YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYO. -- The biggest surprise for a first-time visitor to America's premier national park is that the humans can be even more ruthless than the animals. Turf fights that pit park wardens, developers, tourists and assorted environmental busybodies against one another are strangely reminiscent of the eternal biological cycle.

The natural ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park has its human counterpart in a complex sociopolitical system characterized by a highly developed territorial imperative, competition for news media attention and survival of the fittest. It is a world that contains predators and prey, competitors and allies -- just as the animal kingdom does.

"Almost everything we do becomes a subject of controversy," Gregory Kroll, the park's chief spokesman, said with a sigh as he described the difficulty of satisfying the frequently conflicting demands of rival environmentalists while simultaneously catering to the 2 million visitors who troop through Yellowstone every year.

A bewildering array of environmental groups, ranging from the Jackson Hole Alliance for Responsible Planning to the Last Chance Audubon Society, have offices around the park. Their mortal enemies are large numbers of developers and land speculators also migrating to the area. But environmentalists occasionally can be observed feuding among themselves or competing for territory with the outfitter guides and dude ranchers who also regard Yellowstone as their natural habitat.

Springing from the undergrowth is a bureaucratic forest that includes such exotica as the Tri-State Bald Eagle Working Group, the Montana Peregrine Falcon Coordinating Committee, and this vistor's favorite, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Management Sub-Committee, which meets twice a year.

Of all of the biopolitical struggles witnessed at Yellowstone, none has been more bitter than that between the U.S. Park Service and Alston Chase, a writer, philosopher and local curmudgeon. It has raged since last year when Chase published "Playing God at Yellowstone," in which he contended that the park is gradually being destroyed by the Park Service.

The controversy is important because it goes to the heart of how to manage a national park. Official Park Service doctrine since the late 1960s has been to interfere as little as possible with the wondrous ways of mother nature. Chase said the "back-to-nature" approach is doomed to failure because of numerous human encroachments across the park's artificial boundaries.

"Chase is a master of the CIA-killed-John-F.-Kennedy school of journalism. He assumes that everything is a scandal or a cover-up," said John Varley, director of research at Yellowstone. "It might be worth reading this book as a cure for insomnia, I suppose, but that's about all."

"That's the way they always deal with criticism," Chase countered. "They call us barbershop biologists or Sunday supplement scientists. Clearly, they like alliteration. But they have a hard time making this stick on me as I have {biology} degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Princeton."

The Park Service has reacted like a wounded animal to some of Chase's accusations, alternately attacking its tormentor and retreating into a defensive crouch. When Chase accused the Park Service of callously allowing grizzly bears to die, park Superintendent Robert D. Barbee hit back with a detailed rebuttal twice as long as the original article. But park officials now refuse to debate Chase, evidently hoping that he will go away if ignored.

That hope seems forlorn. Chase obviously enjoys his role as iconoclast-in-chief. His car license plate reads "GADFLY," and he does not intend to shut up. A few weeks ago, "Playing God" was withdrawn from sale by bookstores operated by the Yellowstone association. Crying "censorship," he enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ban was reversed amid a burst of renewed publicity for his book.

Just as no end is in sight to the biological struggle for survival, it also seems unlikely that the "Playing God" controversy will ever be definitively settled. The experts disagree among themselves so profoundly that the layman is left not knowing whom to believe.

Experts cited by Chase insist that overgrazing is a major problem in the park, evidence that the elk population has been allowed to grow too large. This in turn, they say, is the result of the absence of such predators as the wolf and Indian and a "refuge effect" that encourages elk to cluster within park boundaries. Experts cited by the Park Service maintain that there is no overgrazing and that the ecological balance is roughly stable.

"We believe we have a fully functioning ecosystem. Without the wolf, it's like an automobile which has a flat tire but can still go backwards and forwards," said Varley, acknowledging that the Park Service may have made a mistake in waging war on the wolf and other predators in the 1920s.

If the elk has a human equivalent at the bottom of the sociobiological chain, it is surely the common tourist. Tourists have been flocking to Yellowstone in increasing numbers every year since the park was founded in 1872 "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

The experts who argue that Yellowstone is being overgrazed by elk also tend to agree that the park is in danger of being overrun by people. There are certain times of the year, notably the Fourth of July holiday, when gridlock sets in.

Tourists cluster in huge numbers around such attractions as Old Faithful and the Yellowstone river canyon. Like the animals, they have distinct migratory patterns. They tend to leave the park in the fall but come back each spring in a seemingly endless stream of tour buses and campers, polluting the air with gasoline fumes.

After lengthy discussion, the Park Service has thought of a way to deal with the elk problem: reintroduce the wolf. It is still working on the people problem.