Roosevelt, Burroughs and the Trip that Saved Nature, Part Six
Chapter Six: The Circle of Life
When he was planning the trip to Yellowstone, President Roosevelt was also planning to do some hunting.
He knew he couldn’t hunt deer or elk in the park. The idea of camping out then included finding your own food, but they could still fish there, and John Burroughs was an excellent fisherman. Camping out didn’t have to mean just beans and bacon.
But Roosevelt had a kind of hunting in mind that he thought would actually help protect the deer and elk herds: mountain lions.
It wasn’t just about shooting animals.
Roosevelt enjoyed hunting, but he was still as serious about science as when he had been a little boy making notes about the birds, bugs and other animals he found. He had hunted mountain lions in Colorado a few years earlier, and the cougars he sent to wildlife biologists in the East had been very valuable for their studies.
Besides, he had visited Yellowstone in 1890 and 1891, and had seen how few deer and elk were left, thanks to the irresponsible hunting that had gone on then.
Congress had passed a law giving the army more power to stop illegal hunting, but many experts felt that keeping wolves, mountain lions and coyotes from killing deer and elk should be part of rebuilding the herds.
John Burroughs recalled later that not everyone thought this was a good idea.
“A woman in Vermont wrote me, to protest against the hunting, and hoped I would teach the President to love the animals as much as I did,” he wrote, but he added that Roosevelt certainly did love animals, because he knew so much about them “and because they had been a part of his life.”
Burroughs even admitted that he was disappointed that the President had given up on the idea. He was not a hunter himself, but had been looking forward to the experience.
And even he, a famous nature writer, shared the idea that getting rid of predators was a good idea.
“The cougars, or mountain lions, in the Park certainly needed killing,” he wrote. “The superintendent reported that he had seen where they had slain 19 elk, and we saw where they had killed a deer and dragged its body across the trail.”
However, the woman in Vermont was not the only person who objected to the plan. Elihu Root, who was Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and one of his most trusted advisors, also thought it was a bad idea.
It was legal to hunt mountain lions in Yellowstone if you got a special permit, but people would still think Roosevelt only got to do it because he was President. Besides, for the President to hunt in Yellowstone would make it seem like the government wasn’t serious about the law.
Anyway, the White House had already faced one problem with hunting, and didn’t need another.
A year earlier, the President had gone bear hunting in Mississippi and the hunting hadn’t been good. Finally, one of the guides found a bear, lassoed it, tied it to a tree and sent for the President.
But the Boone and Crocket Club’s work to stop irresponsible hunting included making rules, and shooting a captured animal was not considered sportsmanlike. Roosevelt said “no.”
Newspapers made fun of the President for not getting anything on his hunt, but a cartoon of him refusing to shoot the bear appealed to people. Soon, two different women had the same idea, and began to make and sell toys based on the story, and based on a nickname that Roosevelt disliked.
“Teddy bears” are still popular today!
Things had turned out well, but Root didn’t want any more hunting problems and, while Roosevelt tried a plan to hunt just outside the park, he finally gave up the idea.
As it turned out, the trip to Yellowstone helped change his mind about predators.
It had been more than a dozen years since Roosevelt had been to Yellowstone, and the situation had changed. One day, he and Burroughs were out riding when they came to the top of a hill.
“From this lookout we saw herds upon herds of elk scattered over the slopes and gentle valleys in front of us,” Burroughs wrote. “Some were grazing, some were standing or lying upon the ground, or upon the patches of snow. Through our glasses we counted the separate bands, and then the numbers of some of the bands or groups, and estimated that three thousand elk were in full view in the landscape around us.”
Roosevelt was excited to see the improvement in their numbers, but as the two friends traveled through the park, he saw a new problem: There were now too many elk.
“One band in particular I practically rounded up for John Burroughs, finally getting them to stand in a huddle while he and I sat on our horses less than 50 yards away,” he wrote. “After they had run a little distance, they opened their mouths wide and showed evident signs of distress.”
There was simply not enough food for the numbers of elk. Roosevelt and Burroughs saw dead elk scattered throughout the park. The cougars were hunting the elk, but not enough, he realized, to hurt their numbers.
Stopping predators simply meant more elk and deer would die slowly of starvation.
It would be several more years before they stopped killing cougars at Yellowstone, but this was an important step in our understanding of the circle of life.
NEXT: The Nature Fakers
Text copyright 2014, Mike Peterson, Illustration copyright 2014, Christopher Baldwin.
“Roosevelt, Burroughs and the Trip that Saved Nature” is a Newspaper in Education program made possible through a partnership with local schools and the Catskill Mountain News. The New York State United Teachers, New York Newspapers Foundation and the Wyoming Press Association are funding this serial story (which runs for 8 weeks) in papers and classrooms across Wyoming and New York State. We hope you and your family find “Roosevelt, Burroughs and the Trip That Saved Nature” an enriching and engaging adventure in the tradition of “serial” journalism.