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Yellowstone Superintendent reflects on the past, present and future of park.

A view of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
A view of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. It created the first national park that was meant to protect over two million acres of land for the benefit and enjoyment of people. In the last 150 years, there have been a lot of successes and mistakes. Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska asked the park’s Superintendent Cam Sholly about the park’s earlier days.

Cam Sholly: And if you think about 100 years ago, which isn't that long, you know, we extrapiated almost every predator in this park. We killed all the mountain lions, all the wolves, and reduced the grizzly bear population. We reduced the bison population from tens of thousands to less than 25 animals. And even 50 years ago, feeding bears out of garbage dumps so visitors can see them. And so we've slowly kind of put the pieces back together, [in] this ecosystem, really over the last, say, 50 or 60 years. And some really important efforts have been made along the way to kind of get us to where we are today.

Kamila Kudelska: You were saying 50 to 60 years ago, kind of trying to return Yellowstone to what it was meant to be. Can you talk a little bit about how that happened? Who was involved in making that change?

CS: Well, it's not only one person. I think it's a collective movement that really kind of started with the Leopold Report in the 60s. That led to a considerable amount of very positive conservation-related, environmental-related legislation where we really started to take things a lot more seriously in regard to wildlife conservation, or maintaining the environment and improving the environment, and the conditions that we live in. Not just here in Yellowstone, but across the country. I think probably the single biggest wildlife conservation success story was the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-90s. Obviously, a lot of people have opinions on wolves in this area, but from an ecosystem standpoint, the wolves were really kind of the missing link that was needed put the ecosystem back into balance. It also was never designed to be an elk farm, which is basically what it was prior to us putting predators back on the landscape here. And I think that was a really critical part of kind of where we are today in that reintroduction. We still today find ourselves in some critical decision space in regard to wildlife conservation, and transboundary conservation, reconciling divergent opinions about what is the right number of, pick a species to be in the park.

KK: What are some of those threats and challenges that the park is dealing with currently?

CS: Well, if you take bison, and it's important that people understand that climate change is changing how we've managed that population, and right now, bison are still constrained. They're the only species that we constrain to the Yellowstone boundary for the most part, with the exception of a couple of tolerance zones outside the west and north sides of the park. And we've got to continue to work on separating fact from fiction. I think about what the real threats are from bison to Montana agriculture. I take those very seriously. I think that we've embarked on a bison management plan that we hope will put the right population parameters on bison. But I have no illusion, there's a difference of opinion that people have about what that number needs to be. And it can't be a static number, the number needs to be based on science. And we have a lot of information and data and a lot of work that's been done over the last 22 years. So there'll be a lot of conversations there. But those are things that we have to deal with. This year, in northern Yellowstone, I think it's important that we work once again, to really understand what the data says and what the science says. And what impacts, I'm not going to get into my thoughts on the statewide wolf management of Montana, but at least here in northern Yellowstone, there's a minimal amount of livestock depredation that's associated with the Yellowstone wolves. And the elk population is at the Montana set state objective for northern Yellowstone. They're above their objective in region three. And so the notion that elk and livestock depredation are the key factors there. I'll be the first superintendent to say that if a Yellowstone wolf is killing livestock, the wolf needs to be killed. Anybody that likes wolves should agree with me. So we need to work together on that to protect livestock. I think there's a way to balance it. It's about relationships, it's about having the right information, data and science. And that's where we're moving.

KK: You guys focused a lot on creating or refocusing on tribal relationships. Can you talk a little about why that was such a focus this year and how will that continue into the future?

CS: We went into even 2021, leading into the 150th, we made a decision to really put more focus on American Indian tribes that were on this landscape, over 10,000 years before Yellowstone became a park. We've had very good relationships, there are 27 affiliated tribes with Yellowstone, and we have had very good relationships over the years. But we felt that the 150th was a good point in time to really elevate the level of engagement that we have with American Indian nations. And I think there's no playbook for this. So engaging the tribes and seeing what their ideas were. The Park Service has a major part of its mission as telling America's history, the good and the bad. No one when it comes to American Indian tribes can do that better than the tribal members themselves. And so I think it's of incredible value to have the tribes in the park engaging directly with visitors. I think that it's a start, I think it's a launching point for a lot of other new things to happen moving forward. I don't pretend to know exactly what all of those things are. That's where the relationships and the communications with the tribes are very, very important. And that's exactly what we'll do moving forward.

KK: Before this summer, Yellowstone was dealing with a huge increase in visitors. How are you guys working to deal with that in the future?

CS: It's complicated here. This is a big park. What are the impacts of increasing visitation on staffing, operations, and infrastructure? People think that I use this example, but you put a million more people a year in this park, flushing the toilet five times a day, what's that do to your wastewater treatment facility? That's kind of an invisible thing. But as we saw with this flood, where we lost almost three of our systems, you can't host visitation without some of the basic public services. And so it's not just about traffic jams and things like that. And parking congestion. It's bigger than that. And so you need people to manage people effectively, you need people to protect resources, and you need the right infrastructure in the right condition to handle increasing visitation. And if you don't have those things, then that's a big factor in relation to what the future looks like around what actions we might take around visitation, caps or reservation systems, or how many people we allow into the park. We definitely have issues in certain corridors, certain times of the year, and certain parking areas. It's not something we're going to build our way out of. So we've got to come up with strategic actions that are going to help manage visitation stay protected resources, ensure we've got the adequate staff and infrastructure to handle the visitation, and do it in a way that continues to create a good visitor experience.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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