It was nothing more than a happy accident that lead Dr. Diane Smith to research the relationship between two iconic American institutions: Yellowstone National Park and the Smithsonian Institute. In fact, if not for an old box in the Yellowstone archives, Yellowstone and the Smithsonian; Center of Wildlife Conservation may not have been written.
“I was in the Yellowstone archives, looking through boxes,” Dr. Smith explains. “I found an ordinary box that was full of records of animal shipments. It was absolutely fascinating. It listed animals, as if they were commodities being shipped from the park east to the Smithsonian, and to other national parks and zoos. There were elk and bison and bears – literally hundreds of animals. That completely changed how I looked at park management and conservation.”
Dr. Smith’s book explores the early relationship between Yellowstone National Park and the Smithsonian Institution as they tried to conserve American wildlife for future generations. By viewing Yellowstone’s history in relation to that of the Smithsonian, the National Museum, and ultimately the National Zoo, Yellowstone and the Smithsonian sheds new light on wildlife management in the park prior to the National Park Service, highlights the important role animals played in Yellowstone’s management and development and illustrates how visitors viewed and experienced the park.
“While much has been written about the history of Yellowstone and its wildlife,” Dr. Smith writes in the book’s introduction, “few have explored the story of how the cavalry transformed the park into a centralized source for museum and zoo animals and developed its own system for trapping, displaying, and shipping wildlife around the country and even around the world.”
The book explores the relationship that developed between the two institutions as the organizations tried to conserve American wildlife for future generations, with each becoming more like the other.
“These animal transfers are so clearly documented I am surprised no one has written about them before,” Dr. Smith says.
Congress established Yellowstone National Park in part to “provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit.” Thus, from its founding, Yellowstone focused on protecting the great herds of animals that once roamed free in the American West. Just as Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century expected to see native wildlife preserved in both museums and zoos so, too, did travelers to Yellowstone assume threat they could view specimens of the American West in the Park. In essence, Yellowstone’s wildlife, sandwiched somewhere between domesticated and wild, served as living representatives of their species just as they would in any other museum or zoological park.
Dr. Smith explains that the shipping of animals out of Yellowstone became such a common occurrence that many of today’s national parks could, essentially, trace animal lineage back to Yellowstone.
“It’s not too strange to argue that,” Dr. Smith says with a laugh. “The sheer number of animals taken out of Yellowstone and sent to other parks and zoos is kind of staggering. To this day we continue to view Yellowstone National Park as a center of wildlife conservation, although no that wildlife faces different challenges.”
“As the national park with the highest profile, to this day Yellowstone inevitably ends up I the middle of contentious and politicized debates, ranging from the advisability of snowmobiles to the natural role of wildlife fire,” she writes in Yellowstone and the Smithsonian. “But many of the park’s greatest controversies still focus on the fate and treatment of Yellowstone wildlife – from bison to wolves – that continue to wander both into and out of the park. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not Yellowstone National Park administrators can provide a center of conservation for some of the nation’s last free-ranging animals as part of a greater expanse of wildlife habitat in the American West, or must resort to managing a relatively small island of land as if it were just another national zoo.”
Diane Smith is a research historian with the USDA Forest Service and the author of Pictures from an Expedition and Letters from Yellowstone. She lives in Missoula, Montana.