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Jackson Hole, WY News

Fabled wildlife park failed fast

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Jackson Hole Wildlife Park

When it came to wildlife viewing in the old days, Yellowstone National Park had it all.

Tourists could visit the Lamar Valley’s Buffalo Ranch and see the great shaggy beasts up close or sit in the stands at the garbage dump and witness bears pawing and fighting over last night’s human dinner. If folks missed the nightly ursine show they could still catch the habituated roadway bears that pounded the pavement begging for food.

Compared with this Yellowstone wildlife “show,” Grand Teton National Park had nothing. Driving through the park could seem like a wildlife wasteland: It was possible to drive from the town of Jackson to Yellowstone’s south boundary with domestic cattle being the large-animal highlight. That situation bothered Wyoming Gov. Lester Hunt, who wanted people to see Wyoming wildlife on their trips through the Tetons. He reached out to Laurance Rockefeller in the hope of creating some sort of wildlife exhibit in northern Jackson Hole — and the philanthropic financier was receptive.

Returning to New York City, Rockefeller took up the topic with two other people: Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr., and Horace Albright. Osborn, a conservationist, had just published “The Plundered Planet,” one of the first ecology-focused books. Furthermore, his interest in biology and wild animals led to an appointment on the New York Zoological Society board of trustees, which he eventually presided over. Albright, the National Park Service’s second director, was no longer employed by the agency at the time but was still influential and shaped its policy. He believed wildlife visibility should be encouraged, for they attracted visitation to the national parks. So Albright and Osborn endorsed the exhibit idea, and Rockefeller was willing to fund the project.

By 1947 the “Jackson Hole Wildlife Park” was on its way. The founders located the park at Oxbow Bend, just a little south of the Jackson Lake dam. It consisted of 1,600 acres of mainly grassland, including a 400-acre fenced enclosure. The park exhibited live bison, elk, antelope, moose and deer in their “natural surroundings.” Bison were furnished from the Yellowstone herd, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department contributed most of the other wildlife. The project also included a research arm, where scientists received grants to study animals or birds indigenous to the area. Researchers received housing in small cabins located at the Jackson Lake dam. The expectation was that the exhibit and research center would enhance tourists’ education and appreciation of wild animals, thus indirectly supporting the Park Service mission.

From the beginning, there were critics. Richard Winger, a prominent Jackson Hole Realtor who worked with Grand Teton National Park, faulted the fence design and had concerns with the plan to release the animals in the fall, care for them in the winter and round them up in the spring. Winger thought the whole thing was misguided — physically, biologically, ecologically and politically. Another forceful opponent was Olaus Murie, who spent his entire career tracking, sketching, and observing wild animals for the U.S. Biological Survey. The wildlife park violated everything he knew about free-roaming wildlife. To see a moose behind a fence was not comparable to the surprise and possible danger of coming upon one in a wilderness setting, Murie contended. He thought only the latter was truly memorable and capable of inspiring wonder about wildlife. Murie’s critique went beyond the wildlife park, extending to American culture and the people it produced, who he feared were becoming lazy. Instead of participants we were becoming spectators, and worse, many did not know the difference. He called for the Park Service to stop advancing such spectacles as the Wildlife Park and get back to the mission of interpreting nature and wilderness. Osborn fired back, branding Murie an elitist who represented a tiny minority out of touch with reality. The wildlife park would be for the tourist in a hurry, “for the many and not the few,” he retorted. Murie held firm to his convictions, but he also believed in compromise and cooperation, and he assured Osborn that he would refrain from “actively opposing” the Wildlife Park after it was a done deal.

On a warm July day 70 years ago a small group of people, few of whom were locals, assembled to hear dedication speeches. Laurance Rockefeller was the main attraction, and four friends and employees carefully crafted and vetted his speech. Why such care? Always careful and formal, he knew the park remained controversial. To justify its contribution he resorted to a lighthearted analogy: “Like most men who have spent too much of their lives around a metropolis, [I] like to be assured that the country still contains bigger game than French poodles.” Elk and bison brought in for the ceremony did not cooperate, though a horseman was detailed to keep them visible in the background. The Jackson’s Hole Courier mentioned the occasion with a brief paragraph beneath the headline announcing “Wildlife Park Ready for its Inmates.”

Like in a prison, many of the “inmates” preferred freedom. The fences caused considerable frustration for man and beast. Depending on the design, elk and deer jumped over the fence, pronghorn went under the fence, and buffalo, when provoked, went through the fence. In the months to follow, the wildlife park rarely fulfilled its stated purpose. It was supposed to educate visitors by providing close-range views of the mega-fauna of Jackson Hole, minus, of course, the predators. But as Rockefeller said in his address, “People are far more interested in wild animals than wild animals are in people.” Few of the animals ventured near the fence unless lured by food, and the herds often preferred wooded areas, out of sight. For good views, folks needed binoculars or a spotting scope.

State wildlife officials provided the elk, deer and pronghorn, sometimes with great difficulty. Game and Fish Commissioner Lester Bagley shipped five white-tailed deer to the park, but three died in transit while trying to escape. Bagley had no better luck with antelope: He transported a truckload of them, but when released they went right over the cattle guard and were never found again. By 1951 Governor Lester Hunt had become annoyed and “disappointed by the lack of wild animals on public display.”

By 1952 — four years into its existence — the fate of the wildlife park was clear. Osborn and the New York Zoological Society’s vision proved untenable, wasn’t working, and they were anxious to end the experiment. Osborn offered the park to Game and Fish, the University of Wyoming and the National Park Service, but no one wanted responsibility for this problem child. At Rockefeller’s behest, members of the Zoological Society’s local board voted 9-0 to distance themselves from the venture. In the meantime, in 1950, the enlarged Grand Teton National Park legislation passed Congress — an enlargement that swallowed the enclosure, landing it in the Park Service’s lap.

There was little enthusiasm for the wildlife park among Park Service personnel, many of who had been opposed from the start. The taming and displaying of wild animals offended almost all naturalists.

However, there was another significant factor: Rockefeller had been such a great friend to the Park Service that the agency felt obliged to continue the unsuccessful project he financially supported. So for 15 years, Grand Teton staff managed the wildlife park much like a unwanted stepchild. Most animals released did not return. At Oxbow Bend, visitors often were treated to a serene meadow with no wildlife. Park employees did round up a few bison each year for viewing. In 1968, however, the fence broke down, the bison wandered out and the experiment ended. The newly freed “inmates” became the founders of the Jackson Bison Herd, commonly seen on Antelope and Elk Ranch flats today. The wildlife park experiment was over, and today no remnants of it exist.

What is the Jackson Hole Wildlife Park’s mark on history? Its research arm, unlike the animal display, was more successful at accomplishing its purpose, expanding what was known about large fauna indigenous to Jackson Hole. By 1954 the University of Wyoming assumed responsibility for research funding and maintenance of the facility. Today the research center is known as the AMK Ranch, and it’s still thriving and fulfilling its mission at a new Jackson Lake location. The failed park also helped the Park Service clarify its management of wildlife: Wild means wild, and no attempt to tame native fauna should be tolerated in a national park. Furthermore, no visitor has a right to see wildlife. The chances are aided by taking a “safari adventure,” but still, there are no guarantees.

National parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton are areas where animal needs are now respected and prioritized. While visitors can hope to see wildlife, they should have no expectations. Sometimes the animals do come around to see us, but nowadays it’s their choice. 

 

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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