Yellowstone National Park Established (1872)

            The world’s first national park, Yellowstone, was established on March 1, 1872, when President Ulysses Grant added his signature to the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act.  The creation of Yellowstone was a revolutionary event.  During a time of western colonization, the practice of the federal government was to give land away, or sell it, so that it could be used for productive processes—mining, farming, lumbering, cattle grazing and the like.  To set aside a piece of land this size required the location to be extraordinarily special.

            And it was—and remains so today.  The park covers a huge land area, totaling nearly 3500 square miles, bigger than both Rhode Island and Delaware—combined.  The vast majority lies in Wyoming, with slivers running into Montana and Idaho.  Because of its immense size and long period of protection, Yellowstone is considered the northern hemisphere’s best preserved natural ecosystem.  Management today recognizes that value, and natural processes—including fire and wildlife population fluctuations—are allowed to occur without restraint as fully as possible.

Old Faithful (photo by Jon Sullivan)

            But what makes Yellowstone unique are its thermal features.  The park contains the world’s largest active volcanic caldera, measuring 30 by 45 miles.  It has more than 10,000 geothermal surface features, about half of all found in the world.  Geysers—of which Old Faithful is the most famous, and not particularly faithful—number more than 500, again more than half of the world’s total.  The park experiences as many as 3,000 earthquakes every year, obviously most not large enough to be felt by visitors.

            The wildlife of Yellowstone is also spectacular.  The mammal diversity is high, with 67 native species, and 285 bird species live in the wide range of environments in the park.  The park contains the only continuously free-ranging American bison population still in existence, attracting visitors to the Hayden Valley where the largest herds graze.

American bison (photo by Daniel Mayer)

Two species are symbolic for the park, as well as controversial.  Grizzly bears are a favorite species.  Before 1975, the bears were treated much like pets, as visitors fed them from their cars and campgrounds and used the bears as photographic props.  Since 1975, when grizzly bears were added to the Endangered Species list, they have been managed as natural residents of the park.  Feeding and other casual contact have been outlawed, and people have been removed from prime bear habitat.  As a consequence, grizzly bears have increased in abundance.  Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes the bears should be removed from the Endangered Species list, a federal judge has ruled that they remain imperiled and will remain on the list, as of September, 2018.

            Similar trends have occurred for Yellowstone’s other symbol—the gray wolf.  Wolves had been eliminated from the park in the early 1900s, but after being added to the Endangered Species list in the 1970s, a restoration process began.  The first strategy was stocking wolves from Canadian packs.  The successful restoration efforts have led to the total recovery of wolf populations, with more than a dozen packs now occupying the park.  They are no longer on the Endangered Species list.  Some people object to the restoration of wolves, citing their predation on cattle and elk outside the park. 

A tagged wolf in Yellowstone (photo by Dough Smith, National Park Service)

            Most people, however, love what has happened to restore and preserve Yellowstone.  Annual visitation now tops 4 million people, making Yellowstone one of the top five destinations for national park enthusiasts.  Expect big crowds in July, though, as more than 30,000 people each day descend onto the park’s roads and picnic grounds. 

            We take for granted today the level of care and management that Yellowstone receives,    but the park didn’t start that way.  The park’s first superintendent, Nathaniel Langford, was unpaid and had neither a budget nor staff to help him.  Eventually Congress balked at the government’s inability to manage the park, and they turned it over to the U.S. Army in 1886.  Army troops patrolled the park on horseback, guarding the major attractions and expelling poachers.  Not until the National Park Service was created in 1916 did the job of managing the park revert to a civilian workforce.  Today that workforce includes more than 300 permanent and 400 seasonal employees, dedicated to preserving one of the world’s great natural treasures.


National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park.  Birth of a National Park.  Available at:

National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park.  Park Facts.  Available at:

UNESCO.  World Heritage list:  Yellowstone National Park.  Available at:

Yellowstone National Park.  Grizzly Bears & the Endangered Species Act.  Available at:

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
January February March April May June July August September October November December