13 to 18 September 2018 inclusive; total miles touring Yellowstone over 5 days: 557 miles
After five full days in Yellowstone, during which time we covered some 557 miles in search of fabulous wildlife and stunning scenery, it’s time to move on, heading south towards the neighbouring Grand Tetons National Park. Looking back through this blog I see I’ve published no fewer than 16 posts and around 10,000 words describing our Yellowstone highlights. And yet I still haven’t done Yellowstone National Park proper justice.
Where, for example, is the separate post on mule deer? Everyone loves a mulie, with those ridiculously long ears that have given them their name. They’re quite common in the Park and we’ve seen a number of females and youngsters, but only one male. He boasted a splendid pair of antlers and was strutting his stuff by the side of the road. He plainly thought he was the main man. I, for one, have no argument with that.
Let’s not forget the birds: there’s more to Yellowstone than trumpeter swans, bald eagles and bluebirds. There are ravens all over the place, cheeky chappies patrolling the car parks in search of whatever scraps they can beg, steal or borrow, and a Williamson’s sapsucker, a woodpecker-like bird that drills holes in tree bark, flies off for a while, and then returns to feast on the sap that collects in them and the insects stuck fast in the sap.
And who can forget the sparrows? In the UK we have just two species; over here they have around 30, mostly little brown jobs that are pretty much indistinguishable from one another. However, the white crowned sparrow, which looks like it’s flying around with a zebra crossing on its head, is a bit of a showstopper. Now that’s saying something for a sparrow. The flotilla of goldeneye on Yellowstone Lake was pretty special too. And then, of course, there was the osprey, also at Yellowstone Lake: they’re more common in the USA than in UK, but nevertheless great to see, particularly when they put on a fly-past just for us.
And what about chipmunks? They’re all over the place, scuttling between rocks and under logs. This trip I’ve seen them mostly while driving, as they dash recklessly across the road with their tails held aloft. These jaywalkers don’t hang around to have their photos taken, but we were luckier when walking back from Norris Basin, where one posed briefly for his portrait amongst the fallen pine needles in a patch of woodland. He was on a mission, however, and soon returned to it, searching desperately for more seeds to add to his burgeoning store-cupboard before winter sets in
Chipmunks should not, of course, be mistaken for their beefier cousins, the golden mantled ground squirrels. And this is the point, you see, Yellowstone is dripping with wildlife. Our visit here has fully lived up to our expectations. Indeed it’s surpassed them, because although we’d hoped to see wolves we never expected to do so.
And yet, there are concerns. Yellowstone is a victim of its own success, attracting ever more visitors. We’ve never known it so busy. Last year (2017) the Park recorded 4,116,528 visitors; in the year 2000 the total was a little over 2.8 million. This equates to an increase over the period of 45%. It’s great to know that the so many people are getting out and about in Yellowstone, but the place appears to be creaking at the seams.
Although the Park authorities are investing in the infrastructure, they’re not keeping up with the numbers. The catalyst for the bison jam near the West Entrance was, of course, the bison, but the tipping point was the sheer number of cars entering the Park. It was a bad experience, and I’m guessing some first time visitors in that horrendous queue quickly decided that Yellowstone was not for them.
It’s not just the roads and the parking that are under pressure. There were huge numbers of people at some of the major attractions, and here the Chinese bus groups were a major factor. This is the most significant travel industry trend we’ve noticed in recent years, here at Yellowstone, and on our trips to Tasmania (2016) and Newfoundland (2017). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against Chinese groups doing the mass tourist thing, but I’d feel easier if they spent more time looking at the splendours on view, and less with their backs to those splendours taking endless selfies. At least that way I could maybe convince myself that the jam-packed viewpoints and boardwalks served some useful purpose.
All of this is not, of course, a problem that’s unique to Yellowstone. A report in the New York Times in September 2017 focussed particularly on the pressures facing Zion National Park, in Utah. The article says that:
“The National Park Service was created in 1916 to protect the country’s growing system of parks and monuments. Its mandate is to conserve scenery and wildlife while also protecting visitor enjoyment for generations to come. For years, the lack of a reservation system for park entry aligned with the service’s ethos of democracy and discovery: Anyone could come, pretty much anytime. … But lately, both visitors and nature are suffering”
Managers noted that “some people showed up for a vacation they had planned for months, spent a day in the gridlock and turned around.” The solution being considered is a reservation system. One option would require people to make an online reservation before arrival, and would set a yet-to-be-specified limit on visitors. The second option would require reservations only for certain areas.
Where Zion leads, Yellowstone may one day have to follow. Part of me is saddened by the thought of rationing access to Yellowstone, particularly if the ‘market’ for reservations comes to be dominated by bus tours, but on the other hand if numbers continue to grow the very thing the visitors turn up to enjoy will be irrevocably damaged, and the wildlife will suffer.
It’s a sombre note on which to finish. I love Yellowstone, and I’d like as many people as possible to see it, to be inspired by it, and maybe to be changed for the better by it. But this probably isn’t possible in the longer term, so eventually some way of managing visitor numbers will have to be introduced. Let’s just hope that, when the time comes, the Park authorities do it with care and sensitivity. I wish them well.