Yellowstone Lamar Valley Bison

Lamar valley bison c. 1924 (Yellowstone National Park Archives NPS-YELL-27818) and in 2016 (CW-2016-07-24-090). In the 1920s, Yellowstone National Park wranglers stampeded a domesticated herd of bison across the Lamar valley grasslands to thrill park visitors. The early view may be a publicity still taken in 1924 for Hollywood’s filming of Zane Gray’s story “The Thundering Herd.”  The haystacks for winter bison feed are visible on the center right.1 Modern wildlife conservation policies now allow bison to roam freely within the park, and Yellowstone’s total bison numbers have increased from a few hundred in the 1920s to over 5000 by the year 2005.2

Osborne Russell’s Secluded Valley

Osborne Russell came west with Nathaniel Wyeth in 1834 on the expedition that established Fort Hall. Russell spent several years trapping beaver in the Rocky Mountains from Bear Lake north to the Yellowstone River, and his journal of his travels is one of the most detailed of all the American mountain men. He befriended the Shoshoni, and learned their language and customs. He survived several skirmishes with Bloods and Piegan raiders of the Blackfeet confederacy, and once was stripped of his horses and all possessions, and had to walk, wounded, from Yellowstone Lake to Fort Hall. Russell met the great American mountain men of his time—Bonneville, Bridger,  Meek, Wyeth and others, and his journal provides details of  these characters and their travels through the “terra incognita” of the Rockies. 3

In the summer of 1835, Russell was a member of a two-dozen trapper’s brigade that had crossed the Rocky Mountains south of the Grand Tetons to the Wind River, come northwards, then  traveled westwards through the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. On July 30, the brigade descended through dense woods of the upper Lamar Valley, and

at length came to beautiful valley about 8 Mls. Long and 3 or 4 wide surrounded by dark and lofty mountains…the banks of the steam in the valley were low and skirted in many places by beautiful Cotton wood groves. Here we found a few Snake (Shoshone) Indians, comprising 6 men, 7 women and 8 or 10 children who were the only inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot. They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and Sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy…Their personal property consisted of  one old butcher knife nearly worn to the back two old shattered fusees which had long since become useless for want of ammunition, a Small Stone pot and about 30 dogs on which they carried their skins, clothing, provisions etc on their hunting excursions. They were well armed with bows and arrows  pointed with obsidian the bows were beautifully wrought from Sheep, Buffaloe and Elk horns secured with Deer and Elk sinews and ornamented with porcupine quills and generally about 3 feet long…They said there had been a great many beaver on the branches of this stream but they had killed nearly all of them and being ignorant of the value of fur and singed it off with fire in order to drip the meat more conveniently…. We stopped at this place and for my own part I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor surrounded by majestic battlements which seemed to support the heavens and shut out all hostile intruders. 4

Osborne Russell accompanied fur trapping brigades for a total of 5 trips from 1835 to 1839 in the Greater Yellowstone area, frequently passing through the Lamar, which he called the “Secluded Valley.” His journal describes Yellowstone’s wondrous geysers, canyons, and waterfalls, and the great mix of Shoshoni, Blackfoot and Crow peoples in which the fur trappers survived through friendship, trade, or warfare.

An Ecosystem in Decline

For ecologists, Russell’s and other early journals descriptions of wildlife give some understanding of relative abundance and distribution at the time. Charles Kay from Utah State University tabulated these observations, finding that bison and elk were historically rare in the valley, and that mule deer and bighorn sheep constituted a largest proportion of ungulate numbers in the 1800s. In contrast, since the 1920s, numerous elk and bison utilize this area. 5

Kay, along with several other researchers show that super-abundant elk and bison numbers, resulting from removal of native peoples and predator control, have intensively browsed woody plants,  and seriously altered many of Yellowstone’s natural communities including aspen forests, sagebrush shrublands, and the riparian willows and cottonwoods described by Russell in 1835. Indeed, the repeat photographs above show that the cover of sagebrush in the foreground, already altered by bison ranching in the 1920s, has continued to decline.  Along the banks of the Lamar River (mid-ground), there is a general thinning out of cottonwoods and willow. The once large groves of aspen that once covered the lower slopes of the background mountains have now nearly disappeared.6 Kay’s conclusions have been partially validated by the effects of partially restoring long-term predation patterns. Since park managers restored wolves to Yellowstone, elk numbers on the northern winter range that includes the Lamar valley have declined from over 20,000 to less than 4,000. In a few areas, usually upper elevations with deep snow, aspen, willow and other woody plants have begun to reach heights greater >1m in height for the first time since the 1930s. Optimistic ecologists describe this effect of wolves, killing elk, thus reducing browsing on willow and aspen as a “trophic cascade” that could eventually restore many Yellowstone plant communities. 7

However, humans, not wolves are bison’s most important long-term predator.  People could easily kill the big beasts in the narrow valleys, often filled with deep snows, of the Rocky Mountains. With the disruption of this process, today’s high bison densities, through trampling and foraging, now continue to degrade many plants and associated species such as beaver– once abundant in Russell’s “Secluded Valley”, but now rare. Moreover, the intense summer fire in 1988 that swept through the valley killed many of the taller surviving aspen and cottonwoods. The young tree sprouts that sprung up after the burn were then cropped by intense wildlife browsing. The double impact of hot fires followed by intense browsing can eventually kill the usually long-lived root systems for clones of deciduous trees and shrubs. Historically, these plants would thrive with periodic light burns, often started by humans, in spring and fall seasons.8 

Sadly, similar conditions exist along the low elevation reaches of most of Yellowstone Park’s streams including the Madison River and Lost Creek in Yancey’s Hole.

Footnotes and Map

  1. Sellars, R. W. Preserving Nature in National Parks: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 75-77; Franke, M. A. To Save the Wild Bison: Life on the Edge in Yellowstone. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005, 70-73
  2. Plumb, G.E., P.J. White, M.B. Coughenour, R. L. Wallen. “Carrying Capacity, Migration, and Dispersal in Yellowstone Bison.”  Biological Conservation 142: 2377-2387 (2009).
  3. Haines, A. L., ed. Journal of a Trapper: Osborne Russell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955. Bison Book edition, 1965.
  4. Haines, Russell Journal, p. 27-28
  5. Kay, C. E. “Yellowstone’s Northern Elk Herd: A Critical Evaluation of the ‘Natural Regulation’ Paradigm.” Ph.D. diss., Utah State University, 1990: p. 251-289 for historical journal analysis; Kay, C. E. “Aboriginal Overkill: The Role of Native Americans in Structuring Western Ecosystems.” Human Nature 5 (1994): 359–98.
  6. Kay, “Yellowstone Elk”; Wagner, F.H. Yellowstone’s Destabilized Ecosystem: Elk Effects, Science, and Policy Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006.
  7. Ripple, W. J., E. J. Larsen, R. A. Renkin, and D. W. Smith. “Trophic Cascades among Wolves, Elk and Aspen on Yellowstone National Park’s Northern Range.” Biological Conservation 102 (2001): 227–234; Beschta, R. L. “Cottonwoods, Elk, and Wolves in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park.” Ecological Applications, 13 (2003): 1295–1309; Beschta, R. L. and W. J. Ripple. “Divergent Patterns of Riparian Cottonwood Recovery after the Return of Wolves in Yellowstone, USA.” Ecohydrology, Wiley Online Library.( DOI: 10.1002/eco.1487 (2014).
  8. White, C. A., C. E. Olmsted, and C. E. Kay. “Aspen, Elk, and Fire in the Rocky Mountain National Parks of North America.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 26 (1998): 449–62.
Center map