Managing Wildlife—with Science

By John Clayton

In 1963, the report said, “A visitor entering Grand Teton National Park from the south drives across Antelope Flats. But there are no antelope. No one seems to be asking the question—why aren't there?”

The report had a bland title: “Wildlife Management in the National Parks.” It had a bland-sounding author, the Advisory Board on Wildlife Management. The panel had been appointed by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, who was punting on a thorny political issue. He was hoping that a blue-ribbon academic committee would allow him to blandly avoid criticism for a horrific operation inside Yellowstone National Park where rangers killed more than 4,000 elk.

But the board chair—who wrote the report himself, with consent but little participation from his fellow board members—turned out to be quite a storyteller. You can see it in that quote: Clearly, he had been the visitor driving into the Tetons. Crossing Antelope Flats. Looking for pronghorn, and wondering why there weren’t any. And writing up that story to build, in the reader’s mind, suspense to match his own.

His name was A. Starker Leopold. He was a widely admired professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of several scientific books. He served on lots of boards, university and nonprofit and government alike. He was the eldest son of famed ecologist Aldo Leopold, and his contributions to the human understanding of nature—of a very different type than his father’s—are sometimes overlooked.

The Leopold Report, as it’s known, is more famous within the National Park Service than in the general population. That’s because Leopold’s solution was to ask bigger questions. What were the goals of wildlife management in the national parks? And what policies would best achieve those goals? Only when you answered those questions could you know which management methods would best implement policies such as reducing elk populations.

Such surprisingly simple questions had surprisingly insufficient answers. If, say, a proposed hotel would degrade wildlife habitat, how was an administrator supposed to act? Leopold suggested goals. He urged active management to achieve those goals. He urged science to support that management. And he urged the use of natural processes, including predation, wildfires and native species. “Restoration of antelope in Jackson Hole, for example, should be done by managing native forage plants, not by planting crested wheat grass or plots of irrigated alfalfa,” he wrote.

Managers delighted in the specificity and clear thinking. All of this was considerably ahead of the times for 1963. Leopold made a few mistakes, and took some perspectives that in retrospect were deeply problematic. But on the whole, he brought the benefits of a discipline of management to a set of managers who desperately (if sometimes unknowingly) needed them.

I find the report—especially its drawbacks—particularly fascinating. I’ve been researching it for several years. Last month, published my article about it, “National Parks, Science and the 1963 Leopold Report.” But just after I submitted my first draft, my understanding of the story changed.

Most people who pay attention to the Leopold Report focus on the elk, and Yellowstone. They also note that hunters of the era believed the best solution would be to allow elk hunting in Yellowstone. Leopold was an avid hunter, and yet he found that he was more importantly a disciple of the discipline of management. It’s all fascinating human drama.

In search of an additional angle for a Wyoming publication, I decided to look at Antelope Flats. The science of Leopold’s day told him that habitat was the best answer to most problems. The pronghorn would return to Antelope Flats for better native forage plants. In great storytelling tradition, he raised the issue early in the report, and answered it later.

Yet after I expressed admiration for this strategy, I read Ben Goldfarb’s new book Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of our Planet. I realized that Leopold was right to ask why there weren’t pronghorn at Antelope Flats. But his answer to that question wasn’t very good. Other scientists kept asking it, and came up with better answers. Which is how science and storytelling work.

What was that better answer? You can find it in the published article here.

[Editor’s note: Versions of this post are being published both here and at the author’s online newsletter, Natural Stories.]

Read National Parks, Science, and the 1963 Leopold Report