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The Past 30 Years in Yellowstone, Part 3: Suzanne Lewis
November 14, 2023
The Past 30 Years in Yellowstone, Part 3: Suzanne Lewis
The first and only woman to serve as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park talks fishing, bison, snowmobiles, and the visitation capacity Yellowstone has (or doesn’t have) down the road.
Suzanne Lewis served as Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent from 2002-2010, the park’s first, and thus far only, woman to hold Yellowstone’s chief executive position. Here, Lewis (L) and Cultural Resources Chief Ann Johnson present John Reynolds with the George and Helen Hartzog Enduring Service Award for his over 8,000 hours of volunteer work with the Yellowstone Archeology Program in 2012. Photo courtesy 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 3 in our series, this with Suzanne Lewis, the first and only woman to serve as Yellowstone's top executive.
by Johnathan Hettinger
“Yellowstone is not a factory. We don’t make widgets.”
Suzanne Lewis shared this sentiment in a recent interview with Mountain Journal. When it comes to the role of the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, she said, the issues stay the same, but the pressures change. These issues range from bison, a changing climate and increasing visitation to maintaining pristine water, housing employees and the complications that come with more people living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“It’s maintaining the resources as best you can under difficult circumstances,” said Lewis, who served from February 2002 to October 2010 as Yellowstone’s first and only female superintendent. “That’s always a delicate balance.”
Over the years, the park has also improved its capacity to monitor, both hard scientific data about issues like water quality, as well as social science data on visitation.
In a conversation with Audubon magazine in 2010, she reflected on being the first female chief executive at Yellowstone. "I’m often asked what’s it like to be the first female superintendent at Yellowstone and my response is usually that I’ve kind of been the first female everything in any park I’ve been at," she said. "So I was used to it by the time I got to Yellowstone."
Lewis served as a National Park Service employee for 32 years. She currently lives in Pensacola, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, and serves as the chair of the board of trustees for the University of West Florida. She shared thoughts on her near decade at Yellowstone, how the park has changed since then, and what issues are most pressing going forward. And, by the way, she loves fishing.
The conversation below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Mountain Journal: How often do you make it back to Yellowstone?
Suzanne Lewis: I was just there fishing in July.
MoJo: What were your impressions of the park when you visited? Was it busier?
S.L.: It’s typically crowded in July. We go way off into the backcountry into the fish, and come in early in the morning and we would leave late. We weren’t visiting the sites that most people visit when they come to Yellowstone. We didn’t go to Old Faithful. We drove to get to the point where we like to get into fish, and we passed many points: Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, those kinds of places. On the way out, I noticed the traffic was heavier.
Looking at and reading visitation, it’s [busier] than when I was superintendent there. In recent years, you’ve read about how a lot of people during the pandemic wanted to get outside and travel. There’s no doubt that managing visitors is extremely difficult in Yellowstone.
MoJo: How is the health of the fisheries?
S.L.: Overall, they seem to be in good condition. Lake trout are still a big issue, in terms of trying to eradicate [them]. They have had an impact on native trout, but seem to be getting better. They’ve restored a lot of smaller streams. I’m not up on the recent data [but] it tends to happen in very remote areas where restoration goes on. I would hope and think that has been successful.
"I’d say I probably spent 35 to 40 percent of my time working on bison: getting ready for the winter season, getting through the winter season." – Suzanne Lewis, Yellowstone National Park superintendent, 2002-2010
MoJo: When you think back on your time at Yellowstone, what are you proud of?
S.L.: When I look back, I think of two main issues: Snowmobiles and bison.
MoJo: Let’s start with snowmobiles.
S.L.: The program today is highly managed. I started that highly managed program, whether it’s controlling numbers, guiding, the types of machines, requiring two-stroke engines. The park heavily monitors winter use for all of its impacts because there are certainly impacts on water quality, air quality, the snowpack, wildlife safety. I don’t know what last year’s numbers look like, but I know we were able to ratchet it down through management. I had never ridden a snowmobile, or a jet ski, until I went to Yellowstone.
MoJo: And why bison?
S.L.: It’s just such a keystone issue if you look at the history of bison in our country or if you watch the brand-new Ken Burns program on bison, [The American Buffalo]. Look at the Yellowstone herd. It’s the last largest free-roaming herd of bison on public lands. It’s just a keystone species, and it represents such a large-scale success for public lands. Bison are unlike any other animal. [Without the work in Yellowstone,] they wouldn’t be where they are now, and the herd wouldn’t be growing, which it is still growing. It’s an important part of the prey-predator habitat in the park.
MoJo: Did the switch from an elk-dominated landscape to a bison-dominated landscape happen when you were there?
S.L.: Change began to happen under Mike Finley (Yellowstone superintendent 1994-2001) when wolves were reintroduced. It continued to change when I was there. We monitored to see how much the wolves were beginning to prey on bison as the elk populations got healthier and smarter.
MoJo: What was your relationship with the three states adjacent to the park?
S.L.: It was very, very difficult. The relationships between the park and the three states involved in bison management: Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. And mostly Montana and Wyoming. And there’s the IBMP [Interagency Bison Management Plan]. I’d say I probably spent 35 to 40 percent of my time working on bison: getting ready for the winter season, getting through the winter season. It was a very, very important part of my job.
MoJo: Wow. I didn’t realize it was that much time.
S.L.: Oh absolutely. Also, when I was there we worked with the [U.S.] Department of Agriculture in Washington to set up the first quarantine at Stephens Creek [Capture Facility in Yellowstone].
MoJo: What else sticks out to you beyond snowmobiles and bison?
S.L.: All the resources, cultural and natural resources, are just the finest you’re going to find. I take a lot of pleasure in things like the Heritage and Research Center down near Gardiner, right on the boundary, in order to house one of the largest selections of artifacts and archival material, a lot of projects in the park.
MoJo: What were Native American tribal relationships like in your time? How do you think they’ve changed since then?
S.L.: I wouldn’t know how they’ve changed, but my sense is that those relationships have improved under every superintendent. It’s all about building those relationships. The tribes have faced tremendous changes and challenges to their culture and their people. It’s a very important role that the superintendent plays. Yellowstone has made a fair amount of progress over a long period of time. It’s a lot of relationships to maintain, especially because tribes change leadership just like the park does.
MoJo: What questions would you ask other superintendents?
S.L.: Every superintendent has an individual experience. Yellowstone is not a factory. We don’t make widgets. A group of leaders is going to be faced with perhaps the same challenges that previous superintendents faced, but that’s the name of the game. It’s called preservation of park resources. All superintendents work on the same issues, it’s just the intensity of the situation [that changes]. The park service has become very good at adapting to data, using that data to make management decisions. I don’t know what their answers would be.
"You’ve read about how a lot of people during the pandemic wanted to get outside and travel. There’s no doubt that managing visitors is extremely difficult in Yellowstone." – Suzanne Lewis
MoJo: Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you’d like to discuss?
S.L.: We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about visitation. The park has a capacity. At times, it would appear Yellowstone has not only reached but exceeded that capacity. That’s going to be a huge challenge to try to figure out with the communities how you’re going to manage visitation. It is a benefit for all the resources to do that. It’s also a benefit to the visitors themselves. Social science data is really important in the National Park Service. To find out what is it visitors want? What is most important? What is their level of education before they get here?
MoJo: When you were there, did it feel like the park had exceeded its capacity?
S.L.: In the month of July, when there haven’t been any fires started, the park is very crowded. The roads in Yellowstone are historic; they have a limited capacity. The buildings have a limited capacity. The lodging has a limited capacity. It reached a pretty big crescendo in August. At any given day at any given time, the impacts of that visitation [are] what drives a lot of ranger work.
But I do think understanding visitors better and being able to show the scientific data that we do understand them—their wants, their needs, their desires—would also help on the political spectrum and putting into place ways to manage visitors in the height of the season.
Cam has a really difficult situation. During his time, his budget has shrunk as visitation has grown exponentially. It’s a huge challenge, of how do you allot resources. When I was there, the budget increased slowly, so the pressure point between those two was different. Visitation, we had one big year, but it was a year where we had a spike. For almost nine years, it was sort of level, except for one year we had a really big year (2010, when 3.6 million visitors came to Yellowstone). The budget never allows you to hire as many people as you need. And then if you have more positions; can you recruit and hire them?
The park has always been the housing for the park employees, but the demand and the pressure are certainly more than when I was there. We faced a housing shortage, but probably not in the same way that Cam is facing or faced. The biggest thing was the age and the condition of the housing.
Miss parts 1 and 2 of our Interview Series? Here they are:
here. Thank you.