One scientist's forbidden fruit

  • Richard Keigley

    Greg Hanscom
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

"This is the tree that started this mess," says Richard Keigley, kneeling for a closer look at the trunk of a scraggly juniper. The tree stands on a hillside above Mammoth, just inside the northern gate of Yellowstone National Park. Its base is as thick as my thigh, but a foot from the ground, it splits into two thin stems that rise eight feet straight up, ending in a plume of scaly needles. Bare of branches up as high as my head, the juniper looks like a lanky head of broccoli.

Keigley stumbled on the tree in 1992, while studying the effects of elk browsing on streamside willows. Its peculiar shape set him to wondering.

Using a tree corer, Keigley produced two thin cross-sections of the tree's trunk, one from its thick base, the other from one of its long stems. The base of the tree contained 58 annual growth rings, while the stems were just 30 years old. During the first 28 years of its life, from the 1930s to around 1960, he explains, the tree never grew taller than a foot. During the 30 years that followed, the tree sprouted seven feet.

What shaped the juniper?

Elk, says Keigley. When Yellowstone's managers allowed the northern elk herd to grow, the animals ate the tree back. When managers kept elk numbers down, the tree grew. "I can show you the history of the Northern Range in this tree," says Keigley.

And he does.

By 1930, when Keigley's juniper got started, more than 50 years of Army and Park Service management had made big changes on the Northern Range. Managers had cleared the park of hunters, coyotes, wolves and mountain lions. The result was booming herds of elk and bison that drew visitors from around the world. By 1930, there were about 15,000 elk spending part of the year on the Northern Range.

But park managers worried the elk were ruining Yellowstone's rangelands. In a 1932 report, Park Service biologist W.M. Rush said the elk were depleting grasses and eating aspen, willows and even sagebrush. Elk numbers stayed high for three decades, and seedlings such as Keigley's were eaten back year after year, leaving them dwarfed and split.

Then, in the 1960s, the Park Service culled more than 13,500 elk, knocking the herd down to about 4,500 animals. These reductions, says Keigley, were what allowed his juniper to achieve its present height. With few elk browsers around, the split trunk shot skyward.

In 1967, political pressure ended the killings, and the following year Yellowstone adopted natural regulation. Once again, the northern elk herd grew. By 1992, when Keigley first noticed the juniper, the northern elk herd numbered around 20,000 and the animals were eating the lower branches of many trees. This gave Keigley's juniper its "high-lined" broccoli look.

Keigley started seeing stories in trees everywhere. Junipers, cottonwoods, willows and firs all had things to tell. And the more trees Keigley looked at, the more he was convinced that the Northern Range was in trouble. Elk were damaging and killing older trees, and preventing younger trees from growing, he says.

Twice, Keigley approached Yellowstone's chief scientist John Varley about using the park's conifers to piece together a grazing history of the Northern Range. By using older trees, he believed he could see how the range looked before Euro-Americans arrived on the scene. The study would give park managers a picture of what the Northern Range looked like under "natural conditions." And if he was right, natural conditions were much different from what he saw in the juniper above Mammoth.

But both times Varley denied him a research permit. The first time, when Keigley was working for the Park Service, Varley told him he was deviating from his original assignment.

The second rejection came in 1994, when the National Biological Survey (now the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey or the "BRD') asked Keigley to study the impacts of elk browsing on conifers. Varley withheld the proposal, saying the research design was flawed. In a letter to Keigley's supervisors, Varley wrote that the project "has not appeared on your priority list or ours."

Despite Keigley's pleas to superintendent Michael Finley, the application was put on hold permanently. "We don't think (Keigley's) study design has merit. We don't think he can come up with reasonable answers," says John Varley. "(Keigley isn't) facing the real facts that he couldn't get his research design through peer review."

Actually, the study had undergone peer review before the BRD presented it to Varley, says Keigley, and the Park Service has never offered him any specific criticism of the project.

Keigley won't say how he thinks the northern elk herd should be managed, but he thinks the public and the Park Service need to consider all sides of the story. "There is nobody in this (debate) who doesn't have a point of view or a history," he says. "The best we can hope for is honesty."

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.