Large numbers of elk and bison are dying in Yellowstone National Park and its periphery this winter, resulting in two certain after effects: Well-meaning people will propose that the animals be "saved" with a massive feeding program, and less-well-meaning people will blame National Park Service officials for allowing so much of Yellowstone to burn last summer and fall.
Feeding the animals would do them no favor. And blaming the Park Service for the die-off would be wrong. The major reason for the depredation of the herds is a bitter winter following seven warm years in which the animal populations have reached their highest levels in memory. The blazes that scorched Yellowstone and adjoining national-forest areas burned only an estimated 9% of the animals' winter range--not nearly enough to have caused the mass starvation now being experienced in the northeast corner of Wyoming and neighboring sections of Montana.
Historically, the elk and bison have migrated north out of the park during the winter months to graze along the Yellowstone River. Montana law requires bison to be shot to prevent the spread of disease to domestic cattle. Elk also become legal targets for hunters once they leave the national park. More critically, much of the traditional winter elk range has been developed and fenced --including the 15,000-acre ranch of the Church Universal and Triumphant of Santa Monica.
There is nothing new about elk overpopulation in Yellowstone, often followed by the starvation of many animals during ensuing harsh winters. Almost every effort to deal with the problem, including special elk hunts back in the early 1960s, has been controversial. But feeding the elk would only keep the Yellowstone herd at unsustainable numbers, assuring an even higher starvation level in some subsequent winter or, in effect, resulting in domesticated animals dependent on feed from humans every winter.
A major part of the problem is the elimination of the elk's natural predator, the wolf, by hunting and trapping for profit years ago. Wolves cull herds by killing primarily the sick and disabled animals. But efforts to reinstate a small number of wolves in the 2.2-million-acre park have been fought by Wyoming and Montana cattlemen and their representatives in Congress. Increasing development in the area around the park also prevents the elk from reaching their traditional winter ranges. The U.S. Forest Service had an opportunity to buy the 15,000-acre church ranch from publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1980, but failed to conclude the deal.
The best way that well-meaning people can help the elk and bison sustain themselves in healthy wild Yellowstone herds is to listen carefully to naturalists who are trained in how to care for them. The nation needs Yellowstone to remain a natural national park, not a giant petting zoo.