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Yellowstone National Park gears up for what they hope is a “normal” summer season

Sunset on the Firehole River, Yellowstone National Park.
Bill Young
Sunset on the Firehole River, Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park’s east entrance just opened. It is a lifeline for the gateway community of Cody, and after three years of continually being tested by the pandemic and historic flooding, Superintendent Cam Sholly is really hoping this summer will be quiet. But as he told Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska, the heavy snow from the winter is already adding more work.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Cam Sholly: It was a long one, especially coming off of such a long summer with a flood recovery and then going straight into one of the heaviest winters we've had in quite a while. We lost our wastewater system here, or a wastewater capacity, during the flood. So we've been trying to construct what would normally take two to three years for a temporary wastewater plant for about nine months, which has been pretty challenging, especially with all the snow and that kind of thing. The teams are doing a good job. We think we're going to have that online here [in] early June, which will let us open all services here in Mammoth. So that's a good thing. The road that we built between Mammoth and Gardiner held up well over the winter. It's already seen a lot of traffic as we get further into spring.

Kamila Kudelska: Like you mentioned, there was a lot of snow. So did it take additional work than normal to get ready for the summer season, besides the stuff that you already mentioned?

CS: Crews are out there right now. It is a lot of snow. I think we normally go through about 100 gallons of diesel per day opening the road in the spring with all the machinery and everything. And right now, I think we're pushing 1,500 gallons a day. So it's a lot down there. They're on schedule. We've gotten road segments open on time. That's going to hold as we progress here into May.

[I’m] looking forward to hopefully whatever “normal” is. A more normal summer and [to] not have another flood or earthquake or volcano go off or something like that. But hopefully we can get back to some level of normalcy after a couple years of COVID and the floods from last year.

KK: Maybe piggybacking off of that, there was an historic flood last year. How are the flood repairs coming along? And is there any concern for similar events? Obviously, we don't want that to happen, but is there any concern?

CM: Well, I think if you look at the patterns last year, we had more snow in April [and] May than we did in January, February and March combined. So we had a lot of late snowfall in the spring. We don't have that so far this year – knock on wood. We also had a lot of rain going into June and especially three or four days before the flood event. So what we don't want is fresh snow, lots of rain and warming temperatures. And I think as long as we stay away from that combination, then we’re going to have a real good run off because we do have a really good snowpack. But I don't think we're in danger of anything like what we saw last June.

KK: Pivoting a little bit. Some tribal nations are able to hunt bison that leave the park during the winter. But this past winter, an exceptional amount of bison were killed during the hunt and some people were angry as a result. Do you think too many bison were killed? Should there be a maximum for the amount of bison killed during the season?

CS: Well, keep in mind [that] 14 years ago, we shipped 1,200 bison to slaughter in a single year. The previous two winters to this [one] had very light migration. So we ended up with 6,000 bison, which is a record level number of bison – since Yellowstone has become a park anyway – in the 20-23 season.

What we found is that weather has a lot more to do with when populations move out of the park than necessarily population numbers. Back in the 96-97 winter, [it] was very heavy. The park only had about 3,200 bison and lost almost 50 percent of the bison because of the heavy winter. This year, it was a very heavy winter. But fortunately, we actually had higher numbers of bison, and while we can talk about what the right numbers are from a population-control standpoint, 25 percent or so were taken out of the population total. I think having a higher number is good on a variety of fronts.

We want to be cognizant that we're continuing to work with the state to reduce the potential of any type of transmission of brucellosis to livestock. We're committed to that. We're also committed to a healthy free-ranging bison population. There's some big conversations we need to have with the tribes in the state around, as that population ebbs and flows, what's an appropriate number on any given year to remove from the population.

Bison are still constrained from moving beyond the tolerance zones. We appreciate those tolerance zones. This was the first year that, on the north side, the bison actually utilized the full tolerance zone on the north side of the park. Right now, we're sitting at 4,400 to 4,500 bison after the harvest this year. We also took 282 bison into the live transfer program – we call the Bison Conservation Transfer Program. So those 282 bison will go through a brucellosis protocol. Once they're cleared, we’ll move them to our partners at Fort Peck – the Centerpoint Sioux tribes – and those bison get transferred to tribal nations around the country. So I think that's been very successful. That was a tool that we didn't have back in 2000.

We continue to focus on reducing the number of bison shipped to slaughter. In the last three or four years, we've shipped record-low numbers of bison to slaughter. Eight hunting tribes on the boundary this year. So there have been more opportunities for tribes to harvest bison. And it's unfortunate that it's occurring in a small geographic area. But with the constraints that we have currently, that population needs to be managed, and we're going to utilize the hunting methods and the Bison Conservation Transfer Program to the best degree possible and continue to reduce shipments to slaughter in the future.

KK: Last year was the park's 150th birthday. And again, the flood became the main focus rather than the 150th. Are there any ways that you guys are hoping to continue that celebration?

CS: Well, we went into last year with an emphasis on really trying to engage American Indian tribes at a much higher and better level. I think were very successful despite the floods. A lot of the conversations we had with our tribal partners were centered on not just what we can do together commemorating the 150th but recognizing the tribes were here long before Yellowstone was a park. And what are the things that we could put into place that could transcend the 150th? So the Tribal Heritage Center is a great example at Old Faithful. That was a pilot last year –very, very successful. I think this year we already have 37 tribal scholars and artists signed up for year two of the Heritage Center. So we're excited to see that continuing. We're going to continue to work with tribes on what are some others. We did this Yellowstone Reveal tribal encampment last year, which was very successful, at Madison. We’ll do some version of that again this year.

So I think there's a lot of things that we focused on last year – tribal [and] the health of the ecosystem – that I think we can be proud of and really kind of set a point in time where we can focus on what is most important in the future. Which really are those relationships, continuing to strengthen the Yellowstone ecosystem to the best degree possible, dealing with the challenges of increasing visitation and other things that we're dealing with that are really important to sustain Yellowstone in a good state into the future.

KK: What are you expecting going into the summer season? Anything exciting or any events you'd like to share?

CS: We're kind of taking hopefully a breather this year. So we don't have major events planned. We're going to look to hopefully, like I said, a normal summer. A good summer. We'll see where the visitation lands. And there's a lot of work to do. We got a little sidetracked by the flood. [There’s] a lot of progress going on in a lot of different areas and infrastructure improvements and ecosystem management [and] visitor management that we need to continue to focus on for the future. But we'll take it month by month and I think we're going to have a good season. We'll see how the visitation rebounds. Some of these local communities have been through a lot. It's important for us to do our best to work together to get them back on their feet. Visitation will – I think we ended up with 3.2 million last year. We've been hovering around four-ish, [or] over four a couple times. But I think we'll be back into that four range relatively quickly.

KK: Anything else you'd want to add?

CS: If you think about three years ago, I was asked by the Governor to close the park for COVID. We've been through a lot. We've got the park reopened in June in 2020. We work really closely with gateway communities and counties and states. I think we showed that that work paid off when the flood happened and we had a lot of great relationships established. I think we all have really focused on helping each other, and we're going to continue that into the future. They're always challenges that come our way, both predictable ones and unpredictable, but I feel very confident that this team and our group of partners can handle anything that comes our way.

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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