We Might Not Have Trumpeter Swans Without George Meléndez Wright

A conservation powerhouse and the subject of a new biography, Wright also changed how our national parks protect and manage wildlife.

George Meléndez Wright was only 23 years old when he became the first Spanish-speaking professional in the National Park Service, but the parks and their wildlife were nothing new to him. While studying forestry and zoology at the University of California, Berkeley—he joined the student body at 16—Wright used his summer vacations to visit every national park in the western United States. He climbed to the top of Mount Rainer in Washington, explored the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and, in Alaska’s Denali, even become the first scientist known to discover the nest of a Surfbird.

Based on those experiences, and others he had after moving to Yosemite National Park as a ranger naturalist in 1927, the young biologist began to formulate an idea that seems obvious today but was groundbreaking at the time: He wanted to establish a model of wildlife management in the parks based on science. And to make such an undertaking possible, he hoped to organize a wildlife survey of all the western parks.

Until then the park service, established in 1916, had all but disregarded wildlife except as a spectacle for tourists. Bears were routinely fed garbage at shows for visitors’ entertainment. Tens of thousands of “bad” predators—including wolves, cougars, and coyotes—were killed in and around the parks. Things were out of balance, and Wright knew it.

Two years after joining the park service, Wright convinced its director, Horace Albright, to approve a three-year wildlife survey—a proposal sweetened by Wright’s offer to personally finance the first two years of work. He wanted to establish a baseline for wildlife populations so the park service could develop informed management plans. He hoped to research problems such as excessive predator control, poaching, artificial feeding of wildlife, overgrazing, and park boundary issues. And he was determined to save the endangered Trumpeter Swan, a species then reported to live only in Yellowstone National Park.

As I describe in a new biography of Wright, who was my wife’s grandfather, the expedition that followed would reshape the management of natural resources in our national parks, laying the groundwork for the vibrant system we know today and securing Wright’s place as a major figure in American conservation. It would also establish Wright as the primary advocate for Trumpeter Swans, which he called “the greatest of our American waterfowl,” and which might no longer exist in the United States without his leadership.

Wright was born in San Francisco in 1904 to a successful family. His father was American and his mother was Salvadoran, and Wright and his two brothers grew up bilingual. Sadly, by the time he was 10, both of his parents had died and his brothers were sent to El Salvador. George stayed behind and was raised by a great aunt who encouraged his intense interest in the natural world, especially birds. Wright began to explore untethered across the wild edges of San Francisco, and throughout Northern California. He organized his high school’s Audubon Society, serving as its president, while also teaching natural history to Boy Scouts in Oakland and to students on several Sierra Club summer pack trips into the Sierra Nevada high country.

Wright’s backcountry experience served him well during the wildlife survey. Between 1930 and 1933, he and two colleagues—Joseph Dixon and Ben Thompson—crisscrossed the Western United States, visiting every national park and monument. They spent countless hours in the field observing species, researching management issues specific to each park, and recording how the old-timer rangers shot or trapped predators, including hawks and owls.

In May 1932, they presented their first report and initial recommendations. The publication, which came to be known as Fauna No.1, changed how the park service managed wildlife for decades to come. Among other things it proposed: that because elk and deer species migrated out of many parks in winter, only to be shot by hunters and poachers, park boundaries should be adjusted to provide year-round habitat; artificial feeding and animal shows should be phased out; predators should be protected; each park needed at least one wildlife ranger; and managers should try to reintroduce and recover species endemic to a park that were endangered or extirpated. The complete set of policies from Fauna 1 were adopted by the park service in 1933.

“It was a radical change when Wright came out with his idea that we should be managing parks for the wildlife, and for the natural resources, and not only for the visitors,” says Ernest Ortega, retired National Park Service senior manager. For Ortega and others involved in conservation, another dimension of Wright’s legacy stands out:  “Many of us Latinos in the park service also knew his full name, George Meléndez Wright,” he says. “He took pride in his Salvadoran roots, and in his bilingual abilities.”

To some extent, Wright’s fluency in Spanish indirectly shaped his view of the national parks. Before he left Yosemite for the wildlife survey, he was asked to serve as host for Maria Lebrado, who was returning to her childhood home for the first time in some 80 years. Lebrado, also known as Totuya, was among the Ahwahnechee people who fled the Yosemite Valley during an 1851 attack by white settlers. Maria had married a Mexican American, and her primary language was Spanish, so Wright served as translator. Their meeting would influence how Wright thought about parks, wilderness, and so-called “pristine” landscapes across the West. He came to recognize that many were, in fact, landscapes of dispossession where Indigenous people had been forced off their ancestral lands. He began to realize that the parks’ original inhabitants had long lived with and managed wildlife in a manner that the park service could learn from, but didn’t fully understand at the time.

Among the species that would benefit from Wright’s science-based model, none was more important to him than the Trumpeter Swan, the largest of the North American waterfowl, with magnificent wings that can span more than eight feet. After more than a century of hunting for their meat, skins, and feathers, the swans had been all but eliminated from their historic range in the United States. Wright’s wildlife team, and American ornithologists overall, knew very little about them. A few pairs had been documented in Yellowstone and rumored in southern Montana and eastern Idaho, along with a small population in Canada. Yet their basic life history—breeding, nesting, diet, and migration patterns—was largely a mystery.

Wright spent about seven months in Yellowstone during the wildlife survey years studying bear problems, the overpopulated northern elk herd, and other wildlife issues. But the majority of his time there focused on observing Trumpeter Swan behavior. He soon emerged, with the help of his colleagues, as the principal and most determined Trumpeter researcher in the country.

In 1930, the survey team found just four pairs of swans in Yellowstone, only two of which nested successfully. Things improved the next summer as word of the team’s research spread—they located 20 adults and 15 baby swans, or cygnets, in Yellowstone—but Wright realized the birds’ situation was dire, especially due to the high mortality of the cygnets, so he wrote to the director suggesting a preliminary recovery plan.

Although Wright observed ravens cracking open and eating swan eggs, and his team suspected coyotes, otters, and even Great Horned Owls ate eggs and cygnets, their findings were inconclusive. And while the swans were protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, Wright knew for certain that birds were being shot illegally outside of the park. So, he suggested working with neighboring communities and hunting clubs on a publicity campaign. Wright had heard firsthand that people missed the swans that had recently lived on their local lakes. He wanted to capitalize on this sentiment to put pressure on illegal hunting. If the population didn’t recover, he wrote, then as a last measure, a captive breeding program could be considered using cygnets from Yellowstone and perhaps adults that were held on an estate in Europe.

Fortunately, Wright never had to resort to that option. In 1932, he saw photographs of Trumpeters at two lakes in Montana, due west of Yellowstone: Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes, located in the vast Centennial Valley, known for its fertile grasslands and lush marshes. He decided to go see for himself. “Lower Red Rock Lake is the best lake I have ever seen for trumpeters,” Wright proclaimed after his first visit to the area. On a subsequent trip, he and Ben Thompson counted 21 swans and 3 active nests. Encouraged by the potential he saw, Wright spent the next several years working on the conservation of swans in and around Yellowstone, and the preservation of their habitat at Red Rock Lakes.

Wright’s rising profile within the park service soon pulled him away from the birds, however, and his field work became sporadic. At Wright’s suggestion, and as an outgrowth of his survey of the fauna in western parks, Albright created a new National Park Service Wildlife Division in 1933, and he named Wright its new chief. Increasingly, Wright was drawn back to headquarters in Washington, D.C.

But if being in the capital allowed less time to study the swans he cared for so deeply, it did offer new opportunities to lobby for their protection. In the fall of the following year, Wright, Thompson, and Roger Toll, Yellowstone’s Superintendent, had lunch at the esteemed Cosmos Club with Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, the new Director of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, a precursor to the Fish and Wildlife Service. According to Thompson, Wright regaled Darling with stories about the spectacular Centennial Valley. He talked of the region’s lakes and marshes filled with waterfowl, and especially the recent discovery of a healthy population of Trumpeter Swans. “George said he would put up $500 for land acquisition,” Thompson told me in a 1987 interview. “Roger Toll said he would match that, then Ding said, ‘Wait a minute, I have some emergency money to buy refuge lands and I will have it looked at.’”

By the spring of 1935, the publicity campaign and swan protection efforts were paying off. Wright was able to report 96 swans living in Yellowstone that year, and on April 22, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing Red Rock Lakes Migratory Bird Refuge, today a national wildlife refuge. That meant all of the known Trumpeter nesting grounds and most of their winter habitat were under federal protection.

With Trumpeter Swans on their way to a slow but steady recovery, Wright was asked to work on other park projects. In late February, 1936, he was dispatched to what would soon become Big Bend National Park in Texas. Wright was part of an American commission sent to work with their Mexican counterparts to establish “international parks, forest reserves and wild life refuges” along the border. Tragically, just a few days after the Big Bend reconnaissance, Wright died in a car accident, alongside his colleague and friend Roger Toll. Wright, who left behind a wife and two young daughters, was 31 years old.

The most recent comprehensive census of Trumpeter Swans across North America took place in 2015, 85 years after Wright began his field research to protect the endangered bird in Yellowstone. More than 63,000 swans were counted.

Four years prior to the census, the heads of Yellowstone National Park, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and the Trumpeter Swan Society wrote a letter to Wright’s daughter Pamela Meléndez Wright Lloyd. With “his science, eloquence and unwavering efforts,” Wright dramatically changed the fortunes of this spectacular species, and of all the wildlife in our national parks, they wrote. “We are proud to follow in George Wright's footsteps.”

Jerry Emory is the author of “George Meléndez Wright: The Fight for Wildlife and Wilderness in the National Parks,” now available from The University of Chicago Press.