For most of the first half of the 20th century, the surest way to see Yellowstone bison was in Mammoth Hot Springs, from the comfort of your car.
Such a concept may seem anathema to today’s visitors, traveling to today’s Yellowstone, where bison regularly dot the horizon and tromp up and down roads, sometimes causing mile-long traffic jams. It wasn’t always like that.
Bison, of course, were nearly driven to extinction in the 19th century, with a fervor that seems today utterly unthinkable. Even when conservationists had staked out the fate of the bison as a battle for the ages, poachers still chipped away at the animal’s population. Even Yellowstone was not exempt from the reach of poachers, especially in its early history.
Beginning of the Showpen
Paul Schullery, writing in Searching For Yellowstone, estimates some bison were held year-round in both Mammoth and at the Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley from 1902 into the 1950s. Indeed, according to the National Park Service, the U.S. Army started intensively managing bison in 1902 after poachers had reduced the Yellowstone heard to approximately two-dozen animals. President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited the Park in April 1903, writes a bit about bison in Mammoth Hot Springs, which he surveyed on one of his first days in Yellowstone:
Just before reaching the post the Major took me into the big field where Buffalo Jones had some Texas and Flathead Lake buffalo—bulls and cows—which he was tending with solicitous care. The original stock of buffalo in the Park have now been reduced to fifteen or twenty individuals, and their blood is being recruited by the addition of buffalo purchased out of the Flathead Lake and Texas Panhandle herds.
Roosevelt adds that, under the circumstances, “the buffalo are now breeding well.”
This is not to say that all bison in Yellowstone were fenced in like this. The 1905 Haynes Guide makes reference to bison roaming around the Hayden Valley, for instance, far away from the busiest tourist hubs.
Bison As Attraction
The Mammoth bison showpen reached its apex in the 1920s, when tourists (especially Americans enabled by the automobile) started coming to the Park in droves, as you can see in the picture above. As captivating as they found Yellowstone’s thermal features, they found the wildlife equally interesting.
Even in the 1920s, however, there was a shift away from captive Yellowstone animals. People wanted to see “real” wildlife, which the Park was happy to provide.
Of course, the wildlife wasn’t always so wild, which was especially true for the bison in this period. From Searching For Yellowstone:
Parts of the animal show were intentionally deceptive. In the 1920s Superintendent Albright arranged for the construction of several miles of carefully placed corral in the Antelope Creek drainage on the lower north slopes of Mount Washburn. Much of the fencing was obscured by trees, giving an effect of open range. Every year some bison were turned out in this enclosure, to graze in the creek’s bottomlands and be “sighted” by motorists, most of whom had no idea that the encounter had been carefully staged.
The bison showpen was also taken up by tour guides, most notably the revamped Haynes Guides published by Jack Ellis Haynes after his father (Frank Jay Haynes) passed away in 1922. The 1928 Haynes Guide, for instance, discusses how the “show” bison differ from the rest of the Park’s bison population:
The Buffalo Herd.—The buffaloes or American bison of the park may be classed in three groups, namely: The “show” herd near Mammoth Hot Springs, which is fenced in; the Lamar Valley herd on the Lamar River, 29 miles east of Mammoth Hot Springs, and the mountain herd which has not become connected with the herds directly under the government care.
The 1930 Haynes Guide builds on this description, fleshing out distinctions between each herd:
BUFFALO CORRAL (Mileage 6.0) is reached by a sideroad leading south from Mammoth Lodge [established closer to the terraces than the Mammoth Hotel]. Here are kept several fine buffalo (American Bison) so that all park visitors will have the opportunity of seeing these interesting animals, which represent perhaps the stateliest species of hoofed animals in America. This show herd is in a fenced area; but the Lamar Valley herd of about one thousand buffalo ranges at liberty in the area east of the Buffalo Ranch, reached on the road to Cooke. The mountain herd, which is comparatively small, ranges near the headwaters of Pelican Creek, northeast of Yellowstone Lake.
The End of Captive Bison in Mammoth
As mentioned, the showpen ceased to be functional or desirable by the 1950s. As to why the shift occurred, we can reasonably pin that on the National Park Service’s changing mission. The 1960s saw a blossoming of ecological consciousness, which the NPS readily took up. By 1968, they had stopped managing bison as intensively as years past. Bison are, of course, still managed (and culled) under the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which has been in effect since 2000. But the days of the showpen are long gone.