Response to Misguided Guardian Yellowstone Commentary

Yellowstone was established in 1872 primarily to protect the unique geological thermal features of the park. Photo George Wuerthner 
I see almost weekly repetitions of the myths or revisionist history about Yellowstone and critiquing conservation efforts in general, primarily coming from Anthropocene boosters which now include many in leftish politics. In the long run, I believe these inaccurate renditions of history will undermine support for protecting biodiversity, wildlife, wildlands and assisting in the mitigation of climate change.
An example was in the Guardian recently

That piece, unfortunately,  relied on inaccurate information including David Treuer Atllantic’s article and continues to repeat myths about Yellowstone.
Here are a few points to consider.
Poles likely used for teepee or wickiups. Indians did travel through Yellowstone, but few lived in the high plateau with its long winters. Photo George Wuerthner 
1. All tribes in the Western US had signed treaties and were on reservations by 1868 (though they didn’t necessarily stay there, of course).  Many of the tribes associated with Yellowstone had reservations as early as 1825. This is an important date because Yellowstone was not even “explored” by any official expeditions until 1871 and the park was established by 1872.
Though the dates are close, the events are unrelated.
Reservations were established for two reasons. One to make the West safe for settlement, ranching, mining and other economic American endeavors. And also to create a “safe” place for tribes where the goal was to recuce intetribal warfare and to keep white settlers from harming Indian people. (This did not necessarily work out as planned–but it was a genuine attempt to preclude conflicts).
All of the tribes associated with the Greater Yellowstone region had signed treaties and were settled on reservations before there was any discussion of creating a national park. Indians were not “removed” from Yellowstone or any other park to establish a national park area.  Photo George Wuerthner 
But in either case, Indians were not settled on reservations to create parks.
The point is no tribes were living in Yellowstone when the park was established in 1872, nor for that matter with one possible exception (Sheepeaters) before the park either.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP

Yellowstone is a high plateau covered with snow much of the year. It is not a good place for animals or humans, especially when there was much greater amounts of low elevation terrain where winter conditions were not as severe were available.  George Wuerthner 

Indeed, even prior to the establishment of Yellowstone Park, there were few Indians utilizing what is now Yellowstone for the simple ecological reason that Yellowstone is a high plateau covered with snow most of the year. Wildlife and other resources that tribal people utilized were more readily available at lower elevations outside of what is now the Park.

Prior to the creation of Yellowstone NP in 1872, only a few white trappers and miners had penetrated what is now Yellowstone NP. There was no discussion about creating a park until the first government expeditions such as the Hayden Expedition (for which Hayden Valley is named) had surveyed the landscape. Photo George Wuerthner 

Furthermore, prior to the few years before its 1872 estblalishment very few fur trappers, miners, or any other Americans had ventured into what was the park area. Therefore, there was no long term campaign to make a park. The creation of the park was a  significant conservation event.
For the first time, a large area of the country was put off limits to human exploitation of all kinds–mining, hunting, logging, ranching, and even permanent settlement. This occured in the post Civil War era when other legislation was passed designed to encourage all of the above, including the Homestead Act, Mining Act of 1872, Timber and Stone Act, and various railroad land giveaways, among others.
The other significant feature of the act is that it was designed to be democratic. Unlike many other cultures around the world where wealthy or powerful tribes or men (usually it was men then) controlled vast landscapes for their personal use and exploitation, the goal of Yellowstone was to make the park available to all people regardless of race, culture, and ethnicity. So long as you followed the regulations designed to protect the geological features, wildlife and landscape, you were and are welcome to the park.  Our national parks are among the most democratic instiatutions we have in the United States, and while anyone would admit they could be made more accessible (by eliminating entrance fees for example), the basic concept is still that they are open to all.
The park was not established to protect “white man’s illusion of wilderness” as many misinformed writers assert (including Treuer) but to protect the geological wonders. In 1872 most of the region under Indian control and had almost no white settlement except in a few mining camps in western Montana. People would laugh at the notion of protecting “wilderness”. Everything would have qualified as “wilderness”.

Manhattan, New York. Every part of the United States was once part of some tribe’s territory. Why focus on national parks? Photo George Wuerthner 

2. To suggest 27 tribes or now 49 tribes were associated with the park is another questionable assertion. The list includes nearly every tribe on the plains and mountains from Canada to Mexico–most of whom were at war with each other and certainly did not occupy Yellowstone. The only tribe that was consistently associated with Yellowstone were the Sheepeaters who had only recently occupied some portions of the park to avoid conflicts with other Indians–because most tribes didn’t go to what is now Yellowstone. Plus the Sheepeaters other than hunting bighorns in the mountains, typically utilized lands at lower elevations of the park–mostly on the fringes.

Many native people obtained obsidian used for arrowheads and cutting tools from Obsidian Cliffs in Yellowstone which was passed by trade route as far away as Ohio.  Photo George Wuerthner 

Some of the tribes obtained obsidian from Yellowstone, often through trade, but by the mid-1800s,  but that is hardily an “association with Yellowstone. By the mid 1800s almost all tribes were using metal arrowheads, knives, and axes obtained in trade.
The idea that national parks and other preserves are “fortress conservation” ignores the fact that studies have demonstrated that strictly protected areas compared to any other arrangement, are the most successful at protecting biodiversity and maintaining ecosystem function. Photo George Wuerthner 
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  1. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    My only comment to your correct and informative post, is to please, in the future, refer to the sub-tribe of Native Americans who sometimes spent spring, summer and fall in what is now the southern part of Yellowstone NP as “Tukudika” or “Northern Shoshone”, which is what they called themselves. They spoke the Shoshone language.

  2. Rocky Sehnert Avatar
    Rocky Sehnert

    Thank you. Keep up the good work debunking Native narratives about their land use and alleged abuse. There was enough real abuse without having to make stuff up in order to gin up some sort of payments or whatever by the government for their alleged losses.

  3. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    A decade after Yellowstone NP was founded in 1872, US soldiers were brought in NOT to drive out the Native Americans, but instead, soldiers were brought in to arrest and drive out the white land-grabbers, poachers, market hunters and other assorted criminals, who were quickly destroying the Park’s wildlife.

  4. Beeline Avatar

    “We know from the archeological sites ( over 1800 ) that Native Americans used the lands of the now Yellowstone National Park for more than 11,000 years”. from Yellowstone Science Vol 26 issue 1 by Hale, Johnson and Gore.

    And there is probably a lot more undiscovered evidence of early habitation because only 3-5% of the parks land area has been surveyed.

    So, I would say that indigenous folks lived there or did joy riding little gray people in their saucer ships drop arrow heads out there for the fun of it. yep- arrow heads- get the point.

  5. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Beeline: Yes, of course, we know that Native Americans lived in and around the Yellowstone area for thousands of year. The problem with this discussion circles around the TIMING and the REASON the United States chose to declare parts of the Yellowstone area as America’s first national park. In 1871, after the photographs and artwork from a field visit to Yellowstone showing its remarkable geology and scenery reached Washington D.C., Congress took less than a year to declare it a national park.

    No Native Americans were expelled from Yellowstone NP, as there were no Native Americans living in what was to become Yellowstone NP in 1872. However, there were a lot of white market hunters, game poachers and even white settlers starting to try and grab land for themselves, and Congress and Pres. Grant concluded that Yellowstone’s amazing geological features and natural wonders needed to be protected forever.

  6. Robin Blessings Avatar
    Robin Blessings

    Why doesn’t the treaty and treating of the treatments be interwoven into the talk of the treatment of the trees? Is it because there is a feeding of the good wolf or the badly treated one? Or the yellow stone the gold? The beariefull bare deeper than hibernation has a quarter to den in but neither do poor anything. Trees that give berries mist be the nicest of all says the Robin. The fruit. Of nature or is it not a blessing to create black rivers upon sand. Butte crator creating oasis from mirages*

  7. MAD Avatar

    I have to disagree that most of the tribes in the area had either treaties or reservations by 1825. Look at the 1851 Ft. Laramie treaty, which ultimately failed, and the subsequent 1868 Ft. Laramie treaty which did establish several reservations. But obviously, numerous tribes still had serious conflicts between the 1850’s and late 1880’s. The Sioux Wars covered between 1854-1891 and often included the Northern Cheyenne. During that period, of note you had Red Cloud’s War (1866-68), the Battle of Pease Bottom (1868), the Great Sioux War of 1876 (which included the Battle of Little Big Horn), and the Nez Perce War of 1877 that went through the entire area including Yellowstone NP. The Crow War was later in 1887.

    So, as can be seen, things were not at all settled in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Colorado.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Read it again. He said 1868 was when MOST tribes had treaties, and that they often didn’t stay on their reservation.

  8. MAD Avatar

    “ Many of the tribes associated with Yellowstone had reservations as early as 1825”

    It’s alright, my reading comprehension skills are intact. Please……

    1. Hiker Avatar

      What’s the difference between ‘many’ and ‘most’?
      And while you focus on 1825, he emphasizes 1868.

  9. Cyndi Avatar

    I take issue with the entirety of this article, but especially the misleading description of why Yellowstone was “available” for designation as a park.

    GW says “Many of the tribes associated with Yellowstone had reservations as early as 1825. This is an important date because Yellowstone was not even “explored” by any official expeditions until 1871 and the park was established by 1872. Though the dates are close, the events are unrelated.”

    The removal of Indigenous people from the area later called Yellowstone is not unrelated to the designation of Yellowstone. The US government forcibly removed people from their land to claim it for their own. Why do you think many of the Tribes associated with what is now called Yellowstone were on reservations by 1925? Was this a voluntary act by the Indigenous people or a “choice” forced upon them?

    What does the timeline suggest:

    Removal Era: 1820-1850
    Indian Removal Act 1830
    Yellowstone Act: 1872

    Did the U.S. government clear the area for settler colonizers and then decide is was worth protecting from settler colonists? It seems so. But it was never an area lacking human presence, even after the Indigenous people were forcibly removed.

    I’m no historian, but GW, I don’t think you are either. It would be so great if you would stay in your lane and focus on grazing impacts rather than continue down the path of revisionist history to somehow justify your repeated attacks on Indigenous people. I just don’t understand your goal with your articles like this.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      The goal is to protect what little Wilderness we have left. Many feel that National Parks should be returned to Natives because the land was stolen from them to make parks. GW’s take is that Natives were put on reservations long before anyone was even thinking about National Parks and there was conflict between white settlers and Natives. To save lives,(and mine, log, and graze that land), Natives were placed on reservations. NOT to make parks. That came much later, over 40 years later. If they wanted to remove Natives to make parks why wait 40 years? To suggest there was some long-term plan involved stretches the imagination. You are giving our government to much credit.

  10. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    ^^I wondered what ever became of him. Glad he was nabbed!

    Anyway, here’s video of a rare sighting of a wolverine in Yellowstone, I think he or she has been seen twice!

    How can we protect them from trapping?:

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Put an end to trapping, Ida but that’s not going to happen anytime soon as long as there’s a market for fur and not enough public outcry.

      Here’s another wolverine caught on film a few years ago. The location is about 20 miles from me, as the crow flies. Interesting coloration on the front leg.

  11. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Don’t want to stray too far from the original topic, but – it’s the only subject that both political parties seem to be able to find ‘unity’ in.

    They’re it again – didn’t Wisconsin just prove that they cannot be trusted to manage a wolf population?:

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      This is sad, but things can be done about this.

      I have been convinced for a long time that wildlife groups, environmental groups, climate change groups, and maybe even animal rights, need to form political action committees. New faces in the electoral system are often surprisingly effective.

      As for Wisconsin, bypass action against Tammy Baldwin for now. Senator Ron Johnson, however, is up for reelection and he doesn’t look strong. He’s a Republican. His loss could be the vote that changes control of the Senate. He also known for his pro-Putin views. He has been a well known American supporter of the most dangerous person on Earth — Vladimir Putin. Wisconsonites need to be told about that again and again. What does this have to do with wolves and wildlife? Nothing at all, except his election defeat would help make this world a much better place for all those creatures including ourselves.
      In addition the campaign by these hypothetical groups would emphasize the wildlife issues. They and these issues would get credit for his defeat. Tammy Baldwin would notice.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner