07 Natural History Research in the National Parks

National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on Research in the National Parks: The Robbins Report

Natural History Research in the National Parks

The National Park Service bears the responsibility of administering the national parks of the United States for the purpose for which they are or may be set aside by specific Acts of Congress. The Service is also charged with the responsibility of preserving these lands for the use and enjoyment of the public and for interpreting meaningfully the natural features. Finally, it must administer these lands as part of a complex public land system. National parks are units of the public domain and have a definable role within the totality of federal lands.

Carrying out these responsibilities requires knowledge about the parks and their problems and this can only come from research. Too frequently operational management acts even when the necessary information for action is fragmentary, or is lacking. Scientific research furnishes the knowledge and understanding of the complex natural elements of the national parks and their interaction with one another on which effective management can be based.

What is the past and present status of research in natural history in the national parks? Its status has been and is one of many reports, numerous recommendations, vacillations in policy and little action, insofar as actual financial support is concerned.

In 1929, the Secretary of the Interior appointed a Committee on Educational Problems in the National Parks to devise an educational or interpretive program for park visitors. Confronted with vast gaps in the scientific knowledge essential for this activity, the Committee recommended a research program to gather scientific information for the museum, education, and wildlife administrative programs.

Research as an activity of the National Park Service was made official with the creation, July 1, 1930, of a Branch of Research and Education to coordinate the new educational program.

Also in 1930, a comprehensive ecological management survey of the fauna of the national parks was launched and privately financed by the late George M. Wright. Beginning in 1931, this survey was gradually integrated into and financed by the Branch of Research and Education as an official National Park Service function. In the first publication resulting from this research program, Fauna Series No. 1 (1932) of the National Park Service, the wildlife research and management policies of the Service were officially formulated. Fauna No. 1 analyzed the major ecological situations prevailing in each park in the early thirties and recommended numerous management solutions as well as more research. It analyzed the Yellowstone elk situation, which had been a cause for concern since 1911, warned of further range destruction, urged elk control and further research.

In 1935, a second publication on wildlife research and management, Fauna No. 2, was produced. By that time, seven current biological research projects were described and the practice was established of designating and protecting as “research reserves” unique, unusually fragile scientific areas within the parks.

Between 1932 and 1940, 28 research reserves were listed in Ecology as established in 10 national parks and other areas under the National Park Service. There were approximately 25 biologists in the National Park Service at that time, mostly in field positions, financed from Civilian Conservation Corps funds. About half of the time of this staff of field biologists was spent in ecological reviews of proposed development projects; the other half was divided between wildlife management and research, which at that time were considered for practical purposes to be indistinguishable components of the total program. Fauna No. 4, Ecology of the Coyote in the Yellowstone, by Adolph Murie (1940), exemplifies the best of the biological research carried out by the Service during this period. In this publication, Murie repeated the warnings of severe range destruction by elk in the Yellowstone and indicated that a two-thirds reduction was necessary.

Moral support to research was given during this period by the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments, which has consistently urged greater support for research in natural history.

In November, 1939, in accordance with a reorganization program of the Department, the National Park Service biologists were transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service, now called the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, but their stations and duties unchanged. The word “research” was dropped from the Branch of Research and Education of the National Park Service. With the outbreak of World War II, nearly all of these biology positions lapsed, owing to the abolition of the CCC from which funds for most of the positions had been derived. A comparable staff and program in geology, established during the 30’s, was eliminated preceding World War II and has not been restored.

Fauna Series No. 5, The Wolves of Mount McKinley, by Adolph Murie (1944) marked the last of the Fauna Series for the next 17 years.

The resident Park Naturalists contributed much, particularly in the earlier years, to the knowledge of the parks through observation, collections and inventories of park resources, and through some basic research. The geological research of Edwin McKee at Grand Canyon is a most notable example, but the observations of Arthur Stupka at Great Smoky Mountains, Frank Brockman at Mount Rainier, and the early work of Milton Skinner at Yellowstone, also illustrate the research opportunities and accomplishments of that period.

World War II reduced the naturalist staffs to a minimum. After the war the National Park Service reestablished eight biologist positions under the Division of Interpretation, which was the lineal descendant of the old Branch of Research and Education. The number of biologists was not restored to pre-war strength despite the increasing pressures on park resources; a situation experienced by no other professional group within the National Park Service except the geologists.

On February 10, 1945, the National Park Service issued a statement on Research in the National Park System, and its Relation to Private Research and the Work of Research Foundations. Its recommendations covered natural history as well as history and archaeology and advocated a research program to provide a constant flow of knowledge on the interrelations of life forms (ecology) essential for interpretation and management and an adequate staff of biologists. A list of 77 needed biological research programs was included, with priorities. The years passed — but little happened.

During the period 1948-1957, research biologist Walter Kittams was stationed in Yellowstone to study the chronically serious elk situation and recommend corrective measures. He produced voluminous illustrated reports showing the spread of ecological destruction and urging an adequate elk-reduction program.

In 1953, the National Park Conference advocated research as a basic tool for interpretation and management. This led to inclusion in the Administrative Manual of a policy statement in support of research.

In 1956, the first (and last) meeting of National Park Service biologists since 1939 was held in Washington. A list of suggestions for strengthening and implementing the Service’s biological program was submitted by the conferees, but was not implemented.

In 1957, a position of aquatic biologist was reestablished to handle research, interpretation, and management of fisheries and related aquatic resources. A previous fishery position had existed between 1934 and 1940.