The government is us; we are the government, you and I. -Theodore Roosevelt

Yellowstone Turns 150: Why It Took More Than a Signature to Protect America’s First National Park

Officially designating the world’s first national park is a milestone achievement. Conserving and protecting its wildlife for future generations is another story altogether. That mission would become the Boone and Crockett Club’s first major success as North America's oldest wildlife conservation organization.  

A lone bison near the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. At right, President Theodore Roosevelt and Major Pitcher in front of an extinct geyer in 1903.

The Yellowstone Act of 1872, which established Yellowstone National Park, was great for the United States—in theory. The problem was that the legislation had no teeth. With the new park came no laws to actually protect the area’s unique flora and fauna. To make matters worse, the act itself contained language that was quite open to interpretation, namely “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” It certainly sounds nice, but it raised more than a few industrious eyebrows from private interests. 

 “The 1872 act creating the reservation had for its object the protection of a natural ‘museum’ of ‘wonders’—geysers, hot springs and canyons,” writes John F. Reiger in American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation. In that book, Reiger devotes an entire chapter that details the exploitation of the park by private interests after it was designated in 1872. “The park,” he writes, “was not intentionally preserved either as a wilderness or a game refuge.” That protection would come more than two decades later when members of the newly formed Boone and Crockett Club would make Yellowstone their number one priority.  

George Bird Grinnell, third from the left, got his first taste of the West in 1870 while traveling with Yale Professor Othniel C. Marsh, pictured here near Fort Bridger, Wyoming.

Protecting the Park 

In the late 1800s, Americans might have heard of a place called Yellowstone, but it was so absurdly hard to access that poachers, vandals, and thieves were able to turn the park’s resources into cash. Bison, elk, deer and antelope were being wiped out by market hunters for their hides and meat. The Northern Pacific Railroad also was vying for a new route through the heart of the park. 

George Bird Grinnell, a founder of the Boone and Crockett Club, reported on the slaughter of the park’s wildlife in his magazine, Forest and Stream. His goal was to push Congress for legislation that would protect the park and the animals there. His cohort in the fight would be his friend, colleague, and fellow Boone and Crockett Club founder Theodore Roosevelt

During its early years, Yellowstone suffered widespread poaching. These five elk were killed by market hunters with their antlers still in velvet, circa 1876.

The plight of Yellowstone and the public outcry that followed Grinnell’s articles on what he called “the park grab,” proved to be a tipping point that rallied the 1887 formation of the Boone and Crockett Club. Roosevelt was resolute in establishing the fledgling outfit's first order of business, which was to protect Yellowstone. 

In 1894 Boone and Crockett member John F. Lacey, an enthusiastic supporter of Yellowstone, introduced the Yellowstone Park Protection Act. Lacey was disgusted by reports of market hunters destroying the park's big-game populations. Lacey's 1894 act established Yellowstone as an inviolate wildlife refuge, the first in the country, and it provided for armed law enforcement. It was the first law establishing definitive national park management rules, and it was also the first federal wildlife protection law. In addition, it increased the size of the park by 3,344 square miles. The act not only provided legal definitions for what a national park should be—definitions that had not previously existed—but also became the benchmark doctrine for laws and policies when the National Park Service was established in 1916. It was, and still is, considered landmark legislation.

The Cavalry officers who captured Edgar Howell, an infamous Yellowstone bison poacher, in 1894 pose with some of Howell’s victims.

Roosevelt, Grinnell, and Lacey were joined by other club members, George G. Vest, Arnold Hague, William Hallett Phillips, W.A. Wadsworth and Archibald Rogers in pushing for the Yellowstone Protection Act. When Grover Cleveland signed the Yellowstone Protection Act of 1894, it would become the Boone and Crockett Club’s first—but most certainly not last—successful conservation legislation in the United States.

PJ DelHomme is a writer for Crazy Canyon Media in Missoula, Montana. He regularly contributes content to the Boone and Crockett Club as well as national and regional publications.



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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt