As record visitor numbers bring operational challenges to Yellowstone National Park, a social scientist studies the effects on people.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — A 17 percent surge in visitors in 2015 caught Yellowstone park managers flat-footed as the annual total surpassed 4 million for the first time. This year Yellowstone is on track to set another record.
“Last year was a shock,” says Ranger Rich Jehle, who supervises resource education out of the Old Faithful Visitor Center. “Last year at the west entrance, lines were stretching all the way back through the town of West Yellowstone, two to three miles, just to get to the gate.”
At the same time:
• Parking lots at major attractions were regularly closed and overflowing.
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• Bathroom lines stretched 20- to 40-people-long at peak periods.
• Wildlife-caused traffic jams created 30-minute to two-hour delays.
• Motor-vehicle mishaps with injury were up 167 percent from the prior year.
Entry backups eased this year with the addition of more gate staff and strict enforcement of “no-stopping” rules outside of designated pullouts on the busiest highway corridor. But crowding continues to create stresses throughout Yellowstone.
Credit low gas prices and the National Park Service’s 2016 centennial, among other things, for drawing more visitors. Add a dramatic increase in the number of tour buses in the park, many bringing visitors from China as cultural and economic shifts and easing of visa restrictions have encouraged its populace to travel here by the hundreds of thousands.
This past summer the park often made national news, and not in a good way. Incidents ranged from the death of a Portland man who fell into an acidic hot spring, to the tale of well-meaning visitors who loaded a lonely bison calf into their SUV. The calf was euthanized when its herd wouldn’t take it back.
On my recent visit, rangers in Day-Glo vests barked at motorists to keep moving despite the urge to photograph roadside wildlife. Walt Disney would say it did not feel like a Happy Place.
“There’s no doubt that with increased visitation, Yellowstone has increasing challenges” to meet the park service’s mission of preserving the resource while providing access, Jehle says. It might take 10 years to formulate an appropriate response, he suggests, noting that closing the gates to limit visitors would bring unhappy governors of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to park headquarters in no time flat.
Among first steps, park Superintendent Dan Wenk has hired a social scientist to interview staff and visitors about how crowding colors their Yellowstone experience. Even the most loyal park lovers are feeling the pinch.
“I’ve found myself spending time outside the park on my days off because I don’t want to deal with the traffic and I don’t want to deal with the crowds,” one Yellowstone guide confided.