Describing historic wildlife communities is important for evaluating changes in ecosystems through time and developing contemporary objectives for conservation and restoration. The early historical record in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has been analyzed many times using a small number of written accounts, with interpretations vigorously disputed among historians, scientists, and other stakeholders. We compiled a comprehensive narrative of thousands of first-hand accounts of wildlife in the ecosystem during 1796–1881, summarized them in a georeferenced relational database, and categorized and mapped output from queries to clarify conflicting past perceptions and gain insights for contemporary management issues. The historical record indicates large mammals such as bison (Bison bison), elk (Cervus elaphus), pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), and wolves (Canis lupus) were present and widespread in present-day Yellowstone National Park and the larger ecosystem prior to Euro-American colonization. However, casual observations could not be used to estimate population sizes, relative abundances, seasonal movements and migration routes, or periods of occupancy with certainty. Despite these shortcomings, the approach was useful for informing contemporary management issues regarding wolf restoration, seasonal distributions of ungulates, and whether mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) were native to the Yellowstone area. Similar evaluations could be conducted elsewhere to clarify historic wildlife conditions and provide reference information for modern conservation decisions.
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Vol. 38 • No. 1