Life in Yellowstone Park

If you drive on the highway it is roughly 90 miles from the home where I grew up to the northwest gate of Yellowstone National Park on the edge of Gardiner, Montana. The drive takes you southwest following the Yellowstone River through Livingston and up Paradise Valley. It is a drive that is very familiar to me. We had lots of visitors to our home that wanted to see Yellowstone. Some, especially those from smaller countries such as Japan or countries in Europe, thought that Yellowstone could be seen in an afternoon. They didn’t really understand the scope and the scale of the park. We did, however, devise a way to show the park to visitors in a day.

We would depart our home at 6 am. Breakfast was in Gardiner around 7:30. We’d be on the terrace at Mammoth between 8:30 and 9 am. Then we’d head east across the northern part of the park, stopping to view buffalo in the Lamar Valley, Tower Falls, and take short hikes at the lower and upper falls of the Yellowstone. A late lunch at Fishing Bridge or Yellowstone Lake would get us to Old Faithful in the mid afternoon. A stop at the Norris Geyser Basin and a bathroom break at Gardiner on our way out would get us back to Livingston for a late dinner and we’d be back at home by 8 pm or so. It was a long day with a lot of driving and there was a lot to the park that we didn’t get to show our visitors, but they at least got a flavor of the park. I could almost guarantee that we would see deer, big horn sheep, antelope, elk, buffalo, black bears and usually a moose. Sometimes we’d get lucky and I could show them a grizzly bear or mountain goat, usually from quite a distance.

In the winter, however, things were different. Once the snow began to fly, we felt more like the park was our own. The road from Mammoth to Cook City was kept open, but the other roads in the park weren’t plowed. Snowmobile and snow coach travel was allowed down the west side of the park from Mammoth to Old Faithful. The east side of the park from Tower junction to the lake was non-motorized travel only. We’d go to Chico Hot Springs north of Gardiner and take a day trip into the park, usually with a picnic lunch. We’d see the elk and buffalo and big horn sheep and usually coyotes. We’d marvel at the steam coming up out of the snow and enjoy having the place to ourselves. We might take a short journey on cross country skis, but our tours were mostly car trips.

I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of changes in Yellowstone. The reintroduction of grey wolves remains controversial among the people who live near the park, but there is something special about viewing a pack of wolves work a treelike with buffalo in the open areas below. The wolves reduced the elk population, which allowed the willows to come back on the edges of the rivers and that encouraged the beaver population to grow making for broader stream flows in places.

Perhaps the most dramatic change occurred in the 1988 fires. Things really got hot that summer, due, in a large part to the success of decades for fire suppression. Without a full understanding of the nature of fire overly aggressive fire fighting operations allowed for excessive fuel loads to build up and when things got going in ’88, the fires could only be stopped by winter. We drove through the park in ’89 and there were places where it seemed as if the ground was scorched so badly that it would never recover. That wasn’t the case. The park had its own way of coming back from the fires. In fact there is a place near the Madison River that burned in 1988 that had large trees and enough fuel for another big wildfire to sweep through in 2016.

2016 was another year where the changes were very evident, even though we didn’t enter the park that year. They completely closed the Yellowstone River for almost 200 miles downstream from the park for all fishing and boating activity. Kidney disease killed thousands of fish. Lower water flows and warmer water were factors in the outbreak. We drove through Montana that summer and just before the ban, played with a couple of kayaks in the Boulder River. We had our boats inspected twice driving out of the Yellowstone Valley. People were afraid of losing the blue ribbon trout fishing that has long been a hallmark of the river.

The weather station at Mammoth is one of the oldest in the nation, which means that they have more data on what is happening there than many other places. These days there are about 60 fear days that fall below freezing than was the case 30 years ago. The average temperature in the park has risen two degrees in my lifetime. That doesn’t sound like much, but the effects are dramatic. On average winter in Yellowstone is 10 days shorter. The park is dryer, even when it rains because the water evaporates more quickly. Cheatgrass has invaded the Lamar Valley, brought in by cars from outside the park. The grass sucks more moisture out of the soil earlier in the spring and turns brown more quickly. The elk move north of the park in search of better feed and the wolves follow. When a wolf pack takes a calf or a few lambs, the locals get up in arms. “This didn’t used to happen!” they declare. They are right.

Back in 1988, we thought the hot dry summer was an anomaly. It was abnormal and wouldn’t happen again. But now that weather is normal. And fires are happening more often. And the forest burns before it has had a chance to recover from the last fire.

Yellowstone is still a good place to take visitors to show them a bit of what the great intermountain wilderness was once like. But like the rest of the mountains of the region, things are changing rapidly and one wonders how much longer we will be able to recognize the place we have loved for all of our lives.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!