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A brief human history of Yellowstone

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Although Native Americans had long hunted in what is now Yellowstone National Park, they were present only in limited numbers by the 1807 arrival of the first white man – John Colter, a veteran of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Colter’s account of the exploding geysers and seething cauldrons of “Colter’s Hell” (located east of Yellowstone, near Cody) was widely ridiculed at the time. However, as ever more trappers, scouts and prospectors told similar tales, three increasingly larger expeditions set out to chart the region each year beginning in 1869. In 1872, Yellowstone was set aside as the first national park, in part to ensure that its assets were not entirely stripped by hunters and miners, and also to appease railroad interests looking for a new destination to which they could shuttle visitors.

At first, management of the park was beset by problems, and Congress devoted enthusiasm, but little funding, toward its protection. Irresponsible tourists stuck soap down the geysers, damaging their intricate plumbing; bandits preyed on stagecoaches carrying rich excursionists; and, the Nez Percé even killed two tourists as they were chased through the park (see Hells Canyon region). By 1886, Congress had taken the park out of civilian hands and put the army in charge.

When the army handed Yellowstone over to the newly created National Park Service in 1917, automobiles were already a prevalent presence. Conflict between tourism and wilderness preservation has raged ever since. Ecologists now warn that the park cannot stand alone as some pristine paradise; rather, it must be seen as part of a much larger “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” encompassing Yellowstone, the Tetons, the Snake River Valley (which stretches south of Jackson to just over the Idaho border) and the northern reaches of the Wind River Mountains. In 1995, amid vociferous complaints from local ranchers fearing a loss of livestock, grey wolves were reintroduced. From the original fourteen animals released, there are now around 150 wolves comprising some fifteen packs roaming the Greater Yellowstone area.

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