, the only native free-roaming herd in the country. With the passage of the Lacey Act in 1894, the bison were finally protected.

The bison were not the only animal threatened in Yellowstone National Park during this time period. Predator control was enforced in the park after its inception and the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves, native to the Yellowstone area, were specifically targeted. It is reported that at least 136 wolves were killed in the park between 1914 and 1926 and thousands more were killed outside the park boundaries. Many settlers in Wyoming feared the wolves and when the wolves occasionally targeted ranchers’ livestock, the overarching public attitude at the time equated wolves with vermin and sought their extinction. The preferred method of extermination used by wolf hunters was poisoned animal carcasses. By the 1940s, wolves were rarely reported within the park, and by the 1970s, there were no signs of a wolf population at all.

Wolf Reintroduction in Yellowstone

The regrowth of both the bison and wolf populations has been relatively successful. By 1954, the bison population had already increased to 1,477 and today it averages over 3,000 in a typical year. Wolves were first reintroduced in 1995, but not without controversy, with the Wyoming government still listing wolves as predators and many in the farming communities actively opposed to the idea. Despite the debate, the reintroduction went ahead and the wolf population in 2011 was recorded as at least 98 wolves in 10 packs, showing a real success.