Animal Conservation

The Superintendent of Yellowstone reflects on the park’s past, present and future.

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act. He created the first national park to protect over two million acres of land for the benefit and enjoyment of people. Over the past 150 years, there have been many successes and mistakes. Kamila Kudelska of Wyoming Public Radio interviewed park superintendent Cam Sholly about the park’s early days.

Cam Sholly: And if you think about 100 years ago, which isn’t that long, you know, we took almost every predator out of this park. We killed all the cougars, all the wolves, and reduced the grizzly bear population. We have reduced the bison population from tens of thousands to less than 25 animals. And even 50 years ago, feeding bears from dumps so visitors could see them. And so we kind of slowly put the pieces back together, [in] this ecosystem, really over the last, say, 50 or 60 years. And some really big efforts have been made along the way to get us to where we are today.

Kamila Kudelska: You were saying that 50 or 60 years ago you were sort of trying to get Yellowstone back to what it was supposed to be. Can you tell us a bit about how that happened? Who participated in this change?

CS: Well, it’s not just one person. I think it’s a collective movement that really started with the Leopold Report back in the 60s. That led to a tremendous amount of very positive conservation and environmental related legislation where we really started to take things a lot more seriously when it came to wildlife conservation, or the maintaining the environment and improving the environment, the conditions in which we live. Not just here in Yellowstone, but across the country. I think probably the biggest achievement in wildlife conservation was the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-90s. Obviously a lot of people have opinions about wolves in that area, but from a the ecosystem, the wolves were really a kind of missing link that was needed to bring the ecosystem back into balance. It also wasn’t designed to be an elk farm, which is essentially what it was before we put the predators back on the landscape here. And I think that was a really critical part of where we are today in this reintroduction. We still find ourselves today in a critical decision-making space when it comes to wildlife conservation and transboundary conservation, reconciling differing opinions about what is the right number of species to choose from in the park.

KK: What are some of these threats and challenges that the park currently faces?

CS: Well, if you take bison, and it’s important for people to understand that climate change is changing how we’ve managed that population, and right now bison are still limited. These are the only species that we restrict for the most part to the Yellowstone boundary, except for a few tolerance zones outside the west and north sides of the park. And we must continue to work to separate fact from fiction. I think of the real threats bison pose to agriculture in Montana. I take them very seriously. I think we’ve embarked on a bison management plan that we hope will put the right population parameters on the bison. But I have no illusions, there is a difference of opinion people have on what that number should be. And it can’t be a static number, the number has to be based on science. And we have a lot of information and data and a lot of work that has been done over the last 22 years. So there will be a lot of conversations there. But these are things we have to deal with. This year in North Yellowstone, I think it’s important that we work again, to really understand what the data says and what the science says. And what impacts, I’m not going to get into my thoughts on statewide wolf management in Montana, but at least here in northern Yellowstone there’s a minimal amount of livestock depredation associated to the wolves of Yellowstone. And the elk population is at the goal set by the state of Montana for north of Yellowstone. They are over their target in region three. And so the notion that depredation of elk and cattle are the key factors there. I will be the first director to say that if a wolf in Yellowstone kills cattle, the wolf must be killed. Anyone who loves wolves should agree with me. So we have to work together to protect livestock. I think there is a way to balance it. It’s about relationships, it’s about having the right information, data and science. And that’s where we’re going.

KK: You’ve focused a lot on creating or refocusing on tribal relationships. Can you explain to us why it was such a priority this year and how will it continue in the future?

CS: We went even in 2021, leading up to the 150th, we made a decision to really focus more on the Native American tribes that were in this landscape, over 10,000 years before Yellowstone became a park. We’ve had a very good relationship, there are 27 affiliated tribes in Yellowstone, and we’ve had a very good relationship over the years. But we felt the 150th was a good time to really elevate the level of engagement we have with Native American nations. And I think there’s no playbook for that. So engage the tribes and see what their ideas were. The Park Service has a large part of its mission is to tell America’s story, the good and the bad. No one, when it comes to Native American tribes, can do this better than the tribesmen themselves. And so I think it’s incredibly valuable for the tribes in the park to engage directly with visitors. I think it’s a start, I think it’s a starting point for a lot of new things to come. I don’t pretend to know exactly what all these things are. This is where relationships and communications with the tribes are very, very important. And that is exactly what we will do in the future.

KK: Prior to this summer, Yellowstone was facing a huge increase in visitor numbers. How are you working to manage this in the future?

CS: It’s complicated here. It’s a big park. What are the impacts of increased visits on staff, operations and infrastructure? People think I’m using this example, but you put a million more people a year in this park, flushing the toilet five times a day, what does that do to your waste treatment facility waste ? It’s kind of an invisible thing. But as we saw with this flood, where we lost almost three of our systems, you can’t host visits without some of the basic utilities. And so it’s not just about traffic jams and things like that. And parking congestion. It’s bigger than that. And so you need people to effectively manage people, you need people to protect resources, and you need the right infrastructure in the right condition to handle increased visits. And if you don’t have those things, then that’s a big factor in terms of what the future looks like in terms of what actions we might take regarding tours or caps or booking systems, or the number of people we allow in the park. We certainly have problems in certain hallways, at certain times of the year and in certain parking areas. It’s not something we’re going to get away with. So we need to come up with strategic actions that will help manage visitation, stay protected, make sure we have the right people and infrastructure to manage visitation, and do it in a way that continues to create good visitor live.