The new superintendent of Yellowstone National Park says shuttles could be the key to easing congestion, though he doesn't think recent growth in visitor numbers will continue. Cam Sholly, who came to Yellowstone last October, adds the park can’t solve its bison management problems without better cooperation between the state of Montana and American Indian tribes.
At Mammoth Hot Springs, visitors from around the world make their way up and down the boardwalks to see colorful thermal pools and billows of steam. Bison graze near the administration building where Superintendent Cam Sholly is finishing his lunch.
Sholly joined the park as it finished its fourth consecutive year with more than 4 million visits. He says they’re in an in-depth data gathering phase to figure out how increased visitation affects infrastructure, staff, the visitor experience and the ecological health of the park.
Cam Sholly: Another half a million cars, another million people does increase the impacts and accelerate the impacts and deterioration of those infrastructure components, whether that's wastewater treatment facilities or roads or bridges or bathrooms or you name it. Not to mention the fact that you know our staffing levels are relatively the same as they have been, and so there’s impacts to staff and operations. The third part of that is the impact on visitors, and we're just getting the preliminary data in now. But we've got where their frustrations are; where we have bottlenecks; where we don't have enough trash cans. Parking lot configurations need to be revamped.
CS: Even though 4 million visitors is a lot, the majority of those 4 million visitors stay within the one percent of the park that's the road corridor or the five to six percent that's the developed areas. So you can travel a very short distance in this park and be in the incredibly wild areas. Four million visitors does not nosedive the condition of the Yellowstone resources, and I want to make that make that very clear.
CS: I don't think that the visitation trend increase we just saw in the last five years is going to stay the same in the next five years. We've already seen a little bit of a plateau there, a little bit of a decrease. The National Park Service's 100 anniversary was in 2016. We told everybody to find their park. Guess what, they did. And it's up to us to make sure we manage that effectively.
Rachel Cramer: Could any of those actions look like you know I really robust shuttle service from Gardner or West Yellowstone, or would you ever consider a visitor cap?
CS: Not considering a visitation cap right now. I don’t think you go from telling people to find your park and then tell them time out, we’re capping you.
CS: I'll give you two examples where I think shuttles could work. One is in the west corridor between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful. Some version of that I think would be interesting to explore primarily because you do have a large percentage of people that come in the west entrance, go back out the west entrance. A lot of our entrances people come in one entrance and go out another, and that's something that's got to be looked at when it comes to the cost of a shuttle, logistics and that type of thing.
CS: We have a very large parking base at Old Faithful. I could see local shuttles that ran out of Old Faithful into the Geyser Basin on a loop. we haven't gone into definitive formal planning but I do think that's something that's feasible that should be looked at.
Many visitors come to Yellowstone specifically to see the bison. But outside of park boundaries, they can be a major point of contention. Bison leave the park every winter in search of food. Some ranchers and state agencies worry these bison could transmit Brucellosis — a bacterial disease — to cattle. It can cause pregnant animals to miscarry.
There haven’t been any documented cases of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle. Every year, a group of federal, state and tribal agencies develop the Interagency Bison Management Plan to decide how many Yellowstone bison should be removed.
CS: You know right now there's three kind of ways that we manage bison. One is supporting the tribal hunt, which is done outside the park here in the north boundary and over on the west side of the park. Very unpopular shipment to slaughter. And then this kind of quarantine program, which is kind of in its infancy right now.
CS: As we as we move along, our goal is to continue to improve how we manage bison. I'd love to get rid of shipping bison to slaughter. That's not going to happen anytime soon. The quarantine process, you know, we have about 55 bulls right now down at Stevens Creek that we'll transfer later this year. Because they've cleared the quarantine process for brucellosis we'll transfer them to Fort Peck later this fall. It will follow with another 20 or so females, probably late 2021.
CS: But those numbers are relatively symbolic. In other words we're spending a large amount of money on a quarantine program that is not producing a lot of numbers. And the quarantine protocols are lengthy. They take a lot of time, and we need to explore what the future of quarantine is. It can't just be a Park Service thing; it's got to be something that we work on with our partners — both the states, tribes, other federal agencies and try to map out what what the best course of action is moving forward.