Is nature running too wild in Yellowstone?

  • Yellowstone Plateau's Northern Range

    Diane Sylvain
  • Elk spend part of year on Yellowstone's Northern Range

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler
  • Elk summer in Yellowstone's Northern Range

    National Park Service
  • John Varley

    National Park Service

It's June 5, and spring is hitting hard in Montana's Paradise Valley. The Yellowstone River is over its banks. Water the color of creamed coffee washes around streamside cottonwoods and drowns fence posts. Storm clouds over the snow-heavy high country mean there's more on the way.

I'm riding shotgun with Richard Keigley, an ecologist with the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey. Our destination is the yawning valleys along the upper Yellowstone and Lamar rivers that straddle the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. Folks from around here call this the Northern Range.

Keigley calls it home. He lives in Bozeman, about an hour's drive north of here, and he's spent years studying the wildlife and vegetation in these valleys. But today he's uneasy. He stiffens as we approach the park gate in Gardiner and then shoots me a worried look: "I don't know if they're going to let me in."

The ranger in the entrance booth sees the truck's government plates and waves us through, but Keigley steers clear of flat hats all day. Maybe he's being melodramatic, but he's set the mood; I feel like a fugitive.

"They're scared to death of what I'll tell you," he says.

It's an odd remark coming from someone who spent more than two decades with the National Park Service.

In 1991, when Keigley first came to Yellowstone, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. Yellowstone, in Keigley's eyes, was what every national park should be: a place where nature was left to its own devices. In 1968, park officials had committed to a policy of "natural regulation," in which nature was allowed to run its course to the greatest extent possible. They closed dumps where grizzly bears had fed for decades and released the elk and bison herds from any controls.

The policy was radical for its time. The Park Service began to see itself less as an all-knowing manager and more as a pupil. Where the agency for half a century had shaped parks to fit the public's image of "pristine" or "primitive" America, in Yellowstone it was trying to step back and watch nature work.

"I was a true believer in natural regulation," says Keigley. "I thought the best management was no management. The more we messed with a national park, the more we messed it up."

Natural regulation is an ideal that Yellowstone strives for today. Caught in the limelight of the park's 125th birthday celebration, Yellowstone's managers are parading their image as the defenders of wildland integrity. Environmental groups have jumped on the bandwagon behind no-messing-around park superintendent Michael Finley.

But six years of research in and around Yellowstone have convinced Keigley that natural regulation is dead wrong. Today, he is one of a vocal cadre of scientists and range managers who say hands-off management is allowing Yellowstone to come apart at its ecological seams. And like a handful of other scientists who disagree with the party line, Keigley says he's been kept in the wings and even prevented from doing research in the park.

Yellowstone's managers are so entrenched in the ideology of natural regulation, says Keigley, that they resort to half-truths and censored science. "I believe the Park Service gives the public fiction," he says.

Wilderness or wildlife ranch?

For most visitors, the Northern Range is just a scenic drive between geysers and mud blubs. It's a good place to get a photo of a bison or an antelope, but it doesn't stack up to Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in grandeur.

For biologists, the range is unique country. Yellowstone contains plenty of high-elevation summer range for ungulates such as elk and bison. But most of the park's herds migrate down from the plateaus in the fall in order to winter on lower-elevation state and Forest Service land. Outside the park, they are hunted or, in places like the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, fed like so many cattle (see story page 12). Sometimes they wander onto private ranch lands, angering cattlemen, who see them as "the park's animals' running loose.

Even on the Northern Range, some of Yellowstone's only low-elevation winter range, the park's boundaries can't contain the roving animals. This became apparent last winter, when deep snow and brutal cold forced elk and bison off the Northern Range and down into the Paradise Valley near Gardiner. State and federal officials slaughtered hundreds of bison at the behest of Montana cattlemen who feared the animals carried brucellosis (HCN, 2/17/97).

Still, during less severe winters, many ungulates winter on the Northern Range. And since the 1950s, park managers have acquired winter range north of the park line, and worked with other agencies to allow the herds to move freely. As a result, many people see the Northern Range as one of the last surviving wild, unmolested grazing ecosystems.

Most important to this story, the Northern Range is the birthplace of natural regulation. The Park Service first instituted the policy here in 1968, after decades of heavy-handed manipulation by agriculture-minded range managers.

That manipulation began in the late 1800s, when park managers drove elk and bison poachers out of the park and decimated coyotes, wolves and mountain lions. By 1930, there were about 15,000 elk in the northern herd. Visitors were thrilled, but park managers worried that the animals would eat themselves out of house and home. So in the 1960s, they killed or exported thousands of elk in an attempt to bring the herd down to the "carrying capacity" of the range.

The slaughter peaked in the winter of 1961-62, when rangers shot more than 4,000 elk. People around the country watched nightly newscasts of rangers in helicopters herding elk into pens and killing them with hunting rifles. By spring, the herd was down to about 4,500 animals.

The killing continued until 1967, when public outcry prompted Wyoming Sen. Gale McGee to hold hearings in Casper. Hunting groups joined environmental activists to convince McGee and Park Service director George Hartzog to end the culling.

A year later, Yellowstone adopted natural regulation as its official policy. The northern elk herd, managers theorized, would grow until the range couldn't support any more animals. At that point, elk would have fewer calves, more animals would die of starvation and disease, and their numbers would level off. The herd would manage itself.

The move to natural regulation was a political decision based on scant science, wrote Alston Chase in his 1986 exposé, Playing God in Yellowstone. Chase called natural regulation "a policy of desperation."

Dick Sellars, a historian with the Park Service in Santa Fe, agrees that the decision to stop culling elk was politically motivated. "(Interior Secretary Stewart) Udall, Hartzog and McGee were getting so much heat for the elk reductions, they needed to get out from under the pressure," Sellars says. Only time would tell whether natural regulation was up to snuff ecologically.

For two decades, the herd grew steadily. Then, in the late 1980s, elk numbers seemed to plateau around 20,000, just as park officials had predicted. There were a few drawbacks - the trees looked beat-up and willows and aspen were vanishing from parts of the range - but the agency dismissed these trends as natural, mostly attributable to climate change.

Today, the National Park Service sees natural regulation as a resounding success. "There's no question that natural regulation is working where it's allowed to," says park biologist John Mack.

Richard Keigley sees a different picture. He believes it is naive to think that after more than a century of manipulation, the Park Service can step back and expect nature to pick up where it left off.

Herds that once migrated out of Yellowstone during the winter are hemmed in by ranches and cow towns, says Keigley. So each fall, elk stay put, avoiding hunters who wait outside the park boundary. Yellowstone's herds are "corralled and protected," says Keigley, and because of that, there are too many animals spending too much time on the Northern Range.

"I think it's unnatural," he says.

A legacy of manipulation

Keigley scans the hillsides as we wind into the park, and shakes his head: "This place is absolutely and utterly hammered."

Over the course of the day, we travel a good chunk of the Northern Range, while Keigley methodically builds his argument against natural regulation.

First, we leave the truck in a dusty pull-out near the park town of Mammoth and walk to a wet meadow. In the center of the clearing is a chain-link fence, roughly eight feet tall and surrounding an area about the size of half a football field. The Park Service set up this "exclosure" in the 1950s to test the impacts of ungulates on the park's rangelands. Today, the willows inside the exclosure, where no ungulates can graze, shoot up over the fence line. Outside the fence, the willows have been grazed to the ground.

An exclosure in the Lamar Valley shows the same to be true of aspen groves. Outside the fence, larger aspens are dying of old age, while young trees are chewed to stubble. Inside the fence, young aspens crowd the exclosure, and the grasses and brush billow like disco-era shag carpet.

Our next stop is near Blacktail Plateau. We walk up a hill capped with Douglas fir trees, all of which show tell-tale signs of elk browsing. Many of the older trees are stripped of branches as high as an elk can reach - range managers call this "high-lining." Middle-sized trees are high-lined as well, while some have been "girdled," stripped of bark all the way around their trunks, which kills the trees. None of the youngest trees has grown over a foot tall, and elk browsing has left many twisted and split.

The elk are so hard on the vegetation, says Keigley, that "in 2072, when Yellowstone is 200 years old, many woody plants will have vanished from the Northern Range."

Our last stop is Soda Butte Creek, a tributary of the Lamar River. I follow Keigley across a hiking bridge to where a dark boulder hulks half in, half out of the water. The top third of the rock is smattered with orange lichen. But there is a stripe, about a foot wide, between the orange and the waterline, where more lichen is just beginning to appear in bright speckles.

Keigley's explanation: Elk ate the willows that once rooted in the stream bank, and without willows and their roots holding the banks together, the creek "blew out," washing away surrounding soil and carving down through its bed. The stripe across the rock marks the distance the stream has fallen.

Keigley admits he hasn't published anything on his lichen theory, and that some of his thoughts will be dismissed as "pseudoscience." But he is in step with scientists who blame the elk herd for driving white-tailed deer and beaver off the Northern Range by ravaging food and dam-building materials.

A handful of university scientists have documented the damage done to the range by the ballooning elk herd. But inside the Park Service, scientists are quiet. Some agency scientists who have spoken up say they've been muzzled.

Richard Keigley has twice been denied a permit to study the effects of elk on Yellowstone's trees, but the Park Service hasn't been able to stop him from sharing his theories with anyone who will listen. Environmentalists across the board dismiss the claims of Keigley and his colleagues as attacks on wildlands management, but range managers, wise-users and Republican lawmakers are all ears (see related stories and essays listed below at end of article).

What's natural about natural regulation?

The day following my tour of Yellowstone, I sit in a hotel conference room in Billings, Mont., with a crowd of cowboy-booted members of the Great Plains chapter of the Society for Range Management. They're here to talk about natural regulation.

To say this bunch is less than sympathetic to the Park Service's ideals would be a wild understatement. They've been trained to look at a grassland, figure out what it can handle and loose cattle on it accordingly. If a range looks battered, you pull your stock off or pay the price next year, when the grass is down and the cows are hungry.

Natural regulation flies in the face of everything they know and practice. The policy is a glaring example of what they see as a double standard - one for management of the national parks and the other for public lands. The ranchers say that environmentalists regularly blast the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management for cattle grazing allotments that look much like, or better than the Northern Range.

At the head of the conference room stands a podium flanked by two tables. At the right table sit the defenders of natural regulation. At the left table are the dissenters, led by Richard Keigley.

Keigley opens the session. Natural regulation, he says, began as a reasonable attempt to allow the northern elk herd to come to balance with the range. If things seemed to be going badly, the original idea was that the Park Service would set them straight. Since then, he says, natural regulation has become "let-it-be management and see what happens."

Next up is Carl Wambolt, professor of range management at Montana State University, who has been studying the Northern Range since 1980. Wambolt shows a series of slides - historical photos paired with identical shots from the present day. One shot, taken in the late 1800s, shows Soda Butte Creek, the stream bottoms blanketed in willows. The contemporary shot shows the denuded valley I explored yesterday with Keigley.

"The National Park Service has convinced the public that everything is okay," he says. But it's not true, he goes on. "Overgrazing is a landscape problem, not just a wildlife problem. We're sacrificing a lot of landscape resources for elk and bison."

Finally, it's time for the besieged Park Service to respond. John Mack, (whom the moderator introduces as "John Buck') is a wildlife biologist who has worked in Yellowstone since 1989. He steps up to address an audience he has little hope of reaching.

Natural regulation is not "non-management," Mack begins, citing the reintroduction of wolves and cutthroat trout as examples of active management in the park. "The intent of natural regulation is to the greatest extent possible we allow the systems and wildlife populations to play out according to their ecology."

The misunderstanding between the Park Service and range managers, he explains, is a basic difference in philosophy. "Yellowstone is not a cattle grazing allotment. It's a wildlife sanctuary," he says. "We're trying to manage the systems, to allow the processes to carry on. We're not trying to say your management scheme is wrong. This is just a different system."

A different system requires different standards, he says. While the range might look trashed from a range management perspective, through the lens of wildlands management, it's perfectly healthy. "By all measures, Yellowstone's Northern Range is not overgrazed," he says. "It wouldn't make sense for the elk to eat the range into oblivion."

When pressed about the looks of the exclosures, Mack says, "It's not like we're hiding anything behind the fence. It should be different. It's what the range would look like with no grazers. If we put up an exclosure around Yellowstone and killed off all the elk, bison and pronghorn, we could get a lot of aspen and willow to grow. But is that what Yellowstone is?"

Last up is Michael Coughenour, a range scientist with the Natural Resource Ecology Lab in Fort Collins, Colo. In the late 1980s, Coughenour studied the vegetation in the Yellowstone exclosures. He concluded: "Basically, there's no difference between the inside and the outside of exclosures."

Much of the fluff we see inside the exclosures, he says, is dead, uneaten grass. The roots of the exclosed grasses - an important indicator of plant health - are no different than those outside the fences. Also, there are as many or more species of plants growing outside the exclosures as there are inside.

Coughenour acknowledges that more than half of the Northern Range has been hit hard by grazing. "But I've worked in the Serengeti, and if there's anywhere that represents a natural grazing ecosystem, that's it," he says. "That place looks heavily grazed. It looks like a lawnmower's been through it. If you have grazing animals out there you have to expect it to look grazed."

From the murmurs around the coffeepot after the debate, it's clear that Mack and Coughenour haven't won many hearts or heads.

"If I treated my (Forest Service grazing allotment) like Yellowstone National Park treats the park, I would be kicked off my allotment so fast it would make my head spin," says retired Forest Service range manager Chuck McGlothlin. "I'm not saying it should be run like a ranch. They should be managing for the basic resources that are there and let the rest of it come. They're not managing it at all. They're managing people and what they think people want to see."

Yellowstone under the lamp

The cowboys aren't the only folks who are watching the doings on the Northern Range. Scientists, environmentalists and politicians are all turning a curious eye on Yellowstone. Ask them about natural regulation, I've discovered, and you'll get an earful.

Rather than retreat in the face of this skeptical scrutiny, the Park Service has been trumpeting itself as the champion of natural processes. Last spring, it launched a major media blitz, sending reams of research to the governors and congressional delegations of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and to journalists around the country. Everyone also received a glossy report called Yellowstone's Northern Range: Complexity and Change in a Wildland Ecosystem.

In a letter accompanying the studies, superintendent Michael Finley lashed out at park critics. "Their definition of "good science" is science that props up their opinions," he wrote. "Our definition of good science is science that has survived the sternest tests of peer review ... There has been more new Northern Range research published in journals in the past 15 years than in the previous century. Virtually all of this science supports the idea that the Northern Range is not overgrazed, and that natural regulation is working very well."

The Park Service also scraped together the money to publish a massive study of the Northern Range requested by Congress in 1986. Of the 28 research projects contained in Effects of Grazing by Wild Ungulates in Yellowstone National Park, just a handful directly address the question of whether the range is overgrazed. Many of the projects skirt the obvious impacts of the elk herd and focus on factors such as terrain and climate that also shape the range.

Still, says Yellowstone's chief scientist John Varley, the study offers strong defense of natural regulation: "Not only are these grasslands in good shape, they're in great shape, given the semi-arid environment. If they're looking for lush green, they expect to see something this country can't provide."

Varley, a fisheries biologist with 25 years of experience in Yellowstone, admits the Northern Range looks battered. But large herds of elk and bison are bound to be hard on their winter range, he says. When spring arrives, the grazers head for higher pastures, giving the grasslands a chance to recover.

"The ungulates don't return until the winter-range plants have gone to seed," Varley says. "It's the ultimate rest rotation. The range is always rested during growth. It's only grazed in the dormant phase, when plants have stored nutrients in their roots."

That's OK for grasses, but not for trees. Varley acknowledges that aspen and willows are on the decline in parts of the park, but insists it's nothing to worry about. In 1872, when the park was founded, the earth was coming out of a 500-year cold spell known as the "Little Ice Age." During this time, the park received enough rain and snowfall for willows and aspen to gain a foothold. Since then, the climate has become warmer and drier, says Varley, and "you would expect water-loving plants to decline."

Allegations that Yellowstone is falling to pieces are preposterous, Varley says. "We have all the plants and animals that were known to be here when Columbus first set foot on this continent 500 years ago. If we are incompetent and malfeasant, maybe more land managers should be incompetent and malfeasant and the land would be better off for it.

"Let them sue us," he says. "I'd love that. That's where we'd get rid of all the value judgments. I'd relish that."

But it's clear that Varley's view of the Northern Range is as colored by ideology as the view of his cowboy critics. "Willows are a pest, a weed - most people are trying to get rid of willows," he says.

But overall, Varley isn't pulling his conclusions out of his pockets. He is backed by a legion of respected ecologists and the better part of the environmental community.

"We know enough about upland grasses. The grasses are OK. They're not being overgrazed," says Michael Scott, a representative of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group with a long history in the Northern Range debate. He admits, though, that the Park Service has scant evidence to support its theories on willows, aspen and other woody vegetation: "Is it good, independent science? I think you have to say no."

Still, says Scott, holes in the park's science are not reason enough to abandon natural regulation. "Critics are trying to turn the parks from natural ecosystems into zoos," he says, "and that's pretty scary." What he would like to see is more congressionally funded studies of the range as a whole, not just grasses.

While cautious, Scott seems hopeful. Agencies and landowners are starting to work together, he says, and "tempered, frayed relationships are starting to heal."

Looking toward a new balance

Before leaving Yellowstone, I head back to the Lamar Valley for one last look at the Northern Range. It's late afternoon when I walk up a hill to the feathery square of an exclosure.

Inside the fence, aspen grow 10 feet tall, and serviceberry is blooming. The sagebrush is thick and silver-green.

Outside, everything growing has been mowed down. The ground is stamped with the teardrop imprints of elk hooves and peppered with dung.

I'm fascinated by the contrast. Despite everything I've learned, the fence raises more questions in my mind than it answers. In this altered landscape, can we let nature manage itself? Or after more than a century of manipulation, do we have some responsibility to set it back on track?

In the valley, roadside pull-outs are filling with cars. People line the road, training binoculars and spotting scopes on the far side of the valley. They're here in hopes of seeing wolves - a piece of the Northern Range that's been missing for 70 years.

Perhaps the tourists are in the right place. Perhaps the answer lies with the wolves and their coming effects on the elk herd. If the Park Service can stay on its present course, we will see.

Greg Hanscom is HCN's assistant editor.

Note: the following sidebar articles accompany this feature story ...

- One scientist's forbidden fruit

- Politics tangles with science

... and these news stories and essays appear as related stories in the same issue:

- Jackson Hole tries "unnatural' elk management

- The buffalo underground: Now it can be told

- Will Wyoming warm to wolves?

You can ...
* order a copy of Yellowstone's Northern Range: Complexity and Change in a Wildland Ecosystem or Effects of Grazing by Wild Ungulates in Yellowstone National Park (Technical Report NPS/NRYELL/NRTR/96-01) by writing the National Park Service, The Yellowstone Center for Resources, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.
* call John Varley at 307/ 344-2200.
* call Charles Kay at 801/797-2064.

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