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Prescribed burns like this one set in October 2019 were fewer this year in Yellowstone National Park due to extremely dry conditions amplified by little rainfall in June, a normally wet month. (NPS/Jacob W. Frank)
By Brett French Billings Gazette
BILLINGS – In June, some areas of Yellowstone National Park received less than one quarter the amount of precipitation compared to the 30-year average.
The lack of rain in June and throughout much of the summer meant the park saw some of its driest conditions since the 1930 Dust Bowl era, said Cam Sholly, superintendent, in a webinar sponsored by the United States Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
The hour-long discussion was wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as record visitation and the return of large predators to the park. Yet one issue stood above the others.
“Climate change, by far, is the single-biggest threat to Yellowstone and its ecosystem,” Sholly said, noting that by the middle of the century the climate in the park is predicted to be closer to what northern Utah, roughly 200 miles farther south, now experiences.
“We need to know and understand what we can control and mitigate to protect the species and the ecosystem health in this park that are under threat from climate change,” he said.
Yellowstone’s dry June meant park fire managers couldn’t light many of the prescribed fires that were planned. Such controlled fires help the National Park Service remove fuels to prevent larger blazes, like the 1988 fires that swept across about half of the 2.2 million-acre park.
“In hindsight, it was very beneficial,” Sholly said of the ’88 fires, since the park is a fire-adapted ecosystem. But as trees and the understory have regrown, conditions for another big fire have ripened.
“We don’t want to set up the situation where we burn half the park in the future,” he said.
This summer’s dry weather also meant the Park Service went into an immediate suppression policy for all fire starts. Thirteen blazes ignited in Yellowstone through early August, two of them human caused, and all of which were kept to less than an acre in size by launching quick initial attacks.
Despite the beginning of fall and the season’s first snowfall, fire danger remains high.
Looking ahead, Sholly said the park’s dual role of protecting resources while providing for the enjoyment of millions of visitors a year continues to put pressure on the existing infrastructure – roads, bridges and buildings – as well as the park’s staff.
“It takes people to manage people,” he noted, yet Yellowstone’s staff of 750 people has stagnated despite increasing visitation.
Keeping and attracting the top employees in their field to help manage the park will continue to be a struggle, he noted. This is intensified by rising housing prices as well as a lack of housing in gateway communities next to the park.
Conservation and preservation have to be the most important issues to Yellowstone’s staff, because “if we don’t get that right, then there is nothing to enjoy,” Sholly said.
One of the best examples of conservation is the park’s ability to rebuild populations of large predators, Sholly said. Even after Yellowstone was established in 1872, coyotes, bears, wolves and cougars were targeted for killing based on the mindset of the times that all predators were bad. Cougars and wolves were exterminated, many of the few remaining bears resorted to eating out of garbage cans and at dump sites.
“There were good animals and bad animals,” said Doug Smith, Wolf Project biologist in the park.
Although times have changed, the scenario is not unlike those playing out in Montana and Idaho, where lawmakers have passed legislation to increase wolf kills.
“Finding that middle ground has been immensely difficult with wolves because of all of their historic, mythological baggage literally worldwide,” Smith said. “This goes on in Europe, Asia and the Middle East as well.”
The debate is not data driven, Smith said, since there are now more elk in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming than before wolf reintroduction began in the park in 1995. Instead, it’s politically motivated, he added
Predators have an “outsized impact” on the ecology of places like Yellowstone, Smith added. With the removal of predators, park managers had to control elk populations as they steadily grew and led to overgrazing of some woody species in the park.
Now wolves, these same vilified predators, have become iconic and visible in Yellowstone, making visits to the park “life-changing” experiences for those tourists lucky enough to see a wolf or grizzly bear, he added.
“People crave real experiences now in our world of parking lots and plastics,” he said.
Although locals might view what happens in Yellowstone as largely a regional issue, the park is a national and international icon, evidenced by the fact that in 2016 National Geographic magazine dedicated an entire issue to the park, Smith noted.
Douglas Comer, president of US/ICOMOS, said the research and studies going on in Yellowstone are so important and so cutting edge that they attract attention for wildlife managers as far away as Africa.
“It’s a world treasure,” he said.