With its towering geysers, abundant wildlife and pristine lodgepole pine forests, Yellowstone National Park is beloved by many. And as the first national park in the world, it played a critical role in the conservation of our public lands and wild spaces. Many see Yellowstone as the ultimate success story in biodiversity, as it’s home to the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48.

While Yellowstone National Park has played an important role in conservation history, it’s not without its flaws. Like most public lands, it has a history of violent exclusion of indigenous tribes. Superintendent Cam Sholly stated that this year’s 150th anniversary is “an opportunity for us to reflect on the lessons of the past while focusing our efforts to strengthen Yellowstone and our many partnerships for the future.”

Land Stewardship by Indigenous Tribes

For thousands of years, before Yellowstone was a national park, many Indigenous tribes called (and still call) this area home. Native people stewarded this so-called “untouched wilderness” by living in accordance with the land through hunting and gathering. They used practices like selective harvesting, burning and seasonal migration to support the local plant and animal species. While most tribes returned each year with the seasons, others established more permanent residences. Before the tribes were removed from the park in the late 1800s, they demonstrated that humans can live in harmony with the land. Today, 27 tribes still have connections to their ancestral land and resources.

The World’s First National Park

In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act and established the world’s first national park. This act was monumental: Over two million acres of this valuable ecosystem were protected from private development. This “national park” idea set the precedent for the protection of other iconic destinations like Yosemite and Mount Rainier. It also shifted the public perspective; rather than the “first-come, first-served” settler mentality that dominated the early 1800s, the National Park System called for the creation of protected land that would serve the public.

During the first decade, management was minimal, but by 1877, Congress had authorized appropriations to help preserve park resources. Today, Congressional appropriations are still vital to fund national parks and other federally managed lands. To ensure public lands are properly funded in the future, you can write to your Congress member and ask them to advocate for the necessary appropriations.

Management Adaptations: Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem 

As the first national park, Yellowstone was full of trial and error. However, the Park System has constantly adapted and analyzed how their management practices affect the ecosystem and its inhabitants. Up until the early-1960s, wildlife managers would cull bison and elk populations to manage their numbers. However, in 1963, Yellowstone changed their management philosophy according to the Leopold Report. Instead of artificially managing wildlife populations, the park now uses Ecological Process Management to naturally regulate the native species. This shift was crucial to establishing the ecosystem health that is evident in the park today.

Additionally, Yellowstone National Park has partnered with local land managers, states and coalitions to manage the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) – not just the land within the park boundaries. The GYE is one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems in the world, and its health is a result of the cross-border management by Yellowstone National Park and its partners.

The Reintroduction of Wolves

One of the biggest success stories in wildlife management comes from Yellowstone. During the 1900s, park managers and local hunters had all but exterminated wolves from the lower 48 because they preyed on livestock. Because of these actions, wolves were put on the endangered species list in 1974. Without wolves in the park, elk populations boomed and plant life declined.

In 1995, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves into the park. The results were outstanding. Because wolves prey on elk, the reintroduction has helped regulate over-grazing in the valleys and provided food for scavengers like grizzly bears. The effects have cascaded: Riparian willows have rebounded as fewer elk browse on their branches and beaver populations have increased as they have access to a more reliable food source. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park has demonstrated the interconnectedness of species in ecosystems and serves as an example for future wildlife management projects in other parts of the world.

Modern Park Management: Involving Native Tribes

While the National Park Service has historically undermined and erased Indigenous knowledge and perspectives, Yellowstone National Park is now seeking to remediate the damage and highlight the human history with the land. For their 150th commemoration, Yellowstone and the Tribal Nations are constructing a teepee village at the Roosevelt Arch where visitors can learn directly from tribal members.

Additionally, the Park Service is working with associated tribes for bison management, permanent educational programming, and other projects. These changes are a small yet important step in changing the narrative of the history of Yellowstone National Park and ensuring that Indigenous voices are a part of the story.

Old Faithful Geyser erupting in front of a crowd.
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