The Dark Side of the National Park Service

For many Americans, a visit to a national park can be an enlightening and awe-inspiring journey. From the splendor of a sunrise at the Grand Canyon to the sheer beauty of Yellowstone and from the desolation of Death Valley to the history of Gettysburg, America’s national parks have been set aside to protect some of the United States’ most treasured landscapes and hallowed grounds. The US was the first country to establish a national park beginning with Yellowstone in 1872, some 44 years before the National Park Service (NPS) was even created.

National parks include preserves, lakeshores, and historical parks all established for a variety of reasons—to protect and preserve history, unique geological features, areas of cultural importance, and wild lands and wildlife. For many, the opportunity to see a grizzly bear, a wolf, or a herd of bison in their natural habitat at Yellowstone is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Wildlife beware, however, as the NPS has seemingly embraced new policies that place persecution over protection.

Unlike public lands managed by other federal agencies, lands under the care of the NPS, with a few exceptions, are not open to extractive industries, livestock grazing, or hunting. For the NPS, conservation is its primary mission and trumps every other issue or use. This mission was enshrined in 1916, when an enlightened Congress had the foresight and wisdom to create the NPS to:

...promote and regulate the use of...national parks, monuments, and conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

Unfortunately, the NPS has struggled over the decades to achieve compliance with this statutory direction. From the 1930s to the late 1960s, the NPS routinely manipulated wildlife populations within national parks to achieve the presumed “carrying capacity” of the land or to placate the interests of a burgeoning number of tourists. In Yellowstone, bleachers were erected for tourists to observe bears feeding in the park’s garbage dump while bison and elk were routinely shot or captured live and shipped to other states to control their populations within the park.

In 1963 amid significant public outrage over the lethal control of wildlife within national parks, the government commissioned Leopold Report titled Wildlife Management in the National Parks was released, compelling the NPS to reassess its management policies. This report called for, amongst other recommendations, national parks to be managed as a vignette of primitive America and resulted in the Service’s decision to accept natural regulation—nature dictating and influencing population and habitat dynamics and processes—as its preferred form of management.

The Leopold Report caused a seismic shift in the management of national parks, yet more than 40 years later the NPS continues to violate its own mandate and make decisions that put the interests of visitors over conservation. In Yellowstone, policies that allow continued use of snowmobiles in the park and the capture of bison inside park boundaries for slaughter are just two examples of the NPS ignoring its mandate. As the NPS strays further from its mission, its wildlife management plans have become more deadly.

It started in 1995 in Gettysburg National Military Park when the NPS initiated a massive lethal deer slaughter to reduce the population in order to restore and protect the scenic elements that ostensibly reflected the landscape of Gettysburg in 1863. A similar plan was launched at Eisenhower National Military Park and to date, thousands of white-tailed deer have been gunned down by Service employees or hired sharpshooters.

What started as a trickle has now become a flood with the NPS in at least six more parks implementing or considering lethal deer or elk measures, ostensibly to improve vegetation conditions, protect imperiled species, and improve visitor experiences. In Point Reyes National Seashore in California, the NPS has initiated a lethal deer control plan while ironically embracing non-lethal immunocontraception to control its Tule elk population. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Park, the NPS began a sharpshooting program to remove elk for decimating vegetation.

Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland and Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania are poised to begin wide scale deer sharpshooting programs. Indiana’s Dunes National Lakeshore and Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC are considering whether to use lethal force to control their deer populations. In these cases, the plan involves teams of federal agents or trained contractors to invade the parks at night in late fall/winter to gun down unsuspecting deer feeding on piles of bait. In some cases, silencers will be used to minimize annoyance to nearby residents.

AWI has provided extensive commentary to the NPS on its proposed killing plans identifying deficiencies in its proposals and advocating non-lethal solutions, including immunocontraception, to humanely resolve alleged deer conflicts and impacts.

Fundamentally, the NPS has forgotten the lessons of its past and has re-embraced the bullet, perceiving it to be the solution to an alleged, yet unproven, problem with deer or elk overabundance. In doing so, it makes a mockery of the very laws established to protect park wildlife and ignores the policies of conservation first and natural regulation. What species is next to be targeted by the NPS? AWI objects vociferously to this issue of growing national concern and will do so until the NPS foregoes killing in favor of employing existing unique, innovative, and effective non-lethal ungulate management strategies.