The Wildlife Division

The Wildlife Division

By Scott Lipkowitz

   The National Parks present a singular challenge, one expressed by naturalist and Park Service employee George Melendez Wright in his 1932 publication Fauna No I. "The unique feature of the case," Wright asserted, "is that the perpetuation of natural conditions will have to be forever reconciled with the presence of large numbers of people on the scene, a seeming anomaly. A situation of parallel circumstances has never existed before. Therefore, the solution can not be sought in precedent."

   For the entirety of human existence, nature had merely been something to conquer, to utilize for human benefit, or to overcome. When human groups occupied a new territory they simply adapted and modified it according to their wants and needs - the thought of preserving landscape and wildlife was not one that commonly occurred. All of this changed however in the mid-19th century with the setting aside of the Yosemite Valley in 1864, and the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. For the first time an area was designated, not for economic development or profit, but as a protected zone, off-limits to the usual activities of human enterprise. 

   Yet this did not mean that these wilderness areas were safe. Cattle grazing, hunting, trapping, logging, mining, and exploitative tourism all continued in the newly created park system. Even as the ink dried on the 1916 Organic Act, establishing the National Park Service "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same"; the parks which the Service inherited were subjugated to the economic and political needs of the nation. With one stroke of the pen President Wilson committed a federal agency to safe-guarding America's natural and historical treasures in perpetuity; with another, he bowed to the demands of the United States' involvement in the First World War, halving the size of Mount Olympus National Monument (now Olympic National Park in Washington) to open it up for timber production. There was even talk of slaughtering park bison and elk to provide canned meat for the troops. This reality presented Stephen Mather, the Park Service's first director, with an existential problem. If the Parks and their natural resources were to be made off-limits to the economic interests of the nation, then some other justification for their existence had to be made. 

   The Park Service's charter listed "enjoyment" as the primary public benefit of the National Parks; and in order to convince Congress to support and protect the park system from external threats, Mather and other Park Service officials had to show that the public was enjoying them. This meant putting people in the parks, by whatever means necessary. It also meant that increased human activity in the parks would bring Wright's assessment of the precarious balance between preserving the natural world and conceding to human demands, sharply into focus. 

Never Too Many Tourists

   Stephen Mather was an advertising prodigy. Marketing and selling "20 Mule Team Borax" (a type of soap still available today) to the housewives of late 19th and early 20th century America had made him a wealthy man; and he approached the problem of attracting people to the National Parks as one of marketing and publicity. Mather partnered with the railroads to promote a "See America First" campaign, wined and dined influential businessmen and politicians, brought his wealthy acquaintances on hiking and camping trips, hired the editor of the New York Herald, Robert Sterling Yard, to publish articles promoting the parks, and made a passionate embrace of the newest harbinger of individual freedom - the automobile.  

   Cars had the power to put the citizenry right in the heart of America's scenic places. In 1918 Yosemite saw a seven to one difference between those who visited by car and those who arrived via the rails. As car ownership increased in the early 20's, and "auto camping" became a popular past time, the National Parks received over one million visitors. Mather engaged with national and local automobile clubs, lobbied for more and better roads, and advocated for a "National Parks Highway" connecting the western parks. The more citizens who came, the safer the parks would be. Horace Albright, Mather's assistant recalled "There could never be too many tourists for Stephen Mather." The automobile was the Park Service's ticket to success.

   By 1928 Park attendance had topped 3 million and Congress had taken notice, doubling the Park Service's annual appropriation with an emphasis on spending capital for road construction. Mather envisioned a major scenic roadway running through each of the Parks, but in order to ensure the preservation of the scenery, insisted that landscape architects be put in control so that the routes would conform to, and highlight, the natural vistas. Yet, while much attention was paid to the preservation of mountain passes and alluvial valleys, little if any thought was paid to the welfare of the living organisms who called those scenic highlights home.

   In the 1922 Superintendents Resolution on Overdevelopment, park superintendents stated unanimously "that over-development of any national park, or any portion of a national park, is undesirable and should be avoided. Certain areas should be reserved in each park, with a minimum amount of development, in order that animals, forest, flowers and all native life shall be preserved under natural conditions." The resolution continued, at length, with barely a further mention of the impact of Park development on "animals, forest flowers and all native life." The superintendents intent was "to make the chief scenic features of each park accessible to the average visitor, but to set aside certain regions of each park, which will not be traversed by automobile roads, and will have only such trails or other development as will be necessary for their protection." Simply setting aside portions of the parks as road-free zones however, is not the same as making them human free zones. Citizens and wildlife would inevitably come into contact; and for the park's wild inhabitants, such interactions were often a zero-sum game.  One of the key deficiencies in early Park Service thinking was the failure to perceive the parks as wild habitat for living organisms. This oversight, coupled with an emphasis on drawing in crowds, offered only two possible human attitudes towards their wild cousins: pest or spectacle. 

Attitudes Towards Nature

   These options formed the dual faces of an abysmal coin. On the one side, golf courses and grazing lands - condoned by Mather -  pushed aside those species that competed for access to the land and its resources. On the flip side, Bison herds were stampeded by Crow Indians and cowboys for the benefit of onlookers, or corralled in pens in Service sanctioned zoos. In Untold Stories From America's National Parks, Susan Shumaker sums up the Park Service's position in regards to wildlife: the "Service had done little to protect the animal and birdlife in the system...The policies of the Service focused on natural resource manipulation, aimed not so much at preserving wildlife as at preserving and presenting to the public idealized versions of nature." When George Melendez Wright joined the Park Service in 1927 as an assistant Park Naturalist at Yellowstone, he determined that such an attitude had to be altered. 

   The son of a wealthy El Salvadoran mother and an American merchant mariner, Wright studied biology with the widely influential Joseph Grinnell at the University of California, Berkley. Grinnell emphasized his now cornerstone theory of the "ecological niche," which intimately tied species to their environments, and imparted upon Wright the need for the scientific management and understanding of the National Parks. Wright assisted Grinnell in the field, undertook scientific surveys of flora and fauna; and absorbed Grinnell's belief that ecological processes should be free from human interference.  

   Wright began his Park Service career just as the parks were receiving record numbers of visitors. In order to document their impact and ultimately reverse the pest or spectacle mentality, he would have to implement a scientific understanding of the parks as habitat. To do that, he would have to conduct surveys in the field and convince Park Service leadership to support them. In 1929 Wright proposed to his superiors that surveys be carried out, and by generously offering to fund the research with a portion of his own inheritance, was able to convince Horace Albright, Mather's assistant and eventual successor, to endorse the venture. One year later, Wright and two colleagues outfitted the first biological survey of the western parks.

Wild-life Problems

   Over the course of three seasons in the field, Wright and his team made annual circuits covering over 11,000 miles of western park habitat. What they saw was not encouraging. Ben Thompson, Wright's colleague, summed up what they faced: "predatory animal control and corralling the ungulates so the public could see some of them, like the buffalo, and feeding the elk so they would concentrate for viewing, and feeding the bears at feeding stations, and making a big show of it." Rangers told them of the dynamiting of badger holes, extermination of coyotes and predatory birds, and the hunting of elk to free up pasture land for sheep and cattle. In Yellowstone, Wright documented the destruction of American White Pelicans, carried out because they "interfered" with the catches of recreational fisherman, resulting in the "reduction of the colony from about 600 to 250." Over the course of 8 years, beginning in 1923, eggs and adolescent pelicans had been systematically exterminated by park staff, with an estimated "175 killed each year." Wright saw to it that the practice was quietly ended.

   Bears, perhaps more than any other species, came to embody the pest or spectacle view of nature. In Yellowstone, Wright observed "two grizzly cubs [who became] tame and were fed by hand around Old Faithful." In an effort to provide an entertaining version of nature, Park Service employees encouraged the feeding of bears, both black and grizzly, either at garbage dumps near developed areas, or by the tourists themselves. However, when the bears eventually raided campsites and vehicles, or simply would not desist in their search for free meals, visitors and rangers alike grew frustrated with them; assuming that the fault rested with the bears, and not with their actions. Wright commented on the situation in 1936:

It takes time to teach the visitors to our national parks that they are the ones who are short- sighted in feeding candy to a bear. After all, the average citizen expects more intelligence for a bear than he, as an educated person, has any right to expect. He goes on the assumption that if he feeds a bear two sticks of candy and does not want to give it a third, he is the one to say, "No, no." And he believes that the bear is to be accused of an unforgivable breach of etiquette and lack of appreciation for this piece of candy if it takes all the candy out of his hand and takes the hand with it, perhaps.

   "Recognition that there are wild-life problems is admission that unnatural, man made conditions exist," Wright would state. And those unnatural conditions demanded that action be taken. 


   Wright published his team's findings, his diagnosis of the problems, and his suggested course of action for returning the parks to a natural state of wild habitation in two works, Fauna No I and Fauna No 2. Putting an end to predator destruction, to the feeding of wild animals, the practice of corralling bison and other ungulates, and actively removing invasive foreign species from park habitats were just a few of the many actions Wright sought to have implemented. Ironically, the key to reversing the negative impacts of human intervention was further intervention; and Wright recognized that this too had the potential to lead to further trouble. "Due care must be taken," Wright emphasized, "that management does not create an even more artificial condition in place of the one it would correct." Unless an area was to be designated as true wilderness, an area completely off limits to humans - and the National Parks were never designed as such - active, rather than passive, scientifically grounded management and control would be required. 

   Horace Albright, and his successor Arno Cammerer, were the first two Park Service directors to become converts to Wright's plan. The Wildlife Division, headed by Wright and eventually employing 27 field biologists, was officially established by Albright on July 1, 1933 - no longer would Wright have to fund the activities of the Division out of his own pocket. Albright even went so far as to publish a memorandum calling for the complete end to predator destruction. Cammerer, in 1934, adopted Fauna No. I and its prescriptions for park management as official Park Service policy, and engaged Wright in a survey of potential "recreation areas" geared towards the leisure needs of the public. Such areas might, Cammerer hoped, help to relieve some of the pressure on wild-life. 

   Wright's policies were the beginnings of a paradigm shift. Susan Shumaker, writing in Untold Stories From The National Parks, summed up the effect: "For the first time, the preservation and restoration of resources was adopted by a government bureau and applied to an entire system of public lands. The recommendations of Fauna No. I, in their scope and their widespread impact, were almost immediate, and were unprecedented in the history of American public land management."

   The shift, however, would prove to be short lived. Less than three years after the Wildlife Division's creation, Wright was killed on U.S. Highway 80 near Deming, New Mexico. He was 31 years old. 

   Without Wright's leadership, the influence of the Wildlife Division began to wain, and the old ways of catering solely to the needs and desires of park patrons returned. In 1939, 400 landscape architects were added to the Park Service's staff. That same year the number of biologists employed by the Division dropped to only nine. New Deal works projects such as the Civilian Conservation Corps broke ground on increased park development, and soldiers on leave from the Second World War were brought into the parks in ever increasing numbers as a way to help them deal with the traumatic experiences of battle. Wright's division tirelessly labored on, but its efforts were met with little consideration - putting people in the parks was once again the primary concern.

The Unique Feature

   Today, one hundred years after the Park Service's founding, Wright's scientific approach to park management is at the forefront of Park Service policy; forming the cornerstone principle around which all else is built. However, the struggle to come to terms with the "unique feature" continues unabated. We may imagine that over the past century Wright's ideas have become firmly entrenched in the public's mind, orthat the pest or spectacle outlook no longer exists; but such thinking is folly. Animals are regularly snatched or grabbed for the benefit of 'selfies', or taken into personal vehicles during cold winter days - the result of human ignorance. Subjugating the natural world for human enjoyment or self-aggrandizement, and the woeful misunderstanding of natural processes poses an ever-present threat to the preservation of the National Parks. 

   "Among the more important national resources," Wright stated, "perhaps none is more susceptible to the destructive influences of civilization than wildlife." The National Parks are unique, not because they are areas of natural beauty or the habitat for the flora and fauna of the United States. The parks are unique because they are the one area in which humanity strives to balance with, and not merely over-run, that which is wild. It is a balancing act with which we still struggle to find equilibrium. The desire to carve out a position for the parks as areas which are not true wilderness, yet not demolished by civilization, has been hard to fulfill. Historically we have not been exceedingly successful at it, and our reach often extends farther than we perceive. On this day, the centennial of the National Parks Service's creation, we must take pause to reflect upon this unique relationship, and upon the work of George Melendez Wright, who fought to bring it to the forefront of our consciousness. 



Shumaker, Susan. Untold Stories From America's National Parks: George Melendez Wright

Burns, Ken. The National Parks: America's Best Idea. Online resources.

America's National Park System: The Critical Documents. Superintendent's Resolution on Overdevelopment, 1922.

America's National Park System: The Critical Documents. National Park Service Predator Policy, 1931









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