The struggle to balance recreation and preservation is as old as the parks themselves, and it’s an issue that continually rears its head in questions about the visitor experience, wildlife management, and what types of activities should be allowed within the parks. How can the park preserve the wilderness feel of the place while keeping its doors open to more than 4 million people every year? What’s to be done about controversial populations of bison and wolves? Should snowmobiles be allowed in the park, and if so, how many? What about drones? These and other issues play out season after season, posing management challenges but also proving the parks are just as dynamic as they’ve ever been.
Bison, Bears & Wolves
In the frontier West—where bison seemed to be everywhere, grizzly bears were fearsome, and wolves regularly raided livestock—wildlife was treated as more of a nuisance than a national treasure. Eventually, the bison and grizzly populations around Yellowstone and Grand Teton were whittled down nearly to extinction, and ranchers and federal agents completely eradicated wolves by the 1930s.
It took some intensive management to bring grizzlies and bison back to reasonably healthy numbers in the area, and now the wolves, which were reintroduced from Canada in 1995, are reaping the benefits of the huge ungulate herds that have enjoyed a nearly predator-free environment for quite some time. But these high-profile species—called “charismatic megafauna” by biologists—are not out of the woods yet. Given the pressures of development around the parks, they might never be secure again.
There are now more than 5,500 bison in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and, naturally, they pay no mind to the parks’ invisible boundaries. In the winter, when the snow is deep, they leave the park to forage at lower elevations, sometimes in ranch pastures inhabited by domestic cattle. The ranchers fear that the bison will spread brucellosis, a virus that can be transmitted to cattle, causing infected cows to abort their unborn calves. There have been no documented cases of bison-cattle transmission, but the perceived threat to livestock still worries state officials and other stakeholders. Currently, federal, state, and tribal agencies slaughter some bison each winter as a population control measure. The practice is controversial, and park and state officials continue to search for some middle ground with animal-rights activists.
Wolves are another sore point with area ranchers, who worry that a booming wolf population threatens their livestock (and wolves do sometimes prey on cows and sheep). Wolf advocates, on the other hand, argue that restoring the natural wolf population returns the ecosystem to its original, balanced state. The reintroduction has been astonishingly successful. Rapidly reproducing, feeding on abundant elk in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, wolves now number about 100 in Yellowstone and about 530 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and the packs have spread as far south as Grand Teton, where several have denned and produced pups. Gray wolves were delisted from the endangered species lists in Montana and Idaho in 2011 (and both states allow limited wolf hunting) but retain their endangered status in Wyoming.
Grizzly bears once teetered on the brink of extinction in the parks, but they’ve made a slow comeback, reaching an estimated population of more than 700 in the Yellowstone area. (Wolves have helped, because their hunting results in more carcasses to scavenge.) Because of this success, in 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the grizzly from the threatened species list for the Yellowstone area, a decision that was subsequently reversed in 2010. As of late 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting grizzlies again, a move supported by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, but a final decision has not been reached.
A Burning Issue
After years of suppressing every fire in the park, Yellowstone, in 1988, was operating under a new “let it burn” policy, based on scientific evidence that fires were regular occurrences before the settlement of the West and part of the natural cycle of a forest. That philosophy faced the ultimate test the same year, when nearly one-third of Yellowstone was burned by a series of uncontrollable wildfires. These violent conflagrations scorched more than 700,000 acres, leaving behind dead wildlife, damaged buildings, injured firefighters, and ghostly forests of stripped, blackened tree trunks.
What you will see, as you travel Yellowstone today, is a park that may be healthier than it was before the 1988 fires. Saplings have sprouted from the long-dormant seeds of the lodgepole pine (fire stimulates the pine cones to release their seeds), and the old, tinder-dry forest undergrowth is being replaced with new, green shrubs, sometimes as thick as one million saplings per acre. Visitors who want to better understand the effects of the fires of 1988 should check out the exhibits at the Grant Village Visitor Center; the coverage there is the best in the park.
Snowmobiles: To Ban or Not to Ban?
Winter in Yellowstone is a time of silent wonder, with fauna descending from the high country in search of warmth and food. The only dissonance in this wilderness tableau is the roar of snowmobiles, which inhabit the park’s snow-packed roads in ever-growing numbers. The noisy, pollution-heavy engines are not exactly ecologically friendly, but the gateway towns are staunch snowmobile proponents because the activity boosts their economies in the moribund winter.
Before President Clinton left office in 2001, he “ended” the ongoing controversy by establishing a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone, effective the winter of 2003–04. However, gateway communities and snowmobile manufacturers responded with lawsuits; and the Bush administration also voiced its opposition to a total ban, delighting the outfitters in West Yellowstone and Cody. In mid-2004, a judge overturned the ruling enforcing the ban.
The park reached a new snowmobile management plan in 2013, part of its Winter Use Adaptive Management Program. Under these rules, four non-commercially guided snowmobile “events” with up to five snowmobiles per event are allowed to access the park daily—one event per park entrance. All snowmobiles used must meet standards for noise and emissions under Best Available Technology rules, and all snowmobile drivers must complete a free online education course before their trips. Commercial snowmobile outfitters have different regulations to meet. If you’re planning a private trip, check with the park for the most up-to-date info on regulations at www.nps.gov/yell.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.