Protection of the Yellowstone National Park

by George S. Anderson

The first regular expedition to enter the region now embraced within the limits of the National Park was the Washburn party of 1870.

In the summer of 1871 two parties—one under Captain J. W. Barlow, U. S. Engineers, and the other under Dr. F. V. Hayden, U. S. Geological Survey—made pretty thorough scientific explorations of the whole area.

As a result of the reports made by these two parties, and largely through the influence of Dr. Hayden, the organic act of March 1, 1872, was passed, setting aside a certain designated "tract of land as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." It further provided that this Park should be "under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior, whose duty it shall be, as soon as practicable, to make and publish such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary or proper for the care and management of the same. Such regulations shall provide for the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities or wonders within the Park.

"He shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said Park, and against their capture or destruction for the purpose of merchandise or profit.

"And generally shall be authorized to take all such measures as shall be necessary or proper to fully carry out the objects or purposes of this act."

It will be seen that "timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities and wonders" were, by the terms of the law, protected from "injury or spoliation." The Secretary of the Interior must, by regulation, "provide against the wanton destruction of fish and game," and against their "capture for the purpose of merchandise or profit." The Park proper includes nearly 3,600 square miles, but under the act of 1891 a timber reserve was set aside, adding about twenty-five miles on the east and about eight on the south, making the total area nearly 5,600 square miles. By an order of the Secretary of the Interior, dated April 14, 1891, this addition was placed under the control of the Acting Superintendent of the Park, "with the same rules and regulations" as in the Park; it thus in every respect became a part of the Park itself.

Dr. Hayden drew the Park bill from his personal observations, made in the summer of 1871. At that time the territorial lines were not run, and their exact location was not known. He consequently chose for his initial points the natural features of the ground, and made his lines meridians and parallels of latitude. His selections seem almost a work of inspiration. The north line takes in the low slopes on the north of Mt. Everts and the valley of the East Fork of the Yellowstone, where the elk, deer, antelope and mountain sheep winter by thousands; it leaves outside every foot of land adapted to agriculture; also—and this is more important than all—it passes over the rugged and inaccessible summits of the snowy range, where the hardiest vandal dare not put his shack.

The east line might have been placed where the timber reserve line now runs without much damage to material interests; but in that case the owners of prospect holes about Cooke City would have long since secured segregation. As the line runs, it is secured by the impassable Absarokas—the summer home of large herds of mountain sheep—and it includes not a foot of land of a dime's value to mortal man. Both south and west lines are protected by mountain heights, and they exclude every foot of land of any value for agriculture, or even for the grazing of domestic cattle.

The experiment was once made of wintering a herd of cattle in the lowest part of the Park—the Falls River meadows, in the extreme southwest corner—and, I believe, not a hoof survived. Their bones by the hundreds now whiten the fair valley.

Following the act of dedication, Mr. N. P. Langford was on May 10, 1872, appointed superintendent, without salary. He was directed to "apply any money which may be received from leases to carrying out the object of the act." He never lived in the Park, never drew a salary, and never, except by reports and recommendations, did anything for its protection. In his first report he suggests that "wild game of all kinds be protected by law," that trapping be prohibited, and that the timber be protected from the axman and from fires. Unfortunately I am unable to possess myself of any of his subsequent reports; but I know that he toiled earnestly and without pay—and to no results.

On April 18, 1877, Mr. P. W. Norris was appointed to succeed him. He also served for love until July 5, 1878, when appropriations began, and something was done for "Park protection." In his report for 1879 he speaks of having stopped the killing of bison, and says that other game, although "grown shy by the usually harmless fusillade of tourists," was in "abundance for our largest parties." He also protected the wonders by breaking them off with ax and crowbar, and shipping them by the carload to Washington and elsewhere. His men did their best to protect the forests from fires, and with only fair success. By this report (1879) it seems that "no white men have ever spent an entire winter at the Mammoth Hot Springs"; he strongly recommended game protection, but not the prohibition of hunting. There was then but a single game superintendent, and he without authority to act. As at present, the main trouble was with the "Clark's Fork" people. The regulations permitted hunting for "recreation" or "for food," which would always be made to cover the object of any captured poacher.

Major Norris was doubtless a valuable man for the place and the time; but, as he expressed it in a manifesto dated July 1, 1881, and headed "Mountain Comrades," "The construction of roads and bridle paths will be our main object," to which he added the work of "explorations and research." His entire force lived upon game, which was hunted only in season, and preserved, or jerked, for a supply for the remainder of the year. He was succeeded by Mr. P. H. Conger on February 2, 1882, but Mr. Conger did not arrive until May 22 following, when he seems to have fallen full upon the trials and the tribulations that have beset his successors. He reported the necessity for protecting the wonders and the game, but seems to have accomplished nothing in either direction. His reports are largely made up of lists of the distinguished visitors by whose hand-shake he was anointed. He was relieved in August, 1884, by Mr. R. E. Carpenter, who was removed in May, 1885, without accomplishing anything. Mr. David W. Wear was next in succession, and remained until legislated out of office in August, 1886. Nothing of value seems to have been done in these two administrations. In the sundry civil appropriation bill for 1886-87 the item for the protection and improvement of the Park was omitted. By the act of March 3, 1883, the Secretary of War was authorized, on request from the Secretary of the Interior, to detail part of the army for duty in the Park, the commander of the troops to be the acting superintendent. As there was no money appropriated to pay the old officers, they, of course, had business elsewhere. Captain Moses Harris, First Cavalry, was the first detailed under the new regime. He arrived there on August 17, 1886, and assumed control on the 20th. From this time on things assumed a different aspect. He had the assistance of a disciplined troop of cavalry, and he used it with energy and discretion. It very soon became unsafe to trespass in the Park, winter or summer, and load upon load of confiscated property testified to the number of his captures. His reports show the heroic efforts made to prevent and extinguish fires, to prevent the defacement of the geysers and other formations, and to protect the game. In his report for 1887 he pays his respects to our enemies from "the northern and eastern borders"—the same hand that has continued to depredate until this day. He speaks of the "immense herds of elk that have passed the winter along the traveled road from Gardiner to Cooke City," and he goes on to say that "but little efficient protection can be afforded to this species of game except upon the Yellowstone and its tributaries." He remained in charge until June 1, 1889, when he transferred his duties to Captain F. A. Boutelle, and in the three years of his rule he inaugurated and put in motion most of the protective measures now in use.

Captain Boutelle, in succession to Captain Harris, continued his methods, and protection prospered. Meantime, in 1889, an additional troop of cavalry was detailed for duty in the Park in the summer, and had station at the Lower Geyser Basin. The principal use of this troop was in protecting the formations and the forests, but the work was well done and the foundation was laid for future efficiency.

I came to the Park in February, 1891, in succession to Captain Boutelle. On his departure there was only one man left here familiar with the Park and its needs, and that was Ed. Wilson, the scout. He had been a trapper himself, and was thoroughly familiar with every species of game and its haunts and habits. He was brave as Cæsar, but feared the mysterious and unseen. He preferred to operate alone by night and in storms; he knew every foot of the Park, and knew it better than any other man has yet known it; he knew its enemies and the practical direction of their enmity. He came to me one morning and reported that a man named Van Dyck was trapping beaver near Soda Butte; that he spent his days on the highest points in the neighborhood, and with a glass scanned every approach; and that the only way to get him was to go alone, by night, and approach the position from the rear, over Specimen Mountain. To this I readily assented, and at 9 that night, in as bad a storm as I ever saw, Wilson started out for the forty-mile trip. He reached a high point near the one occupied by Van Dyck, saw him visit his traps in the twilight and return to his camp, where at daybreak the next morning Wilson came upon him while sleeping, photographed him with his own kodak, and then awakened him and brought him to the post. But, unfortunately for the cause of Park protection, Wilson disappeared in July of that year, and his remains were found a mile from headquarters in the June following. That left me unsupported by anyone who knew the place and its foes; I was fortunate, however, in having as his successor Felix Burgess, who for more than three years has ably, bravely and intelligently performed the perilous and thankless duties of the position.

But before going on with a description of my own work in the Park, I will say a few words of my predecessors. In looking over the list, I think I can, without disparagement of the rest, single out three for especial mention.

Langford was an explorer and pioneer; by his writings he made the Park known to this country and to the whole world. He was an enthusiast and his enthusiasm was contagious. Protection was not yet needed, but a knowledge of the place was, and to this he largely contributed. He was the proper man and he came at the proper time.

Next came Major Norris. To him protection was a minor or unconsidered subject. His "usually harmless fusillade of tourists" reminds one of Paddy's remark to his master: "Did I hit the deer, Pat?" "No, my lord, but you made him l'ave the place." For his time he was exactly suited; he penetrated every remote nook and corner; built roads, blazed trails, and in general made accessible all the wonders written of and described by Mr. Langford. Protection was not yet due, but it was on the road and close at hand.

For this part of the work Major Harris was an ideal selection, and he came none too soon. Austere, correct, unyielding, he was a terror to evil doers. And, after all, is there anything more disagreeable than a man who is always right? I believe Major Harris was always sure he was right before he acted, and then no fear of consequences deterred him. He once arrested a man for defacing the formations at the Upper Basin. The man confessed that he had done it, but that it was a small offense, and that if put out of the Park for it he would publish the Major in all the Montana papers. He was put out, and the Major was vilified in a manner with which I am personally very familiar. The next year this same man was sent to the penitentiary for one year for "holding up" one of the Park coaches in the Gardiner Cañon. In 1891 I derived great assistance in the protection of the wonders and the forests from Captain Edwards, who, with his troop, had served in the Park before. Unfortunately he had to leave in the autumn, and I was again left alone with my ignorance and my good intentions.

In May, 1892, Troop D of the Sixth Cavalry was sent to my assistance. Captain Scott was in command, and he has remained until the present time. Hard as iron, tireless and fearless, he has been an invaluable assistant in all that pertains to Park protection.

In protecting the beauties and wonders of the Park from vandalism, the main things to be contended against were the propensities of women to gather "specimens," and of men to advertise their folly by writing their names on everything beautiful within their reach. Small squads of soldiers were put on guard at each of the geyser basins, and at other points where protection was needful, with orders to arrest and threaten with expulsion anyone found breaking off or gathering specimens. Only a few examples were needed to materially diminish this evil. Of course, it still continued in small degree, but those who indulged in it had to be at great pains to conceal their operations, and this of itself greatly reduced the destruction. I personally engaged in a long controversy with a reverend despoiler, whom I detected in the act of breaking off a specimen. A large part of his defense was that, as I had on no uniform, he did not know it was necessary to be watchful and careful in my presence.

The names of the vain glared at one from every bit of formation, and from every place where the ingenuity of vanity could place them. Primarily I ordered that every man found writing his name on the formations should be sent back and made to erase it. I once sent a man from the Mammoth Springs and once a man from the Cañon to the Upper Basin to scrub his autograph from the rocks; and one morning a callow youth from the West was aroused at 6:30 A. M. at the Fountain Hotel and taken, with brush and soap, to the Fountain Geyser, there to obliterate the supposed imperishable monument of his folly. His parents, who were present, were delighted with the judgment awarded him, and his fellow tourists by their taunts and gibes covered him with confusion as with a garment. But, notwithstanding the sharpest watch and greatest care, new names were constantly being added, and they could not easily be detected from the old ones on account of the number of names already there. So, in the early part of the season of 1892, with hammer and chisel, where necessary, the old names were erased and we started even with the world, and the geyser basins are practically free from this disfigurement to-day. The remedy was heroic and successful, as such remedies usually are.

The protection of the forests—perhaps of more material importance than any other form of Park protection—became a subject of study, care and attention. As a rule, fires originated in one of three ways: by carelessly left camp fires, by lightning, or by the rubbing together of two trees swayed by the wind. There is no way of preventing the last two forms of ignition; the only thing to be done is to keep a ceaseless watch, and, so far as practicable, prevent the fire from spreading. The extensive areas burned over in days evidently prior to the advent of white men make it very apparent that these two agencies of destruction were then at work, as it is certain they have been since. Camping parties are many of them from cities, and they know little, and care less, about the devastation a forest fire may create. They leave a small and apparently harmless bunch of coals where their camp fire was; after they have passed on, a wind springs up, fans the embers into flame, the dry pine needles are kindled, and at once the forest is ablaze, and no power on earth can put it out. When once the flame reaches the tree tops, if the wind be strong, a man on horseback can scarce escape before it. As the wind ceases the fire quiets down, only to spring up again next day on the appearance of the afternoon breeze. The only time to fight the fire is when the wind has gone down and the flames have ceased. Then water poured on smouldering logs, earth thrown on unextinguished stumps, and the clearing of a path before the line of fire in the carpet of pine needles are the effective means of extinguishment. After a fire is once got under control it is no unusual thing for it to reappear 500 yards from any of its previous lines, carried there as a spark through the air, and dropped in the resinous tinder ever ready to receive and spread it.

In the four seasons during which I have been in the Park but one fire of any magnitude has occurred. That broke out along the main road, about a mile north of Norris, in July, 1893. As it did not break out near a camping place, its origin could not be traced to camp fires; nor could it be charged to lightning or rubbing of trees. It was evidently started by a match or other fire carelessly dropped by a member of the road crew, then working near there, or possibly by a cigar stump thrown from a stage by a tourist. It was at once reported to me by telegraph. The troop was at drill, and in less than twenty minutes a dozen men, under charge of a sergeant, were on their way, with shovels, axes and buckets, to the scene of the trouble. An hour later the report was that it was beyond control. I then sent out the balance of the troop, under Lieutenant Vance, and ordered Captain Scott down from the Lower Basin with all available men of his troop. Thus the whole of the two troops were at the scene, and they remained there toiling and fighting night and day for twenty days, when a providential rain put an end to their labors. The area burned over included some exceptionally fine timber, was in extreme length nearly six miles, and in breadth from a few feet in some places to near a mile in others.

A fire in pine woods may be successfully fought so long as it is kept confined to the ground, but once it gets a start in the tree tops no power on earth can cope with it; no effort is of the slightest avail. Campers who leave their fires unextinguished often make the excuse that they did not believe any damage could result, as the coals were nearly dead. Although such might be the case at the hour of their leaving, in the still air of morning, the afternoon wind is quite capable of blowing them into dangerous and destructive life. My rule has been to insist on the rigorous enforcement of the regulation requiring expulsion from the Park in such cases. One or two expulsions each year serve as healthy warnings, and these, backed by a system of numerous and vigilant patrols, have brought about the particularly good results of which we can boast. In 1892 a fire on Moose Creek was sighted from a point near the Lake, and reported to me that night by wire from the Lake Hotel. Before the next evening, Captain Scott was on the spot with his troop, and the fire was soon under control. In a few hours it would have been in the heavy timber on the shore of Shoshone Lake, and there is no limit to the damage it might have wrought.

As a last heading of my subject I shall touch on the protection of the game. This was never seriously attempted until Major Harris came to the Park, in 1886; but he attacked it with an earnestness and a fearlessness that has left a lasting impress. It is not probable that the Park is the natural home of bison, elk or deer, yet the last remnant of the first and great numbers of the last two are found here. The high altitude, great cold and extreme depth of snow make it a forbidding habitat for the ruminants. They remain here simply because they are protected. Protection was given by a system of scouting extended over the best game ranges, and throughout the season of probable game destruction. A good many captures were made; the poachers were turned loose and their property confiscated; this was all the law allowed. The depredating element of the community soon came to care very little for this menace to their business, for they entered the Park with an equipment that was hardly worth packing in to the post, and, if taken from them, occasioned but small loss.


The accumulation of this sort of property had become great, and, as I had no proper storage room for it, I began my work by making a bonfire of it. A first requisite to successful work was to become acquainted with the names, the haunts and the habits of those whom it was necessary to watch or to capture. Ed. Wilson was thoroughly familiar with all this, and many is the lesson I patiently took from him. He described to me the leaders among the poachers from the several regions—Cooke, Henry's Lake, Jackson's Lake and Gardiner. To begin with the Cooke City parties, he named to me three as particularly active and dangerous: these were Van Dyck, Pendleton and Howell. Van Dyck, he told me, was at that time trapping beaver near Soda Butte, but he had not been able to definitely locate him. He made two trips there through cold and storm, but to no purpose. Finally, on his third expedition, he caught him, as already stated, sleeping in his bed. His property was destroyed, and he was held in the guard house awaiting the instructions of the Secretary of the Interior, which for some reason were very slow in coming. At last he was released, and ordered never again to cross the Park boundary without permission.

The next year Pendleton made a trip in the Park in early May, and got out with two young bison calves, which he was carrying on pack animals in beer boxes. Of course, they died before he got them to a place where he could raise them in safety, and he soon started back to renew his evil work. He was arrested and confined, and his case took exactly the same course as Van Dyck's had taken.

The last of the trio was Ed. Howell. Knowing of him and his habits, I kept him as well under watch as possible. During a trip I made to the east side of the Park in October, 1893, I saw many old signs of bison in several localities. Howell having disappeared from public view for a month or two, I sent Burgess out in January, 1894, with orders to carefully scout this country. I indicated to him exactly where I expected him to find signs of the marauder. He encountered very severe weather, and was not able to make a full tour of the places indicated; but he did report having found, in the exact locality I had designated to him, tracks of a man on skis drawing a toboggan. These tracks were old and could not be followed, but they formed a valuable clue. I next sent to the Soda Butte station and had a thorough search made near that place. It was found that the same tracks had passed over the hill behind the station, going toward Cooke. Careful inquiry developed the fact that Howell had come in for provisions with his equipment, but that he had not brought any trophies with him. Calculating the time when he should be due again in the bison country, I gave Burgess an order to repeat his trip there, and stay until he brought back results. He left the Lake Hotel in a severe storm on March 11th, and camped the night of the 12th where he had seen the tracks on his previous visit. Next morning, when scarcely out of camp, he found a cache of six bison scalps suspended in a tree. The ski tracks near by were old, and he was not able to follow them. He possessed himself of the spoils and started down Astringent Creek toward Pelican. When near the latter stream, he found a lodge, evidently occupied at the time, and the tracks near it, fresh and distinct, pointing to the southward. Soon he heard shots, and far off in the distance he espied the culprit in the act of killing more of the game. The problem then arose as to how he was to make the capture. With him was only a single soldier, and the two had for arms only a .38 caliber revolver. It was certain that this was Howell, and it was known that he was a desperate character.

In giving Burgess his orders, I had told him that I did not send him to his death—that I did not want him to take risks or serious chances; I impressed upon him the fact that, as far as Howell was concerned, even if times were hard, the wages of sin had not been reduced. All this he knew well, but there was a desperate criminal armed with a rifle; as for himself, he might as well have been unarmed. However, fortune favored him, and soon Howell became so occupied in removing the scalp from one of his bison that Burgess, by a swift and silent run, approached within four or five yards of him undiscovered. It would have been easy enough to kill him then, but it was too much like cold-blooded murder to do so at that range; at 200 or 300 yards it would have seemed entirely different. Howell's rifle was leaning against a buffalo's carcass a few yards from him. He made a step toward it, when Burgess told him to stop or he would shoot. Howell then turned back and said, "All right, but you would never have got me if I had seen you sooner." He was found surrounded by the bodies of seven bison freshly killed, and, to illustrate more fully the wanton nature of the man, of the eight scalps brought in to the post, six were cows and one of the others was a yearling calf.

His case went through the same course as the others, and finally toward the last of April he was turned loose, with orders to quit the Park and never return. He, however, is cast in a different mold from some of the previous captures, and some time in July he reappeared with the most brazen and shameless effrontery. He was reincarcerated, tried, and sentenced for disobedience of the order of expulsion. His sentence was thirty days in jail and fifty dollars fine, and this he now has under appeal. Insufficient as is Howell's punishment, his crime has been of more service to the Park than any other event in its history; it created the greatest interest throughout the country, and led to the passage of the Park Protection Act, which was signed by the President on May 7th. A strange coincidence in the cases of Van Dyck and Howell is that both were accompanied by their faithful watchdogs, and neither dog gave a sign of the approach of the enemy, and both men swore vengeance on their faithless protectors.

The preservation of elk, deer, antelope and the carnivora is assured. Their numbers elsewhere, their wide distribution within the Park, their relatively small commercial value, added to the danger attendant on killing them within the Park, is a sufficient protection. Moose and mountain sheep will probably increase for similar reasons, although they are less generally distributed and are of greater value to head hunters. With the bison it is different. They have entirely disappeared from all other parts of the country, and they are of sufficient money value to tempt the cupidity of the hunters and trappers who surround the Park on all sides. It is told that a fine bison head has been sold, delivered in London, for £200—nearly $1,000 in our money. A taxidermist would probably be willing to pay $200 to $500 for such a scalp. Many a hardy frontiersman, who has no sentiment for their preservation and no respect for the law, will take his chances of capture for such a sum.

Another animal that is difficult of preservation is the beaver; the trouble in this case is entirely due to the ease with which traps may be set in places where it is impossible to find them, and the ease with which the pelts may be packed and carried out. Within the last four years beaver have increased enormously, so I feel justified in saying that their preservation is so far successful.

For the general protection of the Park there are stationed within its lines two troops of cavalry. They are both kept at the Mammoth Hot Springs for eight months of the year, and one of them is sent to the Lower Geyser Basin during the four months of the tourist season. Small outposts are kept at Riverside on the west, Snake River on the south, Soda Butte on the northeast, and Norris near the center. Besides these a winter station has been placed in the Hayden Valley, and summer stations are kept at the Upper Basin, Thumb, Lake and Cañon. Between these a constant stream of patrols is kept up, so that no depredator can do very much damage without detection. There is allowed but one civilian scout, who is overworked and underpaid. With all this enormous territory to guard, with all that is beautiful and valuable to protect, with the last of the bison to preserve, it would seem that this rich Government should be able to expend more than a paltry $900 per year for scouts, and more than $500 (which it receives for rentals) for the other needs of the Park.

There are very few who appreciate the amount of work done here by the soldiers in summer and in winter, in cold and in storms, on foot, on horseback and on snowshoes—and all without murmur or word of complaint. Never before was it so well placed before the public as it was by Mr. Hough in his Forest and Stream articles summer before last. Should Congress be stirred to make a more liberal appropriation for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of the act of May 7th, to him, more than to any other man, will the credit be due.