National Geographic : 2016 May
64 national geographic • may 2016 ‘THIS MASSIVE SLAUGHTER’ A t the outset, the park was an orphan idea with no clarity of purpose, no staff, no budget. Congress seemed to lose interest as soon as the ink of Grant’s signature dried. Yel- lowstone became a disaster zone, neglected and abused, for more than a decade. Nathaniel Langford, the failed bank clerk and railroad publicist, served as its first superintendent, at zero salary, and during his five years in the post he barely earned that, revisiting the park only two or three times. Market hunters established themselves brazenly in the park, killing elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and other ungu- lates in industrial quantities. By one account, a pair called the Bottler brothers shot about 2,000 elk near Mammoth Hot Springs in early 1875, generally taking only the tongue and the hide from each animal, leaving the carcasses to rot or be scavenged. That account doesn’t say how many grizzly bears the Bottlers killed over those carcasses, for convenience or profit, but undoubtedly the elk meat was a dangerous attractant that brought bears near guns. An elk hide was worth six to eight dollars, serious money, and a man might kill 25 to 50 elk in a day. “There was this massive slaughter that occurred here, from 1871 through at least 1881,” according to Lee Whittlesey, currently Yellowstone’s historian. Antlers littered the hillsides. Wagon tourists came and went unsupervised, at low numbers but with relatively high impact, some of them vandalizing geyser cones, carving their names on the scenery, killing a trumpeter swan or other wildlife for the hell of it. Ungulate populations fell, and then the carnage gradually petered out, Whittlesey told me, “until the Army arrived here in 1886.” As an act of desperation, in the absence of any congressional appro- priation for managing Yellowstone or any trained body of park police to enforce its rules, the secretary of the interior in 1886 asked the U.S. Army to take over. And with that event, an unlikely hero enters the story: Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. Philip Sheridan is best known, and most infamously remembered, as a ruthless cavalry leader under Grant during the Civil War and, later, as commander of the horrific military campaigns against the Plains Indians. He advocated exterminating the buffalo as a means of crush- ing tribal cultures and resistance. But after he visited Yellowstone in 1882, a more appealing side of Sheridan’s character emerged. In this very different context, he deplored the slaughter of “our noble game,” evidently even the bison, and offered troops to prevent it. He also was appalled that a commercial monopoly on visitor services had been granted to the so-called Yellowstone Park Improvement Company, a new entity closely allied with the Northern Pacific Railroad. “I regret- ted exceedingly to learn,” he reported to Washington, “that the national park had been rented out to private parties.” And he made one radically percipient observation: Congress had made the park too small. Returning to Washington, Sheridan led a campaign by sportsmen and sympathetic lawmakers to extend Yellowstone’s boundaries by 40 miles along the east side and 10 miles along the south. That would Market hunters established themselves brazenly in the park, killing elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and other ungulates in industrial quantities.