Harry Yount and the War for Yellowstone’s Wildlife

Before There Were Park Rangers, There Was Harry Yount


At the remote, little known headwaters of the Yellowstone River, deep in Wyo-ming’s Teton Wilderness, stands a magnificent mountain. Younts Peak, 12,165 feet tall, gives birth to the Yellowstone as two creeks flow off the mountain’s flanks and join to form the river. Some say Younts Peak’s namesake, Harry Yount, gave birth to the modern National Park Service ranger corps.

Henry S. Yount, also known as Rocky Mountain Harry, was born in Washington County, Missouri, most likely in 1839. During the Civil War he fought for the Union Army, first in the Missouri Infantry and later the Missouri Cavalry, and was held as a prisoner of war in Arkansas for 28 days before being exchanged and returned to the Union Army. Yount finished his war service in July 1865, mustering out as Company Quartermaster Sergeant. He never married, his fiancee having been killed in a train wreck.

Like many Civil War veterans, Harry Yount headed West after the war, seeking opportunity and a chance to use the skills he acquired in the Army. Yount came to Wyo-ming Territory in 1866, working as a bullwhacker (driver of a team of oxen) on the Bozeman Trail, and was involved in skirmishes with the Sioux and Cheyenne. During his long and lively career, Yount also worked as a buffalo hunter, trapper, guide and scout, as well as a contract hunter securing specimens for the Smithsonian Institution.

Yount also worked seven seasons for the Hayden Survey, serving as a packer and wrangler all over the West, putting his Cavalry service to good use. He was on the 1878 Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone, and it was probably during that trip that met Philetus T. Norris, Yellowstone National Park’s second Superintendent.

Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872. It is now widely known for  thermal features such as geysers and hot springs, and as a wildlife preserve, but it was not the sanctuary we know today in 1872. In the Yellowstone Park Act, Yellowstone was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and “for the preservation, from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders…and their retention in their natural condition.” Note that wildlife was not even mentioned in this act, unless they were considered “natural curiosities.” Hunting in Yellowstone was not regulated until 1877, when Norris took office, and was not banned altogether until 1883.

Enter Harry Yount. Norris, seeking to preserve some of Yellowstone’s native wildlife such as bison, hired Yount as “Gamekeeper” in 1880, paying for his salary with part of the first funding ever appropriated for management of a national park. Yount’s job was to report on the wildlife of Yellowstone and protect it from undue slaughter.

In 1880 there was little thought given to protecting wildlife or regulating hunting in the West. However, the handwriting was on the wall, for the massive slaughter of the Plains bison was underway in an effort to force Native Americans onto reservations, and by 1885 only about one thousand plains bison remained. Most of these were found in Yellowstone, where poachers zeroed in on them relentlessly, decimating the herds to a remnant twenty-three wild bison by 1902.

Such relentless hunting was common across the continent. Passenger pigeons, the most numerous bird in North America, were reduced by market hunters from untold billions to one lone survivor by 1914. Beaver were nearly exterminated even earlier for the hat trade, probably saved only by a change in fashion to favor silk hats. If it was edible or saleable, people hunted it, and many species came close to extinction in the wild.

Yount, as gamekeeper, was saddled with an impossible task from the start. He was charged with protecting wildlife across a four thousand square mile wilderness, with little infrastructure or support. Nonetheless, he built a cabin in Lamar Valley and settled in for the winter. Lamar (known as the Secluded Valley to mountain men like Osborne Russell) was not far from the expan-ding precious metals mines at Cooke City. Miners and other Cooke City residents were used to hunting in Yellowstone with impunity, and Yount, though known to be resourceful, intelligent and tough, was unlikely to make a dent in this practice. He may well have looked the other way, and probably did some hunting himself, for he was well known as a bear hunter, and rumored to have killed bears in direct combat.

Yount would have put himself in considerable jeopardy by enforcing hunting regulations in Yellowstone. Wildlife poachers were armed and used to getting their way. In 1905, Monroe County, Florida game warden Guy Bradley was murdered by a bird hunter, making Bradley, 35, a victim of the war over the slaughter of plume birds for the millinery trade.

Yount lasted only fourteen months in his gamekeeper job. But his legacy came from his reports to Norris. Yount is widely credited with the idea of installing a professional cadre of rangers to care for the park.

Horace Albright, second Director of the National Park Service, wrote of Yount,  “After that first winter alone, with only the geysers, the elk and the other animals for company, Harry Yount pointed out in a report that it was impossible for one man to patrol the park. He urged the formation of a ranger force.” In his second and last report to Norris, Yount called “... for a small reliable police force as the most practical way of seeing that the game is protected from wanton slaughter, the forests from careless use of fire, and the enforcement of all other laws, rules, and regulations for the protection and improvement of the park.”

Norris had a change of heart the next year, and wrote to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, indicating that he was recommending the position of gamekeeper be discontinued, effective July 1, 1882. He expressed the opinion that Yount, while, “... a sober and trusty man I should ordinarily hire at regular wages as an excellent hunter, still he is that and nothing else, being by tastes and habits, a gameslayer and not a game preserver.”

Yount was out of a job. He departed Yellowstone in the fall of 1882, making his home in Cheyenne and engaging in mineral exploration in the Laramie Mountains for many years. He died on May 16, 1924, at about eighty-five years, and was buried in Cheyenne. He did, however, live to see his idea come to fruition.
In 1886, at the urging of Interior Secretary Lucius Q. C. Lamar, General Phil Sheridan sent the US Cavalry to Yellowstone. In 1886 men from Company M, First United States Cavalry, Fort Custer, Montana Territory, came to Yellowstone under Captain Moses Harris. The Cavalry began building Fort Yellowstone at Mammoth Hot Springs in 1890, and patrolled the park until 1918, when the newly created National Park Service took over.

Edgar Howell, well-known bison poacher, was caught red-handed by Cavalry Scout Felix Burgess in 1893 in Yellowstone’s remote Pelican Valley, where he had just killed six of the last remaining wild bison. There was no law in place to prosecute Howell, but the story of his capture went nationwide and the resultant publicity gave rise to the Lacey Act of 1894, which provided fines and jail time for harming wildlife in Yellowstone. The Lacey Act was the first wildlife protection law in the nation, and the precursor to vision-ary laws like the Endangered Species Act and International Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The National Park Service, created as an agency by the Organic Act of 1916, now manages Yellowstone and many other parks. The Organic Act directs the Service to manage parks and other preserves “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Stuck with what turned out to be a conflicting mission, the Park Service attempted to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife while allowing people to enjoy it. This protection was not applied universally. Many species were hunted down, trapped and poisoned by the very rangers charged with protecting the park. Wolves, for example, were almost totally annihilated from Yellowstone by 1929, and mountain lions and coyotes were tracked down and shot on sight. Overly successful protec-tion of elk and bison resulted in population control programs in the 1950s and 1960s, until the Leopold Report brought in “natural regula-tion” and wildlife were left to populate the park. To this day, wildlife management in Yellowstone remains extremely controversial. Thanks partly to Harry Yount, we still have wildlife to manage.

Phil Knight is a freelance writer, guide and naturalist living in Bozeman. His first book, Into Deepest Yellowstone, has just been released by PublishAmerica.









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