FROM GRIZZLIES TO GEYSERS: SCIENCE

CHALLENGES TRADITION IN

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

 

Robert D. Barbee  and John D. Varley

 

[Paper presented at the session: How Can Science be Used More Effectively to Manage National Park Resources? Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, May 26-31, 1985, Los Angeles, California.]

 

          CIENCE IN THE NATIONAL PARKS has only recently gained           acceptance as the essential basis for management actions. Its              importance today in this role is unquestioned, as both internal and external influences threaten the ecological integrity of our national parks.

     Traditionally, the role of the natural area national parks was considered  to  be  "bastions  of  naturalness  where  nature would be al-

 

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lowed to take its natural course" and Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane, early in this century, instructed the newly formed National Park Service that the parks should remain "unimpaired for future generations" (Lane 1918).

     "Let nature take its course" was the hallmark of the national parks. Parks were islands in time and, to a degree, in space. In a sense, they were managed in "splendid isolation" (Eidsvik 1984).

     The special role of national parks in American life provided fertile ground for tradition to gain firm footing. While research was never part of the agency mission of the National Park Service, there was early on perceived a need to better understand and communicate the natural values found within the national parks (Grinnell and Storer 1924). During the same period, there were several brilliant young scientists who were actively challenging the Service toward developing a scientific branch and an ecological management ethic (Sumner 1983; Wright et al 1933).

     Tragedy, internal reorganizations, World War II, and the catch-up development years of the 1950s left National Park Service science in the back seat. An increasingly aware and sophisticated scientific community was distressed by the state of the national park science program and a call for change was recommended to Interior Secretary Stewart Udall (Robbins et al 1963). Controversial wildlife management actions resulted in a similar report regarding natural resource management in the national parks (Leopold et al 1963). Independent scientists were also calling for professionalism in managing park resources (Stone 1965).

     A stellar group of scientists (and a sympathetic Interior Secretary, Stewart Udall) challenged tradition and ecological park management got its first major impetus. The attendant roll call of environmental compliance legislation and Executive Orders helped support and guide this effort.

     While the renaissance in science is well underway, it is not entirely without costs—financial and otherwise. Yellowstone Park provides some good examples of science problems which were unknown a generation ago.

     Until recently, Yellowstone's grizzly bears were managed by a few rangers. Today, they are managed by a bewildering consortium of government executives, managers and scientists. The scientists of course don't necessarily agree with one another and the grizzly bear has provided ample opportunity for disagreement. The manager, waiting for inspired direction, is confused and spends a great deal of time in a state of acute anxiety, attempting a balancing act between bear politics, bear management, and bear research.

     There are other dilemmas that science helps exacerbate. The notion that park resources are finite and that certain uses must be limited or mitigated through restrictions is generally understood. Scientific conclusions  almost  always  indicate the specter of accelerated  resource

 

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degradation if traditional use patterns continue. If effected, the result is that the park manager is virtually assured of alienating friendly constituencies.

     Again, the grizzly provides a specific example. Research indicates that seasonal closures of prime bear habitat are important to protect the threatened bear and to reduce the opportunity for bear-caused human injuries. Explanations seem plausible and defensible, yet public reaction and political involvement is intense and hostile (USDI and USDA 1979, National Park Service 1982).

     A further example is the management of the nation's largest elk herd—the northern Yellowstone elk—is a good case in point. The NPS is managing this herd on the basis of 25 years of solid research; research reported in peer-reviewed papers, monographs, and one award-winning book (Houston 1982). Yet this management is steeped in controversy—it challenges traditional wildlife management dogma and counters textbook traditionalism. It is heresy! Whereas in fact, the present management of these animals has always been presented as a case of hypothesis testing "experimental management" where at any time the addition of new data inconsistent with the hypothesis may cause the original postulate to be rejected.

     The desire to implement recommendations resulting from scientific findings cannot keep pace with the managers ability to convince supporters of parks (including employees) that it is a good idea. Science is no longer a sacred cow and conventional wisdom may very well prevail.

     There are other interesting problems that have developed with the advent of scientific consultation to foster better management. Consider a case where the scientist presents you with his final report. It's an excellent report, reviewed and approved by his peers, it's readable and it even has pictures—it's stunning. It represents a complicated solution to a problem that has been nagging the park for years. Dr. Doright has every reason to sleep well, knowing that he has made a major contribution to the national parks, to science, to society generally. Years later he returns and to his dismay he discovers that nothing has changed! He is outraged! What went wrong?

     Many things could have gone wrong. He may have presented us with a scientific paper which, classically, does not have specific management recommendations. His recommendations may have been indistinguishable to the nonscientists because of technical jargon. He may have failed to verbally convey his findings to the managers and discuss the practical application of the treatment. This is more commonly the case than not.

     The complexities of ecological science have attained a level of sophistication that make it difficult to communicate complex research concepts to the public. This is especially true when the results involve a controversial redirection in management.

 

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Elk are the most abundant large grazing mammals in Yellowstone Park and the management of these animals has been beset by controversy for over 80 years. The essential question is, and has always been, whether human predation is necessary to keep the elk and the vegetation in balance. Based on the best scientific advice available at the time, the largest park herd was periodically, often annually, reduced by shooting to numbers deemed compatible with the range. In 1969, based on new scientific interpretations, a moratorium was declared and all reductions ceased. As the elk population quadrupled, and as the ecological scene was altered, the original "shooting is needed" scientists, and their publics, decreed "the sky is falling." The new laissez-faire scientists, though well represented and accepted in the peer reviewed literature, were faced with a program of experimental elk management that was not only new to the public, but complex enough to be exceedingly difficult to explain in layman terms.

     Yet, it is not just a problem of communicating complicated science to non-scientific people. For those of us who grew up in the Disney era, the concept that "dying elk are beautiful" is a tough sell; one which would challenge the best Madison Avenue could offer.

     This introduces the second aspect of converting jargon to laymanese—the problem that occurs when science challenges popular wisdom and aesthetic sensibilities.

     Very often, scientists, managers and the public fall into the trap of making judgements between the "good" animals vs. the "bad." In this case, its the heroic bird vs. wily trout, with the lowly worm in between.

     When science discovered that Yellowstone's white pelican colony served as the intermediate host for the tapeworm infecting its cutthroat trout, the war was on! It raged through the first third of this century and exists to some extent today. Trout people felt then, and many do now, that pelicans are too high a price to pay for the unsightly and unpalatable worm. Pelican people were insensed that there were people in the world who would choose slimy fish over beautiful birds. Park people were generally whip-sawed between the two factions. The pelican people ultimately won. Not once however, did scientists or managers publicly support the fact that the tapeworm was a native species according to law, due all the protection and support that butterflies, deer and bears (the "good" animals) receive.

     Science has never fit well into the Federal budget process, especially funding for long term monitoring and research. Our limited understanding of ecosystem processes has been the result of work accomplished over the long term. There are two Yellowstone examples that serve this point well. The studies on the cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake, now 35 years old and ongoing, have taught those of us in the park, as well as the rest of the world, about what the complex factors are that influence the population dynamics of that species. There are several other examples, the northern Yellowstone elk and their tenu-

 

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ous relationship with climatic factors, and their association with their rangelands, that we could go into in depth.

     The companion story though, is the wars that were waged in trying to keep those studies funded through the years. Everyone wants the answer tomorrow and many support funding in the current year. But if the controversy dies down, the dollars are not so quick in coming.

     Ah, yes, then there is the problem of proprietary interest. Let's consider the scientist who has established a beachhead. Consider the researcher who has worked in the park for so long he considers himself part owner. He proposes to take the meadow, plow it, and plant sugar beets because he's convinced it's the final salvation of the grizzly bear problem. He hammers on my door regularly, he's done a very good job of convincing the media, he's even sold a congressman and senator or two. His project is denied—it's wholly inappropriate in a natural area of the national park system. Outrage follows, and his ego and reputation suffer. He'll probably take his ball and go home. The result? Lose-lose.

     An even worse and more unfortunate case is the scientist who has offered up recommendations that we accept and put into practice. After a decade, for any number of good reasons, major alterations are made in the management practices that he doesn't agree with. His appeals to the National Park Service to go back to the old way are denied. If he is to salvage his professional credentials, his only recourse—in his mind—is to "go public." If the agency withstands the "gottcha" game and possibly the media inquisition, and the new program is carried out, the park may have a lifelong enemy. The result? Lose-lose.

     But for all the problems a manager may have with scientists, all significant advances in national park resource management have come about through the efforts of science. The embryonic stirring of ecological perspective during the 1930s; the conceptual framework for park resource management and the impetus for science in the 1960s, all came about through the efforts of scientists.

     But tradition also plays a concurrent and equally major role in challenging science to maintain perspective and caution.

 

Every theory of the course of events in nature is necessarily based on some process of simplification of the phenomenon and is to some extent therefore a fairy tale.

                                                     ..... Sir Napier Shaw (1926).

     Vigor and strength in organizational life are maintained through a continuing process of adjustment and renewal. Today, the National Park Service needs the energizing revalidation of principles; just as Lane (1918), Wright et al (1933), Robbins et al (1963) and Leopold et al (1963) each brought park science and resource management in synchronization with contemporary ecological thought in the past, we again need a reaffirmation of that distinctive blend of tradition and the avant guarde.

 

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Literature Cited

Eidsvik, H. K. 1984. Remove the Myth—Build the Reality. PARKS 9(2):15-16.

Grinnel, J. and T. I. Storer. 1924. Animal Life in the Yosemite. Berkeley, University of California Press. 741 p.

Houston, D. B. 1982. The Northern Yellowstone Elk—Ecology and Management. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York. 474 p.

Lane, F. K. 1918. A letter from Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, to Stephen T. Mather, Director of the National Park Service. 4 p.

Leopold, A. S., S. A. Cain, C. M. Cottam, I. N. Gabrielson, T. L. Kimball. 1963. Wildlife management in national parks. Report to the Secretary of the Interior by the Advisory Board on Wildlife Management. Mimeographed. 23 p.

Robbins, W., E. A. Ackerman, M. Bates, S. A. Cain, F. F. Darling, J. M. Fogg, Jr., T. Gill, J. M. Gillson, E. R. Hall, and C. L. Hubbs. 1963. A report by the Advisory Committee to the National Park Service on research. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council. 156 p.

Stone, E. C. 1965. Preserving vegetation in parks and wilderness. Science 150:1262-1267.

Sumner, L. 1983. Biological Research and Management in the National Park Service: A History. The George Wright Forum 3(4):3-27.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1979. Guidelines for Management involving Grizzly Bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area. 378 p.

U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1982. Final Environmental Impact Statement, Grizzly Bear Management Program, Yellowstone National Park. 98 p.

Wright, G. M., J. S. Dixon and B. H. Thompson. 1933. A preliminary survey of faunal relations in national parks. Fauna Series No. 1. Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office. 157 p.

Robert D. Barbee and John D. Varley, Yellowstone National Park,      Wyoming.