Yellowstone, Ethnic Cleansing and Trophic Cascades.

Those many people who enjoy the British countryside by walking or travelling through it will understand that to witness a beautiful view brings us great joy. This act of enjoyment can take many forms – we can struggle up the dizzy heights of Crib Goch and brave the wind as it threatens to sweep us off our feet along the knife edge to the summit of Snowdon. Or we can take a more leisured path to the top of the Dorset Gap and admire the rolling chalk hills beyond. We might take a gentle summer’s evening stroll along the banks of a chalk stream and watch the trout rising. Or we might wait in the chilly autumn dawn in a punt – hidden on the edge of a reed-bed – with a Labrador, waiting for the tide to turn and the duck to fly in. Always there is pleasure; sometimes that pleasure is so intense, there is a deep feeling of connection with the landscape, or perhaps even higher authority.

The rewilders say that this spiritual rejuvenation can be enhanced to even greater heights if the landscape that we survey is completely untainted by human utilitarian activity. Or, if such a genuinely pristine landscape cannot be found, then one which is allowed to revert without any human interference will suffice. Hand-in-hand with this exclusion of human activity, comes vast improvements in biodiversity. Or so the rewilders say.

Whilst it can be accepted that viewing a beautiful landscape is uplifting, evidence for the claims of improvements in biodiversity made by rewilders, is much harder to come by. So, in their search for ecological justification, the rewilders usually settle upon Yellowstone National Park in the United States as their archetype for a landscape which has been returned to nature in this way.

In the first half of the 19th Century, as the great American West advanced across the apparently virgin territories of the interior of the United States, there was an increasing public realisation of what could easily be lost for ever. Visionary writers, artists and legislators combined to create what later became a network of national parks across the United States. The first was Yellowstone National Park. This is the world’s first ever national park – and the first manifestation of practical environmental consciousness to be marked out on the ground and then set in law. Yellowstone was formally inaugurated in 1872 by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S Grant.

At that time, wolves were thought to be harmful to the survival of park’s resident Bison and Elk, so from 1914 they were systematically persecuted by the park authorities and were finally eradicated in 1926. With the removal of the Wolf, Coyotes became the next largest predator. Coyotes are not big enough to bring down an adult Elk, and so the Elk rapidly increased in numbers. The Elk control the amount of deciduous vegetation, especially Cottonwood, Willow and Aspen, which declined as overgrazing by the uncontrolled Elk took effect. Meanwhile, the Coyote (which is often predated by the Wolf) also increased in numbers until the Pronghorn became threatened. The response by the park authorities to the Elk overgrazing was to cull the Elk heavily. Then hunters complained because there were not enough Elk. Unintended consequences began to multiply.

In the late 20th Century, a better understanding of the role that predators play in ecosystems developed as it was realised that large predators like the Wolf control the Elk, which in turn affect vegetation cover and many other things. So, in 1995, wolves from a Canadian source were reintroduced into Yellowstone. Numbers have steadily increased over the years and by 2016, there were 11 packs and about 108 wolves counted.

The effect of the wolves returning to Yellowstone is that numbers of elk have declined and have also altered their behaviour by reducing grazing and browsing in areas which present a high risk of wolf attack. As a result, areas of willow next to the rivers have regenerated and thus Beavers have returned to some, but not all, of their original haunts. The arrival of the beavers has created many more ponds and so improved numbers of many other riparian species. Away from the beaver dams, numbers of Coyote have dropped because wolves will predate Coyotes. This in turn allows Red Fox numbers to increase, because they are predated by Coyotes. As Red Fox numbers drop, the numbers of small mammals rise.

All this amounts to a real-world demonstration of what ecologists call a trophic cascade, with the wolf as not just an apex predator, but also acting as a keystone species and thus affecting all other things below it in the trophic cascade.


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Figure 1Simplified trophic cascade for Yellowstone National Park, showing the influence of wolves upon other parts of the park ecosystem.

A central theme of rewilding is that the ecological health of an area (its “biodiversity”) is dependent upon the apex predators and large herbivores which are, respectively, at the top and next level down in the trophic cascade. These are essential components of the system for the cascade to function properly. Rewilders therefore argue that the insertion of a top predator (which may have been extinct for some time) into a landscape will necessarily bring about a “restoration” of the ecosystem. Rewilders deem ecosystems which are bereft of such apex predators to be “degraded”. This is the core justification for their plans to reintroduce Lynx into upland Britain, because the Roe deer in such areas are often too many and require culling to bring them back into balance again. Reintroduction of Lynx (whose favourite prey are Roe) will thus reduce the numbers of Roe and so bring about ecological benefits to the rest of the cascade and ultimately to the whole landscape. As evidence that this idea works, rewilders point to Yellowstone. There lie two object lessons: firstly, in the dire consequences of removing Wolves from the park; and secondly in their reintroduction which brought everything back into balance again.

Yellowstone therefore provides a poster child for the rewilding movement.

But there is one small glitch in this ecologists’ success story: Yellowstone National Park is situated in the north-western corner of Wyoming, but also intrudes into the neighbouring states of Montana and Idaho (see maps):

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Figure 2Maps of United States showing location of Yellowstone Park.

The wolves are now sufficiently numerous that they occasionally leave the protected confines of the park and raid cattle in the surrounding cattle country and northern Rockies, where licensed hunting is allowed. As a result, the wolves are sometimes shot by hunters. This operates as a partial external control upon wolf numbers within the park. But it also provides a tiny clue to a missing part of the story about Yellowstone trophic cascades which is never acknowledged by rewilders; and almost never admitted by academic ecologists.

Before Yellowstone was discovered by the white man, most parts of it were used as hunting grounds by Native Americans. They used to hunt Elk, Bison, Beaver and many other animals, including Wolves. So, the ultimate predator at the top end of the trophic cascade were Humans – not Wolves. Figure 3 is a suggestion of the likely trophic cascade that existed before the arrival of the white man.

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Figure 3Simplified, idealised trophic cascade suggesting the likely influence upon Yellowstone ecology of the Native American tribes before the arrival of the white man.

Despite its superficial differences, Figure 3 contains the same links, from the wolf downwards, as the trophic cascade in Figure 1. The difference is that the hunting influence of the Native Americans is also shown. This complicates the picture but shows the likely influence of the humans reaching across all levels of the cascade. Whilst Elk, Moose and Bison were hunted for their meat and skins, the predators and beavers were hunted mostly for their fur. Native American attitudes towards the Wolf were far from uniform. Some tribes revered the Wolf and did not hunt them; whilst others also revered the Wolf and did hunt them. Attitudes varied considerably between tribes – and altered over history with the increased demand for furs of all types which were traded and then exported to Europe. Given these historical uncertainties, the exact influence that the Yellowstone tribes had upon the Elk and Wolves cannot be precisely gauged. However, there is little doubt that the Native American impact upon Elk population would have been considerable – and is likely to have been much greater than that of the wolves.

Sadly, no-one has conducted an ecological impact study of the Native Americans. Likewise, the ecological influence of the Native Americans upon the trophic cascades within Yellowstone have not been studied or even mentioned. All that is to be found in the literature are descriptions of relationships which resemble Figure 1 and where the Wolf is at the apex. Perhaps this omission from the literature is because of a collective guilt conscience exhibited by the National Park Service and academic ecologists – because the formation of Yellowstone National Park involved the forcible removal of the Native American tribes. And here the story becomes bleak and dark – a story of the shameful ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from their home territories, which was undertaken by the US Government in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

At this point, this article becomes heavily dependent upon an elegant essay [1] written by Isaac Kantor which details the ethnic cleansing of three of America’s National Parks – Yellowstone, Glacier and Mesa Verde.

The philosophical threads which lead to the formation of America’s national parks perhaps begins in the 1830s with George Catlin, an artist, who was captivated by the Great Plains and the Native Americans who lived in them. He suggested that some of the American wilderness should be set aside to preserve it, along with the Native American way of life. Kantor quotes Catlin as asking for a “nation’s park containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their beauty.” This idea was echoed by other writers such as Washington Irvine who said in 1837 that a preserve should be created which was “an immense belt of rocky mountains and volcanic plains, several hundred miles in width …. must ever remain an irreconcilable wilderness, intervening between the abodes of civilisation, and affording a last refuge for the Indian.” As Kantor points out: “Conspicuously absent from these observations is the idea that the buffalo and elk and American Indians could co-exist with white settlement.” This is an important observation upon the writings of these early Americans. Already, the seeds of removal and separation from traditional Native American homelands had been planted.

In fairness to these writers, it was clear at the time that co-existence of the nomadic hunter-gatherer societies of the Native American, with the new Americans of European stock with their sheep, cattle and fences, was unlikely to work in practical terms. The onward sweep of the white settlers across the American West was unstoppable. As tensions rose between Native Americans and the white settlers, political attitudes hardened, and racism became the norm.

The new reality for the American West meant the crushing of the Native Americans by the endless invasion of settlers, so nothing further was done towards achieving Catlin’s noble ambition. The dream of creating vast homelands for the Native Americans slipped away. But the twin principles of saving spaces free from development; and of corralling the Native Americans into reservations remained, grew, and then matured. Vast spaces were to be preserved for the enjoyment of the white man; and the Native Americans would be incarcerated into reservations. The two things would be entirely separate. So in 1872, Yellowstone National Park was formally created.

At about that time John Muir, an American born in Scotland to a very strict Presbyterian family, began to explore and write about the area now known as the Yosemite National Park. As befits his upbringing, Muir was a deeply religious man. His writings became increasingly popular and influential as they extolled the beauties of untrammelled nature. Muir’s spiritual connection with the mountains and forests was infectious; and many prominent people came to visit him and listen to his views on the importance of the ‘uninhabited wilderness’.

However, Muir’s description of Yosemite as being uninhabited was not true. Yosemite was the homeland of the Miwok tribe who had lived there for perhaps 4000 years. Muir’s essay The Mountains of California describes in detail the flora, fauna and geology, but little of the resident Native Americans. When he does describe encounters with them, Kantor says that Muir’s attitude is largely disdainful. The Wikipedia entry for Muir suggests that his attitude towards the Native Americans softened over time; but his writing suggests that Muir considered the Native Americans were an impediment to the pristine beauty of Yosemite and other wild places that he visited.

Muir was not alone. Kantor says:

‘Muir’s view of Native Americans is a sad blind spot in an otherwise thoughtful writer, and he was not alone in his beliefs. Samuel Bowles, an influential advocate of both the national park system and Indian reservation, saw the two as incompatible. Spectacular landscapes were to be the “pleasure ground and health home of the nation.” In contrast the Indians he advocated removing from these places were doomed to extinction, and thus, the reservations would “smooth and make decent the pathway to [the Indians’] grave. It was this mindset that Indian removal from the West’s “wildest” landscapes, and establishing those places as national parks, was justified.’

And so it was that the Native Americans were removed from their ancestral homes and hunting grounds and re-settled into reservations. John Muir’s zealous writings on the majesty of nature, galvanised the urbanised settlers’ subliminal desire to restore a long-lost Garden of Eden and atone for the original sin of Adam and Eve. Thus the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans was justified. Kantor details the legal stages by which this creeping injustice was perpetrated – and is well worth a read.

But there is another twist involving John Muir which takes us into another philosophical aspect of the origins of the rewilding movement.

In 1896, Muir met and exchanged views with Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot was a powerful and well-connected man who was the first qualified forester in the United States and became the first head of the US Forest Service. He was also a very early exponent of the conservation movement. Both were agreed that clear felling of forests and gross exploitation were damaging. They agreed on many other things. However, Muir felt that wildernesses were places for spiritual reconnection and prayer; whereas Pinchot was elucidating an early version of the sustainable use of natural resources by humans. Inevitably, the two men – great visionaries in their different ways – fell out and parted. Thus began the great debate between the preservationists (Muir) and the conservationists (Pinchot).

Here, in the 21st Century, if ‘preservation’ is replaced by ‘rewilding’ then we arrive at the modern-day disagreement between the rewilders and the conservationists, which still takes exactly the same form. The conservationists seem to be a largely practical lot who feel that management of the environment, in conjunction with existing land-users such as farmers, can yield real benefits in the way of increased/improved biodiversity. Conversely, the rewilders feel that theirs is a better thing altogether and that it can only be achieved by the removal of human use of the land. Theirs is the purer, ascetic, quasi-religious way to environmental righteousness. And perhaps this is why they maintain an air of moral superiority over the conservationists and the rest of us.

Evolutionary biologists sometimes talk of ‘convergent evolution’, where two completely different species of plants or animals independently evolve very similar responses or physical characteristics to similar environments. A similar phenomenon occurs with human ideas. For example, calculus was invented simultaneously by Leibniz and Newton in the mid 17th Century.

In the story of the development of the rewilding idea, it becomes clear that there were two independent strands of thought which lead to the principles behind rewilding, and which happened at roughly the same time. One was of Germanic origin and the other originated in North America. The American strand was propelled to a large extent by the passion of Muir’s writing. Modern rewilders therefore have two parallel strands of thought feeding into their ideological model. The first is the European perspective of Deutsche wald (German forest culture) with an overlay of Jagdkultur (hunting culture) – the idea of pristine forests, untouched by human hand except for a little hunting. The second is the John Muir ideal of pristine landscapes, almost entirely untrammelled by humans, but without the influence of hunting. Muir’s ideas (and those of other similar American thinkers) led to the formation of the National Park network in the United States. In both cases, the aim was to allow nature to proceed along its own chaotic path – and for humans to act merely as spectators to this process. In both cases, the principal objective is to give modern, urban humans recreation and spiritual uplift.

But these benign, spiritual aspirations contrast with the reality of what actually happened in the United States. To quote Kantor again:

‘Glacier and many other national parks, are built upon an illusion. They seem to offer us a rare chance to experience the continent as it was, to set eyes on a vista unspoiled by human activity. This uninhabited nature is a recent construction. The untold story behind our unspoiled views and virgin forests is this: these landscapes were inhabited, their features named, their forests utilised, their plants harvested, and animals hunted. Native Americans have a history in our national parks measured in millennia. They were forcibly removed, and later treaty rights to traditional use such as hunting and fishing were erased, often without acknowledgement or compensation. Immediately after these removals, the parks were advertised as a showcase of uninhabited America, nature’s handiwork unspoiled.’

This is the dark and unpalatable origin of the American strand of rewilding ideology. The European strand is no better. Both of these are completely unacknowledged by the rewilding movement, perhaps because both led to authoritarian ethnic cleansing (and worse).

But we need to return to the ecological consequences of this ethnic cleansing, as demonstrated at Yellowstone.

There were four tribes which inhabited Yellowstone before its inauguration as a national park in 1872. These were the Crow, Shoshone, Bannock and Sheep Eaters. The early years, between 1886 and 1916, the administration of the park was carried out by the US Army, which enforced the eviction of the Native Americans. Thereafter, the newly formed National Park Service took over its management. The last human inhabitants of the park were a small group of Sheep Eaters who were finally ejected in 1879.  A mere 25 years later, the park began to eliminate the wolves. Meanwhile, the Elk, whose main predators were the Native Americans, began to build up numbers until the wolves were also eliminated and then there was nothing to restrain their numbers except disease and starvation. And that was when the Willow and Aspen began to be overgrazed and the rest of the ecosystem went through a series of consequential fluctuations in numbers of many other species.

A central tenet of rewilding theory is that ecosystems should be “restored” with the addition of large predators and even larger herbivores into the system. This is alleged to bring everything into a kind of blissful dynamic balance. In late 20th Century Europe, Frans Vera, a Dutch ecologist, has argued that the original post-glaciated landscape of Europe was not that of a more-or-less continuous forest stretching from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle, but a landscape of groves of trees surrounded by grassland – a patchwork of grasslands and open spaces and some thick forests of varying sizes. This thinking has influenced the rewilding movement considerably. The Vera hypothesis – a patchwork of highly variable habitats and ecosystems – is the image of “restored biodiversity” that the rewilders paint, hoping for public enthusiasm and governmental approval.

However, Frans Vera’s experiments at Oostvaardersplassen with large herbivores have produced little except a lot of grass. All the trees have been eaten. The rewilders say that this is because there are no large predators there; and the livestock are limited by food availability (and considerable animal welfare problems). So, they point to the story (as they have told it) of the Yellowstone Wolves. There is little doubt that the reintroduction of Wolves into Yellowstone has helped matters a little, but there is still denial amongst the park authorities, ecologists and rewilders about the importance of the ultimate keystone species – Humans.

As well as eating a lot of Elk and hunting the occasional Wolf, the Native Americans contributed to Yellowstone’s varied ecology in another way – by the use of fire. Fire is an important part of the natural ecology of North America. Huge wildfires are often damaging because they are uncontrolled and burn hot and deep. On the other hand, controlled fires which are allowed to sweep rapidly across grass and scrubland, clean out the area of unwanted woody material and promote new growth. (There are very close parallels here with the way in which controlled burning of grouse moors in the UK operate). Native Americans used fire to control and promote new growth as well as open up areas for the planting of tobacco and maize. A useful summary of the Native American use of fire is this Wikipedia entry.

After the eviction of the Native Americans from Yellowstone, the park authorities had a policy of fire suppression because they considered the Native American practice of fires to be “unnatural” and it interfered with the ideal of a pristine landscape which was controlled by nature alone. Over the decades this allowed vegetation detritus to build up. This policy continued until the disastrous fire of 1988 when a wildfire swept across most of the park and took months to put out. Their summer entire income from ecotourism was lost. Policy has now changed, and small controlled burns are conducted regularly, to reduce the impact of fires started by accident or lightning. These produce a patchwork of habitats across the park in much the same way as the Native Americans did until the formation of the park in 1872.

What had happened at Yellowstone is not that one apex predator (Wolves) had been removed, but two. In Yellowstone, the keystone species – the species which controls all other levels of the trophic cascade – were Humans in the form of the bands of Native Americans. Once they had been removed and then the Wolves exterminated, the scene was set for ecological chaos. And that is pretty well what happened. In subsequently restoring the Wolves, but not the Native Americans, things have improved, but rather slowly.

Eventually, and doubtless reluctantly, the park authorities will have to consider culling the Elk and the Wolves. They have already rediscovered the use of controlled fire. They have begun to cull the Bison again. The political pressure to cull the Wolves is mounting because they are raiding cattle outside the park.  When a Wolf cull happens, the park authorities will have gone full circle – they will be acting as a proxy for the missing Crow, Shoshone, Bannock and Sheep Eaters. The journey from the idealistic, non-interventionist, preservationist dogma which set up the park, will have morphed into a pragmatic conservationist regime of monitoring and gentle management of the ecosystem. Once again, Humans will be at the apex of the cascade – back to exactly where they were 180 years ago.

Humans have been reintroduced to the ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park.

One of the central tenets of rewilding doctrine is that human utilitarian or extractive activity is necessarily bad for the ecosystem. Such things as farming, game shooting and commercial forestry will bring about “degradation” of the ecosystem. So, under the rewilding dogma, it is necessary to remove these activities before “restoration” can begin. John Muir and many others clearly also thought along the same lines – which is why the Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands of four thousand years.

For those who are prepared to learn the lessons, the history of the ecology of Yellowstone suggests that the perceived natural balance of the park was disrupted by the removal, not only of the Wolves, but also of the Humans. That balance is being slowly restored by the park authorities as they grapple with the realities of re-learning what the Native Americans knew and did, before they were removed. In other words: the quality and variety of the ecosystem is enhanced by the Humans that live and work in it – as well as the Wolves.

The rewilding movement, both in the UK and the EU, have been silent about their philosophical origins. Most rewilders will be largely ignorant as to the beginnings of their own movement – and many would be horrified if they knew how and when their ideas began. But here in the present, there is a yawning chasm in their credo, which is marked by their silence on the prior removal of Humans (farmers, foresters, hunters and the like) from an ecosystem that they might wish to rewild. Their silence, their evasions, obfuscations and deflections are all symptomatic of a movement which knows, deep down, that if they actually stated the truth, they would never achieve their aims.

In their desperate evangelism to convert us into embracing the chimera of an idealised, illusory landscape, the rewilders are being either deeply cynical or hopelessly naive.


[1] Kantor I (2007): Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks. Public Land and Resources Law Review, vol. 28.


  1. This ethnic cleansing that you speak of – would that be the displacement of wild nature by the advance of modern humans into the American continent about 12,000ya. Even if you make an allowance for the as yet unproven earlier advance of Neanderthals or Denisovans, that only pushes it back to 130,000 years ago, and so we are still talking about a drop in the ocean in terms of time compared to the existence and presence of wild nature.

    Having been to Yellowstone as the snow was clearing, I had Joel Janetski’s book “Indians in the Yellowstone National Park” accompanying me during my two-week stay there, walking its backcountry trails. There is little evidence that any native Americans were permanently settled in Yellowstone – its covered with deep snow for half the year – but it was used for seasonal hunting, fishing and root gathering, as well as for transit routes across the Rocky Mountains – I walked the Nez Perce trail. The irony is that the trashing of the area around the outside of the Park by the coming of agriculture was a greater loss to native Americans, but that was one of the main points of designating Yellowstone a Park – to keep out from at least the Park area the increasingl arrival of Euro-American settlers, their agriculture, and their huckster practices.

    You do know that the first use of the word rewilding in print was in 1990? Newsweek journalist Jennifer Foote wrote about environmentalists becoming more radical and militant, such as groups like Earth First! and Virginians for Wilderness. However, I don’t think they went around displacing people, their key motivation being the lessons from conservation biology.

    So, good polemic, but the conclusions you draw are very imperfect.

    1. Mark, thank you for your input.

      In your first paragraph, you appear to be making a comparison between the arrival of the first humans into North America and the forcible eviction/ethnic cleansing in the 1870s. That is not one that I have made in the article. My concern is simply to outline what happened in relatively recent history – from the 1830s onwards. My argument is that ecologists and rewilders who claim that the Wolf is the sole benefactor to the ecosystem, in Yellowstone and elsewhere, are grossly over-simplifying the ecological dynamics by their exclusion of humans from the ecosystem. They just don’t seem to want to discuss it. This failure on the part of rewilders is, I suggest, one of the reasons why there are deep ideological differences between the rewilders and the conservationists, never mind people such as farmers and gamekeepers.

      I agree that the Indians were not permanently settled in the area that is now the park.

      My literature search suggests that fire was used in places and your own comment says that they used the area for hunting. So we are agreed on the hunting.

      The impact of the Indians upon the numbers of Elk is likely to have been far higher than that of the wolves – because there were more Indians than there were Wolves.

      Ergo, it was the Native American Indians who were the keystone species, not the Wolf. It was most likely the removal of those Indians which began the process of population increase of the Elk which caused the overgrazing. The removal of the Wolves merely exacerbated the situation. Whilst the reintroduced Wolves have improved the situation, it is unlikely on its own to return to the situation pertaining when the park was inaugurated in 1872.

      Your point about the main purpose of the park was to save it from modern development is absolutely correct. The fear of development of these wild spaces was what drove Catlin to make his plea in the 1830s. However, forty years later, by the time the park was actually formed, views of co-existence between Native Americans and European settlers had considerably hardened. And so that was one of the driving forces behind their expulsion, along with a belief that the natives were spoiling the place.

      Hope that clarifies things, even if we disagree.


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