Presidential Preservation: Theodore Roosevelt and Yellowstone Wildlife
by Jeremy Johnston*
On July 2, 1885, a review for a newly published book was printed in Forest and Stream Magazine. The author of the review was famed naturalist, George Bird Grinnell, one of the earliest conservationists who had become well known through his efforts to preserve Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone was under attack by railroad promoters, concessionaires and poachers who viewed the park as a money-making opportunity. By exploiting Yellowstone's natural resources, these groups were making a financial killing at the public's expense. Since the only penalty for poaching was expulsion from the preserve, hide hunting became very profitable within the park boundaries. The concessionaires, heavily influenced by the Northern Pacific Railroad, acquired leases of Park land up to 640 acres hoping to make Yellowstone into a pleasure resort for the social elites.
Grinnell felt the park should be managed for all the people. Since the general public had limited access to Yellowstone, many were not interested in Yellowstone's future. By using Forest and Stream as a mouthpiece, Grinnell was able to attract public attention to Yellowstone and to call for its defense. His first great achievement on the Park's behalf was assisting in the passage of an amendment to the Sundry Civil Service bill, which provided Yellowstone with a superintendent and limited the amount of acreage leased to concessionaires. The provision easily passed through Congress, but Yellowstone's resources were still threatened.
It was through his book review that Grinnell recruited a man to assist him the struggle to save Yellowstone. He was Theodore Roosevelt who was to become the one of the nation's greatest conservationists.
Grinnell reviewed Roosevelt's Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, a travelogue of his hunts and adventures in the West. Grinnell thought the book was charming because of Roosevelt's naiveté. Roosevelt's book, Grinnell wrote, included many hunting myths. "But it was after all scarcely to be expected," Grinnell wrote, "that with the author's limited experience he could sift the wheat from the chaff and distinguish the true from the false." Naturally, Roosevelt was not too happy being called a greenhorn, thus he contacted Grinnell to ask for an explanation. Fortunately Grinnell effectively argued his case and convinced Roosevelt that he was justified in his review. Roosevelt swallowed his pride and the two men became close friends. After their first meeting, Roosevelt often called on Grinnell to discuss their experiences in the West and problems causing the extinction of American big game. It was through this friendship that Roosevelt began to take on an active role in directing Yellowstone's future management.
In 1887 Roosevelt and Grinnell formed the Boone and Crockett Club to preserve vanishing wildlife and promote "true sportsmanship" in hunting. The newly founded club took on Grinnell's old problem of protecting Yellowstone National Park. All members agreed that Yellowstone should be properly protected and began work toward saving the park.
The Boone and Crockett Club's first challenge in Yellowstone was a proposed railroad from Gardiner, Montana, through the park to the mining town of Cooke City, Montana. The club organized its forces and fought to end the railroad proposition by lobbying Congress. The action proved to be effective but the railroad's supporters counterattacked by proposing that the park boundaries be reduced, thus giving the land needed for the future railroad back into the public domain. Roosevelt expressed his concerns: "It is of the utmost importance that the Park shall be kept in its present form as a great forestry preserve and a National pleasure ground, the like of which is not to be found on any other continent than ours," he wrote. He urged readers to unite with Forest and Stream "in the effort to prevent the greed of a little group of speculators, careless of everything save their own selfish interests" from damaging the park. "So far from having this park cut down it should be extended," he added, urging that legislation be passed granting more authority to military officials patrolling the park.
The railroad measure did pass the Senate, but Grinnell was able to have it killed in the House by printing a telegram from P. J. Barr, a paid railroad lobbyist, to members of the Montana delegation directing them to pressure the Speaker of the House Charles Crisp into advancing the bill. Grinnell printed the telegram in Forest and Stream along with an editorial titled "Will Speaker Crisp Be Deceived?" Crisp, embarrassed by the editorial, apparently was not deceived as the bill failed. The Boone and Crockett Club pointed to their first victory for Yellowstone, but many Americans continued to ignore the problems of the park.
It was during this time that Roosevelt began to realize Yellowstone's value as a wildlife breeding ground. Roosevelt did not want to see the country turned into a collection of private game preserves. "Shooting in a private game preserve is but a dismal parody," he wrote, "We need in the interest of the community at large, great national forest reserves which shall...be breeding grounds and nurseries for wild game." He decried the fact that the rich would be the only ones to enjoy private preserves, "but the man of small means is dependent solely upon wise and well executed game laws," he wrote. When the poachers killed off any Yellowstone game, they were taking away from the people.
Roosevelt and the Boone and Crockett club gained public support for stronger Yellowstone game laws following an incident in October, 1893. Soldiers captured Edgar Howell, an infamous Park poacher. The incident came to the attention of Emerson Hough, who reported Howell's "arrest" and his release. In an article in Field and Stream, Hough pointed out that the law allowed Park officers to punish poachers only by expelling them from the park.
Let us remember, then, first, that Howell was killing cows and yearlings; second, that the few buffalo left are helpless when pursued in the snow; third, that for a crime of this sort Congress provides no penalty! As this is written the word comes that the Secretary of the Interior has ordered the release of Howell from custody. On this basis he can now go into the Park again and kill more buffalo.
Hough was not the only one disappointed by the government's weak penalties. One week after Hough's article was published, Representative John F. Lacey, A Boone and Crockett member, introduced the Park Protection Act, more popularly known as the Lacey Act. The act forbade the killing of Park animals except when they posed a danger to human life or property. Anyone found in violation of this law could be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for up to two years, or both. The act also provided the National Park with a commissioner who would have the power to judge and sentence alleged criminals. Roosevelt's dream of making Yellowstone a game refuge came to pass with the Lacey Act. Now with a proper judicial system established along with stricter punishments for poaching, the human threat to Yellowstone's big game was greatly diminished.
After passage of the Lacey Act, Roosevelt became governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States. In September 1901, he assumed the presidency following McKinley's assassination.
Roosevelt did not forget Yellowstone's wildlife after becoming President. In October, 1902, Roosevelt wrote to Major John Pitcher, superintendent of Yellowstone, inquiring about the local fauna. "Will you tell me how things are in the Yellowstone Park as regards game protection?" asked Roosevelt. He went on to ask about the buffalo, the beaver and the elk. "How are the elk being protected? Is there much slaughter of them in the forest preserves outside the Park and is there much poaching of them in the park itself?" It is evident that Roosevelt wanted to see if the Lacey Act was working. Shortly after this inquiry, Roosevelt began to arrange a Presidential visit to the Park.
On Jan. 26, 1903, Roosevelt wrote his former hunting guide, John B. Goff, to cancel a hunting trip in Colorado. The President noted he was to see Yellowstone Park instead. In January, 1901, Goff had guided the then-Vice President-elect Roosevelt, on a mountain lion hunt near Meeker, Colo. Goff's pack of dogs greatly impressed Roosevelt by assisting him in the killing of twelve cougars. The pack was used for "treeing" the lions where they could be shot. In his letter to Goff, the President noted that Major Pitcher requested Goff's services in "thinning out the mountain lion population." Roosevelt added, "I do not know if this can be done at government expense, but if there was a chance of my getting off on a hunt with you... I would gladly pay the expenses of you and the dogs."
After Roosevelt was assured that poaching was declining in the park, he turned his attention to natural predators. "To deer and mountain sheep the cougar is the most dangerous enemy--much more so than the wolf." Even the antelope with their fleetness were falling prey to cougars due the varied terrain. Since the deer, bighorn sheep and antelope herds were decreasing, any program to increase their numbers was considered and predator control was the most effective. Roosevelt realized that a pack of dogs was the only effective way to kill off mountain lions:
Without dogs it is usually a mere chance that [a cougar] is killed. Goff has killed some 300 cougars during the 16 years he has been hunting in northwestern Colorado, yet all but two of them were encountered while he was with his pack; although this is in a region where they are plentiful. When hunted with good dogs their attention is so taken up with the pack that they have little time to devote to men.
When it came to predator control of cougars, Roosevelt realized Goff was the best man for the job. By hiring Goff, Roosevelt could kill two "cougars" with one stone. Goff's pack would be more than adequate for predator control within the park and it would provide the president with his long desired hunt. Roosevelt wrote Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock on Feb. 14, 1903:
Will you consult with Major Pitcher about having his application for hounds to kill the mountain lions in the Yellowstone Park complied with? He spoke to me about it, and I told him I knew just the pack of hounds--Johnny Goff's-- and he will have them sent up. I would like to know at once, because I would like to get the hounds up there in all probability by the last week in March, if possible, although it is not very probable. [Secretary of War Elihu] Root and I will try to be present at some of the hunting of the varmints in which case you can guarantee that we will obey to the letter of the regulations of the Park and that not a shot shall be fired excepting in the presence of one of the proper government officials.
The President soon began to worry that the hunt might tarnish his image. On Feb. 18, Roosevelt wrote to Pitcher noting that "Secretary Root is afraid that a false impression might get out if I killed anything in the park, even though it was killed, as of course would be the case, strictly under Park regulations, and though it was only a mountain lion--that is, an animal of the kind you are endeavoring to thin out." Roosevelt inquired about hunting in adjacent forest areas. "If I can fix it right I will have Johnny Goff and his dogs get in ahead of me, and probably shall send you my rifle in advance so as to avoid any talk of my taking it with me." Much to the president's unhappiness, his job was beginning to interfere with his hunting activities.
Roosevelt tried another approach. In March, he again wrote Major Pitcher about the mountain lion hunt. Roosevelt said he had instructed the Secretary of the Interior to send three dogs from Texas to the park. "It would be better not to have Goff if you have good dogs that can hunt," Roosevelt wrote. He wrote Goff to cancel his engagement. It turned out that the Texas dogs were insufficient:
Have tried the dogs that we have on hand and do not believe that we can rely upon them for catching lions. Please arrange to hire John Goff of Colorado with his pack of hounds, for one month, to report to me on April first if possible.
Roosevelt gave up plans for hunting during the trip, however.
On April 8, 1903, Roosevelt began his visit to Yellowstone. John Burroughs, the famed naturalist and author, accompanied the president, not hunting guide Goff or Secretary Root. Burroughs heard about Roosevelt's proposed hunt through the newspapers and from concerned citizens. Burroughs defended the president:
A woman in Vermont wrote me, to protest against the hunting, and hoped I would teach the President to love the animals as much as I did--as if he did not love them much more, because his love is founded upon knowledge, and because they had been a part of his life.
Roosevelt's love of animals is evident in his account of the trip, printed in Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter. He makes no mention of geysers or hot springs--not even the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Instead, the work is about the animals and their conditions in the park.
Major Pitcher met Roosevelt and Burroughs at Gardiner. The superintendent took them by horseback to his home at Mammoth Hot Springs, the park headquarters. Shortly after leaving the town, the visitors saw a herd of antelope. "They were tame compared to their kindred in unprotected places; that is, it was easy to ride within rifle range of them," Roosevelt wrote.
The party also saw mountain sheep and blacktail deer, all relatively docile. Pitcher showed the President the tame buffalo herd established by the new game warden, Buffalo Jones.
Jones is a controversial figure. Some praise him as the lone savior of the buffalo while others feel he accomplished little for the endangered animals. It is not clear whether Roosevelt appointed him as a game warden. Roosevelt was interested in the preservation of the buffalo. As early as 1893, he had written:
Never before were so many large animals of one species destroyed in so short time. Several million buffaloes were slain, in 15 years from the time the destruction began the great herds were exterminated. In all probability there are not now, all told, 500 head of wild buffaloes on the American continent; and no herd of a hundred individuals has been in existence since 1884.
Jones came to Yellowstone on July 16, 1902, as the new warden. He had once been a buffalo hunter, but upon the disappearance of the game, he turned to preserving them. He took numerous trips to the plains, roped his prey and brought them to his Nebraska ranch. He gained national fame and substantial wealth only to lose much of his money through poor investments.
When he came to Yellowstone, he brought a buffalo herd to breed with the wild herd to stop the decline of the wild bison. When he arrived at the park, Jones and Pitcher selected a site for a corral. Fifteen cows were brought in form a domesticated herd in Montana three bulls were brought in from Texas. Jones built a smaller corral for the calves captured from Yellowstone's wild herd.
Pitcher was tiring of Jones' activities and his negative attitudes toward the morality of soldiers serving in Pitcher's command. Jones resigned in September, 1905, but not before he had alienated nearly everyone associated with the park, including President Roosevelt.
Jones claimed he had become acquainted with Roosevelt in 1884 when he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Judge John Meldrum, U. S. commissioner for the park, noted that he and Jones had been delegates to the 1884 Republican National Convention. Roosevelt had also attended. As a result, Meldrum said, Jones believed himself to be the president's "old buddy."
During the Yellowstone visit, Roosevelt wanted only a few men to accompany his party and Jones came along with his pack of dogs. The first evening in camp, Roosevelt requested that the pack be sent back. That ended Jones' part in Roosevelt's Yellowstone visit.
The only hunting the President did during the visit was to capture a mouse. He thought it might be a new species and had it sent to naturalist Clinton Hart Merriam. It turned out not to be a new species, but it was previously unknown in Yellowstone.
On his return, Roosevelt reported that "elk far outnumber all other animals." He estimated their number at 15,000. Despite the relatively large number, he still believed predator control was necessary to protect other species. He noted that cougars were killing deer, antelope and sheep around Mammoth Hot Springs. "In this neighborhood, they [cougars] should be exterminated," he concluded.
Before he resigned, Buffalo Jones was to keep the cougar population in check....
Roosevelt went on a bear hunt in Colorado in 1905, two years after the Yellowstone trip. He recruited his guide, John B. Goff, to replace Jones in the park and wrote to Pitcher: "I should like [Goff] given all the privileges that can be given for killing lion within and without the Park, and bear without the Park, or if a bear turns vicious when within the Park." A. A. Anderson, the forest inspector for the Yellowstone Forest Reserve, arranged to have Goff hunt mountain lions in the reserve, too, consistent with Roosevelt's suggestion.
Goff set up headquarters at Gardiner, Montana. With him were his assistant B. P. Wells, a cook named Jack Fry, and Goff's family. Charles Heath, a tourist in the park, thought the crew was a band of outlaws. "The ladies thought possibly they...would fall upon us during the night and plunder our camps."
Goff stayed on the job for a year, but soon relocated to the forest reserve on the Shoshone River. Wells remained as buffalo keeper in the newly built buffalo ranch.
Evidently, the cougar menace was contained. Roosevelt wrote to the new park superintendent in 1908:
I do not think any more cougars should be killed in the Park. Game is abundant...It may be advisable, in case the ranks of the deer and antelope right around the springs should be too heavily killed out, to kill some cougars there, but in the rest of the Park, I certainly would not kill any more of them. On the contrary, they ought to be left alone.
Goff, who had purchased the hounds in 1903, sold them off. The cougars were not hunted again until the winter of 1913-1914 when Steve Elkins and a pack of dogs killed 46 of the big cats. Nonetheless, the total killed by Jones, Goff and Elkins in the Park was estimated to be no more than 111 cougars.
Despite Roosevelt's belief that cougars would keep the elk population under control, elk numbers continued to rise dramatically. In 1912, the former president wrote that "if nothing interfered to check the increase, elk would be as plentiful as cattle throughout the whole United States inside of half a century." The only solution he saw was adoption of a controlled hunt. "Of course regulation should be so strict and intelligent as to enable all killing to be stopped the moment it was found to be in any way excessive or detrimental."
But the policy Roosevelt advocated could not be implemented. Provisions of the Lacey Act prevented it. Further, park administrators were not enthusiastic about such a policy. Nonetheless, they did try to alleviate the overpopulation problem by decreasing domestic grazing in the forest reserves and by shipping elk out of the park. Neither was effective in reducing the herd numbers.
As Roosevelt predicted, disaster struck the elk herd in the winter of 1916-1917. The newly established National Park Service had taken over administration of the park before the winter came. Heavy snowfall kept the elk herds from traveling to their winter range. Many died and some people feared the species would become extinct. The park administration established an on-going policy of feeding hay to the elk. Roosevelt said the feeding would only compound the problem by once again raising the elk population to a level that could not be sustained naturally. His suggestions were ignored. Two years later, on January 6, 1919, Roosevelt died.
During his years of involvement with the park, Theodore Roosevelt demonstrated a rare understanding of the Park's wildlife. He understood the need to protect threatened species in a time when progress crowded out environmental concerns. But he also understood the dangers of unlimited population growth of large animals at a time when others believed such increases were essential. The president, who had studied natural history and had hunted extensively in the West, recognized the role of predators in the ecosystem. He believed in only limited predator control in an ear when many believed all predators had to be exterminated. As an environmentalist, he was a man before his time.