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The Past 30 Years in Yellowstone, Part 1: Cameron Sholly
If you want to have a visitation trend line that's going up, and
you've got a staffing line that's relatively flat, at some point, you need
people to manage people, and you need people to protect this park. Either
staffing needs to go up commensurate with visitation or visitation needs to
come down commensurate with staffing—one or the other. When you start looking
at it, all these issues are interlinked. The housing challenges [make it hard]
just to keep existing staffing levels.
October 24, 2023
The Past 30 Years in Yellowstone, Part 1: Cameron Sholly
In the first of this MoJo interview series with four superintendents of America’s first national park, Cam Sholly discusses wildlife, visitation, Covid and the 2022 floods
In the five years Cam Sholly has been at the helm of Yellowstone National Park as its current superintendent, he has faced down the highest visitation year the park has ever experienced, running America's first national park during the Covid-19 pandemic, and dealt with the devastation and rebuilding of park infrastructure following the floods of June 2022. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
EDITOR’S NOTE: Yellowstone National Park has undergone a litany of changes over its lifespan since 1872 when it was named the first national park in the U.S. It’s also witnessed incredible triumphs in the face of increasing visitation, devastating flooding, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenges associated with managing wildlife numbers, staffing and relationships with the three states in which it resides: Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
At Mountain Journal, we wanted to examine how far Yellowstone has come in the last 30 years, what changes it’s experienced, and what the future may hold. What better place to start than with the four park superintendents that have occupied that position over the last three decades. Here’s Part 1 in our series.
by Johnathan Hettinger
A few months ago, I was sitting on my friend’s back porch here in Livingston, Montana, when a neighbor peeked her head over the fence and said, “I can’t find our puppy. Will you help me look around to see if he escaped?”
My friends started looking around their yard, and I jumped on my bike to ride around the block and look for the Brittany puppy, which actually shared a name with Yellowstone National Park’s top employee. I began riding and shouting the puppy’s name in the streets: “Cam!” “Cam Sholly!”
I must’ve looked like an insane person on the residential streets of Livingston, riding around in circles shouting Sholly’s name. When I shared this story with the human Sholly during a recent chat over Zoom, he loved it. A few months ago, when he found out there was a puppy named after him, he went around to offices in the park administration building and showed a video of the dog that shared his name to Yellowstone employees.
My search was uneventful. It turned out that the puppy Cam Sholly was just hiding in the house.
But the human Sholly, who in 1990 began with the National Park Service in the trail maintenance department of Yellowstone’s remote Thorofare region, is now starting his sixth year as Yellowstone’s superintendent, hasn’t been hard to find. He’s been out front as the park has dealt with a pandemic, a massive flood, record-
“It's kind of hard to summarize the last five years. It has just been one thing after another,” said Sholly. “I think if I had to use a term, perseverance would be one for this team here. Yellowstone has done a tremendous job through a lot of very difficult circumstances. These gateway communities and partners that we work with have also persevered through a lot of tumultuous times and park closures.”
Sholly opened up the conversation with a brain dump of updates about Yellowstone:
● The park has invested $50 million in housing, renovating 191 housing units.
● Yellowstone has invested heavily in mental health services in recent years, after two employees committed suicide in three years. The effort allows employees access to counselors, and some employees say that work has been lifesaving, Sholly said.
● The park is mapping out plans for permanent flood repairs and will soon have multiple alternatives the public will see in the next year on how to permanently replace the road between Mammoth and Gardiner.
● In recent months, Sholly’s focus has been on a new bison management plan, which received more than 20,000 comments during a recent comment period. “We're looking for this plan to solidify a lot of the progress that we've made to this point, but there still continues to be a considerable amount of divergent opinions that need to be reconciled,” he said.
● Sholly says he’s pleased that Montana reinstated a quota of six wolves in the annual hunt, after one-fifth of the park’s wolves were killed in neighboring states during the 2021-22 hunting season. “They’re higher than where they were before, but it's better than the free-for-all that we saw in ‘21 and ‘22,” he said.
● The park has invested $1 million into an expansion of the bison quarantine program. Since 2019, the park has sent just under 300 bison to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes at Fort Peck, where the InterTribal Buffalo Council helped transfer them to 23 tribes in 12 states. This year, the park captured 282 bison to enter into the quarantine program, in addition to 1,200 being killed by hunters.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and the flood, Sholly said he felt like the park has learned to work together better, with tribes, with gateway communities and with nonprofit partners.
“If there's a silver lining to Covid and the floods, it’s that we've all become closer and have better communication,” he said. “We all know that we can weather a lot of tough things and still work together and come through it in an OK fashion,” Sholly said.
"[Yellowstone] is the largest wildlife visitor interface in the world. You can go to other places and find more wildlife, but there's not as many people. You can go to other places and find a lot more people but not as much wildlife. Here you've got both." – Cam Sholly
Read more of the conversation below. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How much more
important is employee housing now because of how expensive Park and Gallatin
counties and the whole region has gotten? For employees, they seem to be more
reliant on the park for reliable housing than they were even five years ago or
20 years ago.
Cam Sholly: That's a good observation. It's more important now than ever. If we don't have government housing available, we're regularly getting people turning down jobs because of the markets. There's just very few houses for sale—in Gardiner, in the [Paradise] valley—and the ones that are for sale are very expensive.
And then rentals. The rentals are a lot more Airbnbs and VRBOs. Five or 10 years ago, you pretty easily could come in and rent a place for $1,500 a month, or something like that, and there was quite a bit to choose from. Now, in Gardiner especially, there really are no rentals for employees, and there's no affordable housing.
We've got a good number of people in Gardiner that bought houses in the ‘90s and early 2000s when it was affordable. A lot of them are retiring. And their replacements are likely going to have to live in the park because there is nothing affordable or available in these gateways.
MoJo: You mentioned Yellowstone’s 150th celebration. What are your takeaways from that? I attended the Intertribal Gathering and Mountain Time Arts’ Yellowstone Reveal event at Madison Junction. Those were powerful events. How do you learn from those and make events like that more a part of the future of the park?
C.S.: The takeaway from the 150th if you push the flood aside, which kind of distracted us for a bit, was really focusing on how far we've come. And, recognizing that although we have a lot of challenges, we've gotten a lot right when it comes to putting the pieces back together with this ecosystem, especially over the last 50 years.
If you think about 100 years ago, we were killing all the predators, decimating bison, feeding grizzly bears out of cars, and more. But you look at last year, we had a record number of bison. The health of the ecosystem overall is better now than it has been since Yellowstone became a park. I think that's a core takeaway from an ecosystem perspective.
What we looked to do with the 150th was really take those relationships with tribes to new levels. We want to do better at engaging tribes and working closely with them. The Park Service has the job to tell the history of this country, the good and bad and ugly, but no one can tell the history of the tribes like tribal members can. I think the Tribal Heritage Center, which we continued this year, which Yellowstone Forever supported, at Old Faithful, was a huge success. We had 34 tribal artists and scholars rotating in and out of that heritage center this year. It's a huge benefit for the tribe to be able to directly interact with thousands of visitors, and tell their stories and talk to people about their tribal heritage and culture.
Sholly addresses the crowd at the Yellowstone National Park Lodges 150 Years of Inspiration event in May of 2022. Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Last year was pretty foundational to creating some much better relationships with various tribes and having discussions about what might be possible in the future – how we better incorporate tribal themes and history into our education curriculums. We've got an internship program set up with tribal colleges for bison. These last couple years we’ve brought tribal archaeologists and students in, so they can learn about archaeology in the park. We've got tribal trail crew folks that are helping us with boardwalks and things like that. This last year or two has been really important from the standpoint of having deeper conversations with tribes about the future.
MoJo: There are a lot of conversations about bison management. This year was the biggest bison hunt ever: more than 1,200 bison were hunted. I was reading an interview you did a few years ago with Todd Wilkinson in Mountain Journal, and you were talking about the hunt and how it needs to be safer.
Is a hunt of this size something we could expect to see again? I know management is complicated by Yellowstone only having jurisdiction over bison in the park, and the Forest Service having jurisdiction in certain areas and then tribes and the state. So, what does that future look like and how are you thinking about it?
C.S.: What we want is multiple tools to manage the population. First and foremost, we want to protect the genetic integrity of the bison population and maintain a healthy, free-ranging bison population. Any species has to be managed, and bison have constraints outside the park that are out of our control.
At the end of the day, there's a lot more summer habitat in Yellowstone than there is winter habitat for bison. And while some of those external factors stay in place, then we're going to need to continue to manage bison.
There are three primary ways that we manage the population. The shipment to slaughter is the traditional way we've done that. In 2008, we shipped almost 1,500 Bison to slaughter in one year. That's not a popular management tool. Then there’s the hunt. We had eight last year—nine this year—tribes on the boundary exercising their treaty hunting rights. And the bison conservation transfer program, which we just expanded.
"The park is 2.2 million acres and less than 2,000 acres of pavement, and the majority of people don't get more than a half-mile away from their car." – Cam Sholly
Last year was an anomaly of record out-migration. No one's ever seen anything like that. Most of that's because of how much snow we got early and how cold it got. The bison moved out of the park sooner than they had in a long time and definitely in higher numbers. That was also coming off a couple years of light migration. I don't think last year's scenario is something that's going to happen frequently, but none of us can predict the future.
I know it may not have been pretty for some folks, but we did manage the largest migration effectively with minimal conflict with landowners, without bison getting outside the authorized tolerance zones. We captured 282 live bison for the protocol for transfer to tribes. About 1,100 bison were hunted by tribes and another 60 or 80, in that range, were hunted by state hunters.
I don't think we'll see what we saw last year on a frequent basis. But I will say that after how we managed it last year—and I know not everybody agrees with it—we're pretty confident that, even with some higher numbers of bison, we can manage that interface successfully.
Yellowstone Revealed: North Entrance teepees at sunset with Roosevelt Arch in the background, August 2022. Photo by Jacob W. Frank
MoJo: I want to ask you about visitation and how you're thinking about that lately. With higher numbers of visitors, what are the impacts of that? Has the park been able to handle the level of visitation that’s been going on?
C.S.: (Former Yellowstone Superintendent) Mike Finley was here from ‘94 to ‘01. His range of visitation was around 2.8 million to 3.1 million visits in a year.
(Former Yellowstone Superintendent) Suzanne Lewis was here from ‘01 to ‘10, and her range was 2.7 to 3.6 million.
(Former Yellowstone Superintendent) Dan Wenk was here from ‘11 to ‘18. His range was 3.1 million to 4.2 million. So, in 2015, when Dan was here, it was the first time we exceeded 4 million visits in a single year.
And since then, I've been here. That range—it's a weird one because you've got these weird Covid years and the flood—but my range has been somewhere between 3.2 and 4.8 million. And the 4.8 million number is kind of an anomaly because that was a Covid year, and we had a lot of our overnight accommodations closed in the park, so a lot of people were going in and out more than normal. Without Covid, and without the flood, we're sitting in the 4 million to 4.2 million range.
We've got a lot of really good pieces of strategy coming together. There has not been a real strategy in this park on visitor use previously. We've done some very aggressive monitoring of resources over the last four years.
The park is 2.2 million
acres and less than 2,000 acres of pavement, and the majority of people don't
get more than a half-mile away from their car. So, the vast majority of this
park never sees a visitor. This narrative that the visitors are overrunning the
park is not totally accurate.
There's definitely significant issues in certain parts of the park at certain times of the year. We're focused on Midway Geyser Basin and Old Faithful, Norris, Canyon. What are the actions that we need to take within those areas to manage more effectively? So far, we’ve not seen as much resource impact as people might think when it comes to direct visitor impacts. You've still got people trying to pet bison and all those kinds of things, but as far as major resource damages, we're not seeing incredible resource damage because of the visitation levels that we've been at here recently.
There are four major areas that we're focused on. Remember,
this is the largest wildlife visitor interface in the world. You
can go to other places and find more wildlife, but there's not as many people.
You can go to other places and find a lot more people but not as much wildlife.
Here you've got both. Managing that interface is probably one of our biggest
Sholly gives U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland a tour of Yellowstone in summer 2021, the busiest on record. Photo by Jacob W. Frank
The second component that we're looking at is: What are the impacts on staffing and infrastructure? You need people to manage people. You need people to protect his park, and it's very important that our staffing levels adequately keep pace with increases in visitation, or if they don't, then visitation needs to come down. You can't just have a free for all on visitation without it being managed.
There's other things to look at:
What does an extra
million people in a single year in this park flushing the toilet five times a
day do to your wastewater and water systems? What’s it mean to empty 2,000
trash cans two times a day instead of one? Or to clean 700 bathrooms two times
a day instead of one? That means more staffing, that means more truck trips of
trash being transferred out of the park. That's something we really have to
keep an eye on. Because if our staffing levels dropped to a point where we
cannot manage visitation, then we've got to take more serious actions to manage
The third one is: What are the impacts on visitor experience? Several recent surveys provided a lot of useful data about what the visitors think. High 80s to low 90s percent of people feel that they're having a good or excellent visitor experience.
Nearly 70 percent of first-time visitors have never seen a bison in the wild or even an elk. So when they do, they stop their car, and they get out and they're enjoying that moment. The people that are irritated are the locals, the employees, and the people who've been here many times, and they've seen a lot of that wildlife, but the people that have seen it for the first time, not so much.
And then the fourth final area is: What are the impacts on the gateway communities from an economic and recreational standpoint? What are the actions that we need to take to manage those areas more effectively? How do we have a plan that people buy into, including the gateway communities around what happens when visitation continues to climb? And do those actions that we're taking have to expand beyond those geographic areas that I mentioned?
"If you want to have a visitation trend line that's going up, and you've got a staffing line that's relatively flat, at some point, you need people to manage people, and you need people to protect this park." – Cam Sholly
MoJo: So right now, would you say it's a lot of planning for more visitation more so than actual actions that you've taken in the park?
C.S.: I think it's a mix. Almost 50 percent of the visitation comes in the West Entrance. We seldom, if ever, had traffic control people in the West Entrance road. And now we have a dedicated traffic control unit that does nothing but manage traffic, to manage that interface and the volume. One or two bison in the road or off the side of the road can back traffic up significantly. We've got a dedicated traffic management unit in that corridor that has made significant differences in traffic flow.
We've got simple things, like at Norris Geyser Basin staffing the parking lot, we didn't do that before. So, if the parking lot is full, you can't come in. You can park in overflow parking and you can walk in on a trail, but we're not allowing the main parking lot to get gridlock. Same thing with the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. There's a lot of actions like that that are occurring now that are active management that we weren't doing before. And then we're also, to your point, planning around larger actions and more comprehensive actions for the future.
MoJo: Does that staff come from somewhere else? Or how are you funding those jobs?
C.S.: We use our fee funds. We use other fund sources that are available to really target stuff. And it's going to have the highest impact both from a visitor management standpoint, resource management standpoint, public safety standpoint. And it comes to trade-offs. There's only so much money; you can only hire as much staff as you can. At a point you run out of money, so you've got to prioritize which staffing you're going to hire and which ones you're not. That's always a trade-off conversation for any park.
Sholly surveys the damage in Yellowstone with Congressman Ryan Zinke a year after the 2022 flooding that the National Parks Service called a "500-year flood" that cost nearly $1 billion in repairs. Photo by Jacob W. Frank
MoJo: Is there anything that we didn't get to touch on enough that you wanted to talk about?
C.S.: We're putting a record amount of money in native fish recovery, which is showing some really great signs of progress, not only on Yellowstone Lake, but in other areas of the park. We're still investing $2-million-plus into Yellowstone Lake to increase the cutthroat trout population. The science panel this year had really positive news about that progress and the rebound of the cutthroats. That's something that we're going to continue to look to invest in even at higher levels.
Yellowstone Forever has done a great job of providing us with a considerable amount of funding for a lot of these programs, including the Bison Conservation Transfer Program expansion, which Greater Yellowstone Coalition also helped fund. So those two fundraised a quarter million [dollars] each and then we matched it with a half a million. There are some really good partnership stories there.
Our wildlife management, if you look at cougars or bison or grizzlies or wolves, we've got a really good, healthy population of wildlife right now in the park. We just did a great event in the Museum of the Rockies, with American Forests on whitebark pine, and putting more whitebark pine, especially blister rust-resistant seedlings
It’s something we don't talk about a lot. We talk about the wolves and the grizzlies and the bison all the time, but we don't people don't really understand there's also a significant number of other species out there that are really important for us to focus on for the overall health of the ecosystem moving forward.
MoJo: Whitebark pine is critical food for grizzlies.
C.S.: And Clark’s nutcracker.
MoJo: I’ve been hearing great things about the work on Soda Butte Creek and cleaning out the brook trout, as well ponds up in Cooke City.
C.S.: Soda Butte Creek is a good example of a cutthroat fishery that we spent decades restoring. Then, I'm assuming there's some different opinions on this, but we think due to the floods some brook trout got washed back into Soda Butte. The fisheries team did a great job. They electroshocked several thousand cutthroat. They put them in holding, treated the creek to get rid of the brook trout. I was there the day they pulled the dams and let the cutthroat back in. It was pretty special.
We focus a lot on Yellowstone Lake because there's been so much attention on the lake trout. But Lead Fisheries Biologist Todd Kuhl and the team's done a really good job on a lot of the fisheries around the park restoring arctic grayling or westslope cutthroat or Yellowstone cutthroat. Those are the only three native species to the park. There’s a lot of work in front of us still, but they're making some really good progress.
The other thing I want to mention was our AIS inspection team this year prevented a quagga mussel-infected boat from launching in Yellowstone Lake. And the cool thing about that team was, not only did they prevent the launch, they proactively called down to Grand Teton and said, ‘Hey, this guy just tried to launch the boat, and he might be coming down there.’ And sure enough, he tried to launch in Jackson Lake. That was good coordination there.
You know, it's been a long five years, but I'm really proud of the team's effort here in so many different areas. And we'll see what the future holds.