On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law that preserves the land and cultural heritage of Yellowstone National Park. It was the first park of its kind in the country and in the world.
The U.S. government decided to protect this land during a time before established conservation efforts, says Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. For Sholly, it’s a point of pride for Americans.
“Not a single member of Congress at the time had actually been on the ground here in Yellowstone,” he says. “And so they created Yellowstone off of written reports and paintings.”
The park spans nearly 3,500 square miles — larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Yellowstone’s diversity — geologic, cultural, natural resources — makes the park great, Sholly says.
Famous geysers such as Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic result from the park’s location on top of a massive underground volcano, which could erupt at any time. But thankfully, Sholly says the volcano isn’t expected to erupt any time soon.
After dark, Yellowstone visitors can see a clear view of the Milky Way Galaxy in the night sky. Sholly started working there in 1990 in one of the most remote areas in hte lower 48, the southeast corner of Yellowstone known as Thorofare.
“I think the backcountry of Yellowstone is spectacular, not only because of the wildlife,” he says, “because of the solitude.”
Most of Yellowstone’s 4.9 million visitors in 2021 never see this part of the park, however. An average visitor spends their trip on the Yellowstone Road corridor, which was created during the 1940s and 1950s, Sholly says.
In fact, it took from 1872 to 1948 before for the park to see a million visitors in a single year, he says.
On the increase in the number of yearly visitors
“It's clearly busy in the road corridor. The majority of visitors never get more than a half-mile away from their cars. So there's a major issue in certain parts of the park that present a lot of challenges, things that people don't really think about, like wastewater treatment facilities or restrooms, garbage cans, things like that.”
On whether the park should cap attendance
“Not right now. I do think that that's something that needs to be looked at in the future, and we're not going to build our way out of this problem, right? I think there's a point in time where we will need to look at more aggressive visitation management actions, and that could include a reservation system [and] timed entry. But I think what we're looking at now is visitor management actions that can be taken more micro-geographically in those areas that are most busy. As visitation increases, those actions will need to become probably more aggressive as time goes on.”
On the animals call the park home: sandhill cranes, grizzly bears, wolves, red-winged blackbirds, bison and many more
“I think it's important that people understand that we got a lot wrong in the beginning just 100 years ago in the 1920s. And remember, that's 50 years after Yellowstone became a national park. We killed every wolf in this park [and] did our best to eliminate all other predators, mountain lions. We reduced the grizzly population substantially. We reduced the bison population from tens of thousands to less than 25 animals. We were feeding grizzly bears out of garbage dumps just 50 to 60 years ago, so visitors could see them. And so it's really only been this last 50 to 60 years that we've put the pieces back together of this ecosystem. Yellowstone is in better condition now than it ever has been since it became a park.”
“Our bison population right now is about 5,500 — one of the highest levels that we've had since 1872. Wolf populations have ranged between 80 to 120 animals. The grizzly population is somewhere around 200 in the park, much higher when you include the entire Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Mountain lions are back. So we have made significant progress in [the] restoration and reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, probably the most successful wildlife conservation-restoration effort in the history of this country. While we've had some really good successes and we're in a good place from the ecosystem standpoint, we have a lot of challenges on the horizon. The climate change threat is very real. Last year, if you look at our water temperatures, for instance, we had some of the lowest levels and warmest temperatures since the 1930s. Obviously, visitation, as that continues to increase, those are challenges that are faced not only by Yellowstone but many parks across America.”
On the park’s legacy with Native Americans — who have been living on and taking care of the land for more than 10,000 years — and whether they have been ignored
“I think we've come a long way. I don't think we've done a good job. It's one thing for the National Park Service to work to become good at telling the history of American Indians. But it's even more important, I think, to partner and collaborate with tribal nations and invite them into the park so they can tell their stories. They can help the American public understand their cultures and their heritage.”
On the threat that climate change poses to the park and what Yellowstone might look like in another 150 years
“I believe in 150 years, Yellowstone will still be here and still be a park. Clearly, the amount of precipitation, the migration routes species use, the proliferation of invasive species that we're seeing, the longer fire seasons, all of those factors are going to change what Yellowstone looks like, and it's incumbent upon us to do everything we can to understand how those changes affect the ecosystem and work to maintain a balance to the best degree possible.”
This segment aired on April 4, 2022.