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Cam Sholly's Agenda For Safeguarding Yellowstone

New superintendent of America's first national park lays out priorities, discussing everything from grizzlies, wolves and bison to snarled road traffic and other threats

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly strolls in front of former Cavalry barracks at Mammoth Hot Springs. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly strolls in front of former Cavalry barracks at Mammoth Hot Springs. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Last summer, the now-former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke abruptly, and without explanation, announced the forced transfer of Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk. The controversial move came only months before Wenk’s planned retirement following a distinguished 43-year career with the National Park Service. 

The person hand-picked to be his replacement was Cam Sholly, a lesser-known yet respected senior executive within the Park Service’s top management ranks. Immediately it stirred speculation that the Trump Administration had ulterior motives favoring aggressive development of parks over protection of sensitive natural resources.

Among the looming questions: Why was Wenk really being reassigned to a less-prestigious regional post back in Washington D.C.? Was it owed to disagreements had with the state of Montana over its intolerance of wandering Yellowstone bison coming into the state? Did it have to do with Wenk’s outspoken concern about the plight of grizzly bears, which spend much of their lives in the park, possibly getting shot in state-sponsored sport hunts of bruins if they leave Yellowstone's protective confines?

Politicians over the years often have applied pressure on Yellowstone superintendents to not do anything that might rile the economic interests of their constituents and local communities, on everything from wolves and forest fires to when roads should be plowed of winter snow and which routes to shutter during construction.

Along with those involving Wenk, another question loomed large: Was Sholly, son of a former Yellowstone chief ranger, an easily-manipulated and politically-compliant pick sent to execute an agenda in Yellowstone that might erode the core values of America’s first national park? 

Complicating the inquiry was the fact that his professional resume established his credentials as a thinker devoted to the agency’s hallowed mission. In fact, Sholly was incredulous at the mere inference he might be a "yes-man." 

Mountain Journal landed the first national interview with Sholly not long after his selection by Zinke. We reported how destructive disorganized moves like this can happen within the National Park Service.  Arbitrary transferring of career executives for surreptitious, or no explainable purpose. 

The Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, an organization comprised of 1700 retired senior leaders and career employees with collectively 32,000 years of professional management experience in national parks, has noted in testimony before Congress how and why morale in the agency has plunged. Employees at several different parks said they are fearful of being reprimanded if they say something that might upset members of the Trump Administration. 

One example of how tricky it can be is that Zinke and his politically-appointed colleagues overturned Director's Order 100, put in place by Jon Jarvis, Park Service Director during the Obama Administration, that emphasized the vital role of science in confronting complicated challenges such as climate change. President Trump himself has characterized climate change as a hoax concocted by the Chinese.

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Now eight months in to the start of Sholly’s tenure at Mammoth Hot Springs, Zinke is long gone, replaced by David Bernhardt, a former energy industry lobbyist and himself coming under scrutiny by environmental advocates.  Bernhardt's colleagues say that he is a fan of Yellowstone and that, as a result of the firestorm created by Zinke's handling of the Wenk saga, he is well aware of the park's beloved status among the American public.

Sholly has wasted little time in pushing to make what he calls “purposeful progress” in Yellowstone. His actions are seen as a bellwether. Just five months shy of his 50th birthday, the top decision-maker in this country’s most venerable nature preserve is being tasked to a confront a mind-blogging array of controversies, large and small, immediate and long term.

On the day we met, he was preparing for his first summer deluge of visitors that traditionally commences around Memorial Day.  Some 434,000 visits were notched in Yellowstone in May, slightly down from the same month a year ago (which was the busiest May ever), yet still, and in spite of the government shutdown last winter, the number of park visitors overall is up one percent and 11 percent higher than in 2015.

Some things about Yellowstone in summer, Sholly noted, are not markedly different. “Since my first days here back in the mid-80’s, I remember traffic gridlock caused by bison, bears, and other animals along the roadside,” he said.  “People love this place and that’s not going to change.  If people weren’t so enthusiastic about coming here, I’d be worried. Fundamentally, the question we need to ask ourselves is how do we continue to give visitors an experience they’ll never forget, while preserving the most important aspects what keeps Yellowstone a one of a kind place in the world—it’s diverse and interconnected resources.” 
Is it realistic to not have Yellowstone in the middle of summer with bumper-to-bumper "wildlife jams" involving bears, wolves, elk and bison, like this scene in Hayden Valley?  It's not going to change in July and August, Sholly says, nor should it. That people want to make pilgrimages to Yellowstone is a good thing, he adds, noting that a comprehensive survey of visitors done in 2018 showed by 75 percent of visitors were making their first trip to the park and 9 in 10 rated their vacation high in satisfaction.  Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Is it realistic to not have Yellowstone in the middle of summer with bumper-to-bumper "wildlife jams" involving bears, wolves, elk and bison, like this scene in Hayden Valley? It's not going to change in July and August, Sholly says, nor should it. That people want to make pilgrimages to Yellowstone is a good thing, he adds, noting that a comprehensive survey of visitors done in 2018 showed by 75 percent of visitors were making their first trip to the park and 9 in 10 rated their vacation high in satisfaction. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Talk to local people who live in the region, including those who steadfastly avoid going to Yellowstone in summer, and many say its front-country is congested beyond capacity. Sholly not long ago listened to an angler from West Yellowstone complaining that it used to take him 30 minutes to reach his favorite trout-fishing spot; now he has to add on another additional 30 minutes to get there—sometimes enduring backups that stretch for miles. 

Whether that’s to be expected or an indication of Yellowstone’s essence being on a rapid wane lies in the eyes of the beholder.

“I don’t take quite the alarmist’s viewpoint that some people do—at least not yet,” Sholly says. “Let’s put some things in perspective. Traffic moving through a road corridor, which covers one percent of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres, is not nose diving the condition of the resources, even when it’s bumper to bumper in certain places.  That said, there are more visitors here than ever, we need to take it seriously, and have an organized approach to how we manage visitors today, and what that might look like tomorrow.”

A lot of ideas have been floated not by Sholly but by citizens: a quota or lottery system that limits the number of people allowed to enter the park on a given day; a public transportation system comprised of shuttles; even monorails. Maybe someday such things might gain traction, Sholly says, but not anytime soon.
A lot of ideas have been floated not by Sholly but by citizens: a quota or lottery system that limits the number of people allowed to enter the park on a given day; a public transportation system comprised of shuttles; even monorails. Maybe someday such things might gain traction, Sholly says, but not anytime soon.
At current rising rates, Yellowstone could see the number of total annual tourist visits rise from 4.2 million to six million in a decade. “I can say unequivocally that we have not strategically-managed increased visitor use in this park,” Sholly said.  “It’s been hard to even say what our strategy is moving forward and that needs to change.”

In one of the most extensive visitor use survey’s conducted in Park Service history in 2018, 75 percent of visitors to Yellowstone were there for the first time.  Surprising perhaps to critics is that among those visitors surveyed, well over 90 percent said they had an excellent to very good experience during their stay.  This raises another question: who is able to be a better gauge of what the Yellowstone experience should be—those who have been making regular pilgrimages to the park for decades and are dismayed or those encountering it new with possibly lower expectations?

Sholly says it’s important for people who live close by in the tri-state region of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to understand perspectives of the latter.  “To those who are here seeing a bison or bear for the first time, it’s a life-changing event. When they do, they’re going to stop and get out of their cars, take pictures— it’s a bucket list moment to them and they’re enjoying it. To the angler sitting behind the steering wheel 30 cars back, who has seen thousands of bison, he’s frustrated,” Sholly said. “Reconciling these various forms of enjoyment while protecting the resources successfully is really what visitor use management is all about.”  

Given the wide range of Yellowstone stakeholders and varying interests, he’s under no delusion that it will be easy. And he notes no one is surveying the wildlife, asking it what level of human visitation it would prefer. No other national park in the Lower 48 has the diversity of large mammals Yellowstone does and there's a reason for that. Most of the park is unfragmented, devoid of huge throngs of people, including recreationists that are rapidly inundating wildlands outside the park, and habitat remains in good shape, at least for now.  
No other national park in the Lower 48 has the diversity of large mammals Yellowstone does and there's a reason for that. Most of the park is unfragmented, devoid of huge throngs of people, including recreationists that are rapidly inundating wildlands outside the park, and habitat remains in good shape, at least for now. 
Sholly’s office is situated in a building where Cavalry troopers once had barracks, where once they were summoned to the remote outpost of Mammoth Hot Springs—then Fort Yellowstone— and assigned to expel poachers and other exploiters of park resources. Yellowstone is the country’s flagship within a larger organization—the Park Service— that has a $3 billion budget and 20,000 permanent and seasonal employees. It’s also a public ranger-hat-wearing agency that citizens historically have ranked among the most popular in the federal government.

Most people equate Yellowstone and its 3,200 square miles—larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined— to a natural wonderland best known for its grizzlies, wolves, bison and geysers. Sholly isn't the equivalent of a crusading Captain Planet. He is really akin, in some ways, to a big city mayor dealing with huge infrastructure challenges that often overshadow other priorities.
Sholly isn't the equivalent of a crusading Captain Planet. He is really akin, in some ways, to a big city mayor dealing with huge infrastructure challenges that often overshadow other priorities.
Although he dismisses cynic’s characterizations that Yellowstone is being held together by duct tape and bailing wire, or that every passing year it more closely resembles DisneyWorld, Sholly doesn’t deny there are huge converging challenges. 

Just six percent of the park is classified as “developed” and its legendary figure-eight road loop stretches across, as he noted, one percent of the landscape. 

Yet that tiny percentage disproportionately engulfs most of the management focus and attention of politicians, for it is here where the lasting impression of Yellowstone for millions of people across generations has been shaped. Stunning to some perhaps is that the vast, vast majority of tourists seeking to commune with nature seldom wander more than half a mile off the asphalt or hand-railed boardwalks.

Whether that's owed to fear of the wild, not enough time because of being in a rush, or lack of physical fitness, visitors do have a crushing presence along the beaten path.

Two statistics loom immediately large: Yellowstone’s multi-billion dollar asset portfolio—its human-built infrastructure— is plagued with a reported $580 million in deferred maintenance.  Some estimate that number to be considerably higher than reported, perhaps twice as large.

In his short time in the park, Sholly has focused heavily on ground-truthing the reported condition of structures and roads and has pressed his staff to generate accurate cost estimates. “In the upcoming months, we’ll have experts coming in from around the country to conduct assessments on the condition of our assets within this park,” he said. “Our ability to prioritize and direct where our limited investment dollars go is predicated on us having quality data— and we need to do better in this area.”

Where a big city mayor would work with an elected council to secure adequate funding, likely by raising taxes, a Yellowstone superintendent must first make the case within the Park Service and then the U.S. Interior Department. Then the department presents a budget, representing the needs of all of the Park Service’s 419 units (61 of which are designated parks) to 535 members of the House and Senate who themselves are competing to deliver federal funding for projects back in their own states.

Yellowstone, like all public lands, is not managed to turn a profit, though public investments in its infrastructure do generate significant profits in a different way—for the private sector, which highlights a paradox. As a nature tourism destination, new statistical analysis released in May shows that Yellowstone generates nearly $650 million annually in economic activity to the region. The park’s baseline operating budget for 2019, absent any extra injections of funding for infrastructure, is around $35 million. 

There are over 300 miles of paved roads, 1,500 buildings to maintain, 1000 miles of hiking trails, 11 visitor centers and myriad restrooms, 301 backcountry campsites, 52 picnic areas, parking lots (like the stadium-sized sprawl of asphalt at Old Faithful). This doesn’t include the nine hotels with more than 2,000 rooms and cabins operated by private concessionaires but which the park monitors because they are public assets. That is on top of over one million more visitors traveling to the park in just the past six years.  

In 2018, the park spent over $100 million drawn from various funding pools, ranging from operations to transportation projects, fee revenues and philanthropy. The budget allocations to various operations and programs within the park have evolved over decades, many times without a logical rationale, Sholly acknowledges. Divisions and programs within the park battle against each other to fund their 2019 needs using funding percentages that were devised decades ago.  

Money available for natural resources, such as scientific research (including monitoring the impacts of climate change), overseeing cultural resources and battling invasive species has declined or remained flat for many years—even though those areas are mission critical to protecting Yellowstone’s ecological foundation. What the public might not realize is that the latter—exotic interlopers— represent a huge and growing insidious threat. Some 225 of those invasives are non-native plants like cheatgrass that, by itself, has the potential to negatively transform the Yellowstone iconic Northern Range, often referenced as a mini-American Serengeti because of the diversity and number of wildlife that feasts on its native grasses.

Cheatgrass outcompetes native plants, is a poor nutritional alternative to grass-eating bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, and bighorns, and, because it dries out and turns brittle, heightens wildfire risk. Were it to supplant native grasses, it could affect reproduction and population health in those animals, which, in turn, would affect the animals that depend upon them for sustenance, as well as hunting opportunities outside the park. Another exotic entity is on Yellowstone's doorstep—Chronic Wasting Disease.
Cheatgrass outcompetes native plants, is a poor nutritional alternative to grass-eating bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, and bighorns, and, because it dries out and turns brittle, heightens wildfire risk. Were it to supplant native grasses, it could affect reproduction and population health in those animals, which, in turn, would affect the animals that depend upon them for sustenance, as well as hunting opportunities outside the park. 
In addition, there are at least seven invasive aquatic species; one of those—lake trout—having decimated Yellowstone’s famous native cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake, setting off a chain reaction that negatively affected grizzly bears and several other species.  Even though tourists come from around the world to see the park’s wildlife and geothermal features, resource managers and scientists who study and look after them struggle to land adequate funding. 

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Yellowstone’s funding woes have been well known to the Congressional delegations of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho for decades. Elected officials have often been sympathetic to construction budgets tied to getting more people into the park.

While there are many who believe Yellowstone may have already surpassed its tipping point for number of tourists during the middle of summer, Sholly on this day highlighted a different kind of challenge—this one involving the need to take care of the park’s “human capital.” 

Yellowstone is indeed a beacon for the world, Sholly says, yet in order for it to continue offering a world-class experience the park needs to take better care of its people—those 800 donning the government-issue grey and green ranger uniforms.

In May 2019, Sholly and his team laid out a five-point strategic agenda, crafted to help the park get organized. It is focused on the highest priority areas (see them at the bottom of this story.)  He wasn't interested in starting the interview with questions about wildlife. He began the conversation by referencing 75 single and double-wide trailer units, home to hundreds of seasonal workers and visiting scientific researchers.  
In an American park known for its uplifting natural vistas, Sholly says the seasonal housing stock in Yellowstone is breathtaking in the worst possible way. In fact, he says the conditions that workers must live in is disgraceful. Photo courtesy NPS
In an American park known for its uplifting natural vistas, Sholly says the seasonal housing stock in Yellowstone is breathtaking in the worst possible way. In fact, he says the conditions that workers must live in is disgraceful. Photo courtesy NPS
“I realize some people may not look at this as an exciting topic, like talking about grizzlies or wolves or bison, but people who work in this park are the most important resources,” he said.  

Is it incongruent that double wide trailers would rise to a priority status among programs intended to protect the features that define Yellowstone? 

“You can argue the point with me, but if we can’t attract and retain the very best talent, our resources and visitors in this park will be in jeopardy.  Who do you think is protecting these resources, studying them, managing visitors, educating them, cleaning the bathrooms, getting people paid?” he asks, then adds a rhetorical question: 

“We’re comfortable giving our teams the immense responsibilites of managing this place, but then ask many of them to live in total crap trailers with mold and rodents? That doesn’t work for me, we’re better than that, and we will continue to make substantial progress in this area.”    
“You can argue the point with me, but if we can’t attract and retain the very best talent, our resources and visitors in this park will be in jeopardy.  Who do you think is protecting these resources, studying them, managing visitors, educating them, cleaning the bathrooms, getting people paid?”

While seasonal employees aren’t dwelling in total squalor, its close in some cases and it’s no exaggeration to say the housing they inhabit is in decrepit shape which Sholly notes is “unbefitting for Yellowstone or any park in the system.” Some residents have dealt with rodent infestations and mold problems, most trailers have poor insulation and chronic sewer and potable water issues or freezing pipes, and deal with appliances that break down. 

“They were brought in at various times in the past 10 to 30 years.  We haven’t replaced them and today they’re dumps,” Sholly said. “I believe that crucial to adequately safeguarding a national treasure like Yellowstone, you’ve got to look after your people on the front lines, whom you are asking every day to do more. Fortunately, we do have dedicated staff who have worked to make improvements over the years, but we need and can do better than we have.”

To deal with the variety of major issues Yellowstone faces, it needs to hire more permanent and seasonal staff yet it’s caught in a bind of having no living quarters to accommodate them. In the coming years, Yellowstone will be replacing all of those trailers with permanent structures and overhauling other housing. Sholly says an emphasis will be made on maintaining or reducing the physical footprint on the land. Price tag to get that done: tens of millions of dollars, possibly much more. 

And then there are another 350 dwellings for permanent staff, which his team is developing a plan to improve. Keeping morale high, he suggests, is bedrock to esprit de corps, loyalty, commitment, empowerment, recruitment of young people and delivering a kind of government service to country that, like those in military uniform, can’t have their full worth assessed in dollars.

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Increased visitation across the national park system is in the headlines nearly daily in summer.  Yellowstone’s visitation reached four million in 2016 after a meteoric rise. In his first week in office, Sholly told Montana Governor Steve Bullock that he would not consider visitation caps in Yellowstone, something called upon by many people who visit the park regularly. 

Sholly’s response to Bullock:  “We don’t have a visitor use management strategy in this park.  We have talked a lot about increased visitation.  We’ve done some excellent surveys and social science exercises to get more data.  But generally speaking, no one could tell you right now what our strategy is, or what we’re doing to manage visitation more effectively, and that needs to change,” he said.  
"We don’t have a visitor use management strategy in this park.  We have talked a lot about increased visitation. We’ve done some excellent surveys and social science exercises to get more data.  But generally speaking, no one could tell you right now what our strategy is, or what we’re doing to manage visitation more effectively, and that needs to change."
He also points to the Find Your Park campaign, launched in advance of the Park Service’s Centennial in 2016, as both a success and failure.  “We heavily marketed U.S. national parks globally leading up to the Centennial.  We grew our visitation from 280 million to 330 million in five years,” he said. “We told people to find their park—and indeed they did—and now we’re going to cap them from coming in because they did what we asked?  Think about how stupid that sounds.”  

Sholly says the Park Service succeeded in many areas during the campaign and he supported the effort, but the Park Service was generally not prepared for the onslaught of more visitors, especially those parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, Yosemite and Grand Canyon with already high visitation.  

Yellowstone in the summer of 2019 plans to release the findings of what Sholly calls the most comprehensive park visitor survey conducted in the agency’s history. He says it will surprise those who believe the park already is being loved to death and spiraling toward doom.  Frustration ratings were exceptionally low and times for finding parking spaces were normally under five minutes even in July in some of the busier parts of the park.  “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem here, there are actually many things we need to address,” he acknowledged.  

Sholly says the park is building the foundation of a visitor use strategy that will both identify and drive a wide spectrum of short and long-term actions needed to better manage visitors in the park.  The strategy revolves around the following four areas: 1) Impacts to park resources: where they’re occurring and how they can be mitigated/eliminated; 2) Impacts to operations, infrastructure and staffing: how does a million more visitors impact things like waste water treatment facilities and limited staffing capacity?  3) Impacts on visitors’ experience in the park: how does the park do a better job of managing congestion and traffic flow; and 4) Impacts to gateway communities: how does the park work with communities to share information and ideas on managing inside and outside of the park?  

Whatever moves Yellowstone makes, if history does indeed serve as prolog, is certain to bring both supporters and critics. When Yellowstone implemented catch and release fishing regulations, now the standard in many parts of the world, park visitors who loved their pan-friend trout and commercial fishing guides who claimed they might impair their business balked. Those criticisms don’t exist today.  Yellowstone also endured a grueling multi-year process to reach resolution on snowmobiling in the park. Sholly knows that finding a way forward with summer visitation represents the Holy Grail and that whatever solutions are advanced by him or his successors must be based on facts.  

 “Valuable data is being developed to help the park identify where these impacts are occurring and how the park can respond more effectively to addressing them  now and in the future,” he said.  “As visitation increases, our efforts to manage visitors and reduce resource impacts will need to become more aggressive. But you don’t start that conversation by immediately jumping to park-wide visitation caps before you’ve even taken the most basic measures to more effectively manage visitors.”

Still, the data that already exists is daunting.  “We took 30 years to get from two million visitor days in Yellowstone to three million. And then we took six years to get from three million to four million,” Sholly said. “What would conditions be like inside and outside the park if there were five million, six million, seven million visitors?  We need to think proactively about what we might do differently here if those numbers are ever reached.”  
“We took 30 years to get from two million visitor days in Yellowstone to three million. And then we took six years to get from three million to four million. What would conditions be like inside and outside the park if there were five million, six million, seven million visitors?" 
Despite appearances, and short of a spontaneous apocalyptic eruption of the Yellowstone caldera, Sholly says it’s way too early to panic. He isn’t trying to paint a sanguine picture. The crush of summer visitation, and the prospect of rising levels, has him concerned.

“I agree that there is a tipping point there somewhere when the quality of the experience is impaired,” he says. “But it’s important for us to have good information and let it drive a range of actions that can become more aggressive over time as visitation increases but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions or create unrealistic expectations—like we’re not going to have a busy park in August? That’s ridiculous.  And the focus needs to be on the resources primarily. I want people to have a great experience, but I could care less if they sit in traffic jams longer compared to my concern for maintaining the high quality of the resources in this park, or burning our staff out, or overloading our infrastructure.”  

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Constantly, he fields questions about caps on daily visitation in place at Zion National Park in Utah and why Yellowstone hasn’t imposed limits. “There is a lot to learn from Zion. It’s been at this (daily quotas and a public transportation system in part of the park) for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, it’s not totally an apples to apples comparison. Zion is 150,000 acres and gets 4.5 million visits a year. We’re 2.2 million acres and get 4.2 million.”

Were a Zion-like shuttle service to be implemented, the data shows that the best place to test it on a voluntary basis for riders would be between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful or a mini system at Canyon or Old Faithful ferrying people to popular overlooks. “A larger shuttle system parkwide is interesting to consider but nowhere in the near future is it going to happen,” he notes, pointing out that most visitors support shuttles as long as they are not mandatory - and due to the size of the park, many drive in one entrance and exit another. There are traditions built up around the way people visit Yellowstone and an economy that sprang up around it, he notes.

Yellowstone and neighbor, Grand Teton National Park (which recent analysis shows generates $792 million in economic activity for the region) are work horses for a three-state tourism economy.  The status of nature tourism is ascending but park advocates, joined by Sholly, wonder at what point does the rising volume of people force a response? And then, what would it be?  
Controversies over Yellowstone dominate the headlines but the mystique and reality of wonderland remains.  Top left: Lower Falls in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; upper right: a wildlife watcher scans the high meadows;  lower left:  a silhouetted gray wolves pauses in a wintry river bottom, among a population of lobos that are the most-viewed in the world; lower right:  the geyser basins of Yellowstone are as astounding to modern visitors as they were to ancient ones.  All photos courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Controversies over Yellowstone dominate the headlines but the mystique and reality of wonderland remains. Top left: Lower Falls in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; upper right: a wildlife watcher scans the high meadows; lower left: a silhouetted gray wolves pauses in a wintry river bottom, among a population of lobos that are the most-viewed in the world; lower right: the geyser basins of Yellowstone are as astounding to modern visitors as they were to ancient ones. All photos courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Yes, indeed, many had wondered what kind of superintendent Sholly would be—where his heart resides?

With regard to Yellowstone’s venerable wildlife symbols, Sholly pointed to some profound gains that have occurred since he was in Yellowstone during the 1980s, including the recovery of grizzlies and the reintroduction of wolves following their annihilation—two things skeptics thought could never happen. Victories have been hard earned but they’re real.

“Yellowstone is in its healthiest overall state in almost 200 years,” he says, referencing a time of widespread and largely unregulated natural resource exploitation in the 19th century when beaver and other animals were trapped out, bison annihilated to near extinction, game species depleted by market hunters and poachers, and settlers carrying forward a less-than-gentle approach to their park interactions.  “I’m not saying it’s not under threat or that we should be complacent; there are real challenges that need to be predicted and addressed.”  

If Yellowstone is truly in a sort of modern golden age, in which smarter ecological thinking has been successful in holding the line against further erosion of wildness, Sholly doesn’t want it to be a mere fleeting halcyon moment. And when looking at growth in Bozeman and the ripple effects it is causing, the number of people using national forests, in a variety of different ways, has the potential to greatly impact wildlife outside Yellowstone.

Ominous forces are already at work, he said, that could accelerate an unraveling, everything from climate change and Chronic Wasting Disease in elk and deer to incursion by cheatgrass now on the park’s northern boundary near Gardiner. “How do we, for example, halt the advance of CWD or cheatgrass? How do we make sure that cheatgrass doesn’t overwhelm the Northern Range?  How do we prevent it or CWD from becoming the disaster that lake trout did for Yellowstone cutthroat trout? How can we enhance Yellowstone’s resiliency so it remains the healthy heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is well positioned to withstand threats we’re not even aware of yet?  Using the lake trout proliferation as an example, how do we do better at identifying ecosystem threats early and taking aggressive actions to prevent proliferation and allow for natural native species to thrive?” he asks.  

Yellowstone is spending $2.2 million a year on lake trout eradication alone. “That investment will need to be made for the foreseeable future.  It’s a lesson that in the 21st century we had a near catastrophe happening right in front of our eyes and didn’t respond as early as we should have.  Great that we have had the results we’ve had over the last years in helping cutthroats to recover, but it never should have gotten to that point.  And it’s not a blame thing.  It’s about how do we learn from it and do better to prevent anything similar from happening in the future.”

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“Why is it that when thousands of elk leave the park they’re called ‘Montana elk’ but when a few hundred bison do they’re called ‘Yellowstone bison’?  Why are bison captured, tested and slaughtered but elk aren’t?”  I asked him.

“Fundamentally, the answer is social tolerance exists for elk in Montana and it doesn’t for bison,” he said.
Yellowstone bison kept in a fenced quarantine facility at Stephens Creek just north of the park. Animals that are tested multiple times and shown to be free of brucellosis are available for shipment to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation which is endeavoring to build its tribal herd. Groups like the Buffalo Field Campaign and others have been critical of the test and slaughter regimen applied to Yellowstone bison even though elk, as confirmed by the National Academies of Sciences, represent the true, yet still remote, threat of passing brucellosis to private cattle herds. Sholly sees quarantine as an important regimen to keep bison alive and to build more social tolerance. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Yellowstone bison kept in a fenced quarantine facility at Stephens Creek just north of the park. Animals that are tested multiple times and shown to be free of brucellosis are available for shipment to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation which is endeavoring to build its tribal herd. Groups like the Buffalo Field Campaign and others have been critical of the test and slaughter regimen applied to Yellowstone bison even though elk, as confirmed by the National Academies of Sciences, represent the true, yet still remote, threat of passing brucellosis to private cattle herds. Sholly sees quarantine as an important regimen to keep bison alive and to build more social tolerance. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Wenk, his precedessor, had drawn the line on other things during his tenure that ruffled the feathers of some. Wenk openly expressed his displeasure with the indelicate demands of the state of Montana and the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) in demanding that park bison be lethally managed.

He openly questioned the wisdom of state proposals to allow sport hunting of grizzly bears and wolves just outside the park boundary—certain to result in the killing of bruins and lobos that live much of their lives in the park, that are part of scientific research projects and adored by wildlife watchers. Wenk was at the end of his career and felt that he could be more forthcoming and his candor won him praise from former Park Service senior employees and conservationists who say civil servants ought to be able to speak the truth without fear of political retaliation. 

Sholly’s approach so far has been less confrontational and more tempered—at least so far.  He’s praised Montana Governor Steve Bullock and even state officials in the Montana Department of Livestock and APHIS for what he perceives is a willingness to find common ground on issues. While Sholly has clear frustrations that bison are treated differently than all other species that can transcend the Yellowstone boundary, his approach, he says, is centered on protecting the integrity of the Yellowstone bison herd, while taking his time to build relations with key stakeholders to see what is possible for enabling animals to roam further beyond the boundary. 

"Let's be clear, bison aren't cattle and Yellowstone isn't a ranch where the purpose is to manage wildlife like you would domestic livestock," Sholly said. "We are managing the bison herd toward an in-park population of 3,000 in winter and 4,000 post spring calving. Despite what some say, bison are contributing to the health of our ecosystem not detracting from it."

Notably, Sholly  is focused on continuing what he considers successful initiatives like the bison quarantine program started by Wenk.  “A successful quarantine program, that results in brucellosis-free bison being cleared for further movement or transfer, will be integral to any future success we have with bison,” Sholly said.  “We will look for ways to continue the quarantine program here in Yellowstone and other places we might expand the program to promote larger transfers of brucellosis-free bison to larger landscapes.”

Yellowstone is on track, he said, to transfer roughly 55 bull bison to the  Ft. Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana this upcoming fall.  “We will capture another cohort into quarantine this upcoming winter.  I think that people and organizations that are concerned about Yellowstone bison being shipped to slaughter each year should continue working to help us expand this critical program to reach numbers that are more substantial.  We will also continue working with the state and others to look for ways to fully utilize existing tolerance zones and toward other possibilities in the future.”

One person who has closely monitored the management of Yellowstone bison is retired university professor James Bailey who criticized the quarantine program for being incredibly expensive to yield a relatively small number of disease-free animals. Read Bailey’s critique here. 

Sholly hears Bailey's criticism and others who point to the killing of bison along the park border as a travesty. Sholly says that while he fully supports the hunting of bison in Montana, agencies must do a better job of improving the conditions under which hunting occurs outside Yellowstone’s northern boundary. Critics say it has created dangerous hunting conditions for people and that it, at times, does not conform to the principles of fair chase.  “Are we really calling that a hunt? I share the substantial safety concerns of the residents of Gardiner and we need to figure out a better pathway forward,” Sholly said.   

Sholly acknowledges that the report from the National Academies of Sciences calls into question the justification that tens of millions of dollars have been spent killing more than 11,500 Yellowstone bison. There’s never been a documented case of brucellosis being transmitted to cattle from bison in Greater Yellowstone. And every single brucellosis case in the region in which domestic cows have become infected with brucellosis from wildlife involves elk as carriers.

Sholly wants Yellowstone bison to have more space to roam outside the park, pointing out that they aren’t fully utilizing the expanded zone of tolerance in Montana that the state already agreed to.

“When I look at the Interagency Bison Management Plan meeting with the state of Montana that happened last November and March, there were conversations that would not have occurred several years ago. That is progress. The goals of the old IBMP need to be looked at carefully as we write the new plan and we need to challenge each other to do better. There’s a reason why we’re in the same framework as we were 19 years ago when the last plan was completed in 2000,” he said.

There are many opposing viewpoints and it’s very complicated, he adds.  “If it was an easy fix, it would have happened but that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to try. I also think we need to be cognizant of the fact that while free roaming bison would be amazing to see, managing bison in 2019 presents many challenges that didn’t exist 200 years ago. I think people need to be realists here and that while we have made strides, there are still tremendously divergent opinions on this issue.  It’s worthy of our continued efforts to find the right balance and we need to continue to progress using real facts and science.”

Sholly admits that he and his team do not like the hunting firing lines that form just beyond the park’s northern boundary during autumn and winter when elk and bison come out of the park to flee deep snows and seek forage available at lower elevation. 

Complaints have been registered about both state and tribal hunts, arguing they’re unsporting, sometimes chaotic and dangerous.  “This issue has evolved to where we are today, but it is not optimal in any way and we need to continue to seek ways to support safe hunting outside of the boundary, but get away from this current paradigm we’ve used over the years.  It’s not really a hunt at all. It’s a slaughter.  How we can we do it better?”

The park’s bison quarantine program will continue into the foreseeable future and may become permanent. “We are on track to transfer this current cohort of bull bison to Ft Peck this fall.  We will capture another cohort next year to enter the protocol,” Sholly said.  “I’ve also been pleased with the partnership with the states, federal agencies like APHIS, and the tribes in looking at ways to continue and possibly expand this program.  The more bison we successfully move through quarantine, the more that can transfer to landscapes beyond Yellowstone and the fewer bison that get shipped to slaughter.”

Sholly next made a reference to wolves. Some wolves, which have been popular among roadside wildlife watchers in Yellowstone, have been killed by hunters soon after they’ve crossed the park boundary, causing a public outcry. He understands the outrage; however, he says part of the problem too is caused by wolves becoming habituated to people in the park who do them no harm.

“Many of those wolves spend most of their lives in the park and are used to people viewing them through scopes and having cars going by. They are still very wild but have developed a comfort level with traffic and people. When those wolves walk across a boundary and see other humans, they don’t realize it might be people who are there to hunt them. Is there a responsibility we have, or an action we might take, to de-habituate them?  Make them less comfortable around humans in the park so they’re less comfortable around humans outside of the park?  If you’re hunting a wolf outside of the park, and you’re a real hunter, I don’t think you want a wolf to just stand there and look at you. So either way, in the park or out, we need to maintain their wildness to the best degree possible.”
"When those wolves walk across a boundary and see other humans, they don’t realize it might be people who are there to hunt them...If you’re hunting a wolf outside of the park, and you’re a real hunter, I don’t think you want a wolf to just stand there and look at you. So either way, in the park or out, we need to maintain their wildness to the best degree possible.”
Regarding grizzly bears, he recognizes the mystique they possess as being synonymous with Yellowstone. “I would suggest that the states need to carefully consider the social and economic factors with regard to hunting grizzlies just outside of Yellowstone. It’s a topic that people are very passionate about. Grizzlies are incredible charismatic creatures. I get it that for many people it isn’t a popular thing, the idea that grizzlies are going to be hunted. Hunting deer and elk might not be a big deal, but when it comes to hunting grizzlies, it’s a different story. The population has proliferated and expanded substantially.  They will need to be managed.  I think there are some ways to do it that can control the population while minimizing impacts socially and economically,” Sholly said. 

As far as his opinion on delisting the grizzly from the Endangered Species Act?  “Anyone who cares about the integrity of the ESA should want the bear delisted,” Sholly says. “And anyone who thinks the ESA is the right vehicle to prevent hunting grizzlies outside the park doesn’t understand the ESA or this situation.  We’re working with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the states to address the concerns presented by the court.  There are clearly some things we need to continue working on relative to how we count bears, connectivity and habitat, and other things, but the ESA wasn’t legislated to provide perpetual protection of species that have met recovery thresholds.”

Sholly says it’s not in his power to tell the states what they must do with wildlife once it leaves Yellowstone. However, like park superintendents before him, he is committed to working with states on promoting larger landscape conservation and cooperative wildlife management actions that are consistent and work in the best interest of the larger ecosystem.

When presented with a hypothetical yet realistic scenario involving Chronic Wasting Disease killing elk and deer in the park, Sholly says more needs to be done and Yellowstone, along with its federal and state partners, must better their readiness. 

What happens if elk drop dead in parts of the park from CWD?  Does Yellowstone test them and if they come up positive should the carcasses be removed? “My first inclination is yes, you test and you remove the carcasses. But this is a conversation we need to have. We recently upgraded our CWD response plan. It’s another example of a predictable threat that we need to be prepared for.”
What happens if elk drop dead in parts of Yellowstone from Chronic Wasting Disease?  Does the park test them and if they come up positive should the carcasses be removed?
Then there’s climate change. A few years ago, the in-park journal Yellowstone Science devoted an entire issue to highlighting how generally rising temperatures are impacting wildlife and the landscape. Wetland environments, important to several different species ranging from amphibians to moose, are drying out. Average temperatures are rising. And ecologists say that with longer fire seasons, there is a chance that later in this century much of the forested environs of the park could burn and be transformed into grasslands, leaving Yellowstone looking little like it does today.
What if most of the forested plateaus in Yellowstone burned and were replaced by grasslands? And what if the grasslands were covered not by native plants important to the health of elk and deer, but exotic cheatgrass? Sholly says park managers need to anticipate the future and try to prevent disasters when there's still time, not wait for them to happen.  Photo courtesy D. MacDonald/National Park Service
What if most of the forested plateaus in Yellowstone burned and were replaced by grasslands? And what if the grasslands were covered not by native plants important to the health of elk and deer, but exotic cheatgrass? Sholly says park managers need to anticipate the future and try to prevent disasters when there's still time, not wait for them to happen. Photo courtesy D. MacDonald/National Park Service
How might that affect the tourist economy? What would it do to a landscape, now in its golden age and the only one in the Lower 48 that holds all of its original large mammals here before the arrival of Europeans on the continent? What will future generations of Americans think about leaders of today and the citizens who elected them if they fail to confront evidence that continues to deepen?

Without science, Sholly knows that he and any future park managers would be left, metaphorically speaking, having to navigate their way through the dark. “If someone asks me how many staffers are devoted to help us better understand and address climate change, my answer is ‘not enough,’” he said

Sholly wants to ramp up the park science and resource programs so that they can better inform senior managers.  He also stresses the importance of not dropping the ball in addressing the fundamental day-to-day basics. It applies to wildlife conservation too.  Consider how Yellowstone has gone from being a park famous for having roadside bears eating at trash dumps and begging for food to subsisting on diets of natural foods yet with more people entering the core of grizzly range, vigilance must continue forever.

“We’ve made all this progress, for example, in recovering grizzlies, and we preach keeping a clean camp and carrying bear spray but then we don’t have food storage boxes in 1,000 front-country campsites. How is that possible?" Sholly asks. "That is one of the best ways to keep grizzlies alive and healthy on the landscape.”

He goes on, “I’m in no way criticizing my predecessors because each one faced many challenges. But we need to address some very fundamental and important things here.  Thinking about bear boxes, in the grand scheme, may seem myopic, but with four million visitors, many of whom stay in campgrounds, most who don’t know a whole lot about bear-human habituation, it is an easy problem to identify and we’re stupid if we don’t get on it more aggressively. In fact, most of the bear box replacements in the park recently have been funded through the philanthropic generosity of the American public. That support is amazing and we need it to continue. But our ability to protect the resources of this park cannot be solely predicated on philanthropy.” 
Rivers of elk flow through it. Yellowstone in summer functions like the mixing-zone center of a wheel for elk migrations that enter the park and then spoke out in many different directions come fall and winter.  The amazing phenomenon persists because the ancient pathways have not been fragmented by human development. Key to their health also is having healthy habitat to sustain mother wapiti and their calves. In turn, elk are an important staple for wolves and grizzlies and scavengers.  Map courtesy Wyoming Migration Initiative
Rivers of elk flow through it. Yellowstone in summer functions like the mixing-zone center of a wheel for elk migrations that enter the park and then spoke out in many different directions come fall and winter. The amazing phenomenon persists because the ancient pathways have not been fragmented by human development. Key to their health also is having healthy habitat to sustain mother wapiti and their calves. In turn, elk are an important staple for wolves and grizzlies and scavengers. Map courtesy Wyoming Migration Initiative
Sholly says Yellowstone does not exist as an island and that is plays a vital role in perpetuating the health of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and he’s heard criticisms over the years that the many different federal and state management agencies have existed in their own silos. 

The recent Park Service analysis placed the combined value of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, in generating economic activity, at more than $1.3 billion. Much of it relates to the appeal of those parks as nature tourism destinations. In addition, with more people descending upon corners of the region, growth issues are flaring like never before. Some worry they could reverse the progress that’s been made with protection of public and private lands.

“I think whether its Yellowstone or the Tetons or any national park, there is good and bad that comes with economic growth. The good is the ability for communities to thrive and grow and diversify. It’s something I support and am happy to see our gateway towns doing well,” Sholly said. 

“That’s not saying there aren’t major issues. On the negative side when you end up having more growth it can affect wildlife and our scenic resources. There are very few things that happen inside the park that don’t affect lands and communities outside the park—and vice versa. We need to work together to achieve balance and realize that once these resources are damaged or impaired, they’re nearly irrecoverable.  Our efforts to protect them must be worthy of what’s at stake.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Read Mountain Journal's related stories which have implications for Yellowstone. Also read comments this story generated, below:



Series on Chronic Wasting Disease:  Greater Yellowstone's Coming Plague



The Five Strategic Priorities of Yellowstone Supt. Cam Sholly

  1. Focus on the Core: Success in this priority is central to Yellowstone’s future and revolves around improving the working and living conditions of the Yellowstone team, how the park manages its financial resources, and how it works toward the best administrative and operational framework. An example of a specific action under this priority includes the development of a 5-year plan to substantially improve employee housing within the park. The multi-million dollar plan will work to improve existing housing, eliminate and replace 75 trailers currently used for seasonal employees, and will explore new housing partnership opportunities with gateway communities and partners.

  2. Strengthen the Ecosystem and Heritage Resources: This priority focuses on understanding and responding to the effects of climate change, promoting large landscape and wildlife conservation efforts, and protecting and improving the condition of Yellowstone’s vast cultural and historic resources. Specific actions under this priority are being developed in a range of key areas including: a bison management strategy that stabilizes and potentially expands the quarantine program; working with states to protect and facilitate important wildlife migration corridors; and expanding efforts to combat the impacts of non-native species like lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.

  3. Deliver a World-Class Visitor Experience: This priority aims to provide clarity and direction around how the park will handle increased visitation in upcoming years – with special focus on visitor impacts on resources, staffing and infrastructure, visitor experience, and gateway communities. Importantly, the park is moving out of the data gathering phase and beginning to determine the appropriate short and long-term actions necessary to protect resources, mitigate impacts of congestion, and improve educational, recreational, and other visitor enjoyment opportunities. This priority also focuses heavily on improving public safety and resource protection.

  4. Invest in Infrastructure: The park’s maintenance backlog exceeds half a billion and is likely much higher. Actions within this priority include: developing a more cogent deferred maintenance reduction plan, improving the quality of data and prioritization processes, and taking better advantage of current and future funding to improve asset conditions and protect investments.

  5. Build Coalitions and Partnerships: Yellowstone’s success is predicated on strong partnerships and coalitions. The park will continue to build and align priorities with many partners including Yellowstone Forever and our incredibly generous philanthropic community, with tribes, elected officials, environmental and conservation groups, concessioners, and communities, states, and other federal cooperators.

READER COMMENT:

From Carol Polich, Bozeman:  "I read your article about Yellowstone which is being "loved to death" like all of our other national parks. Four years ago, I sent a letter to the Dept of Interior and got nowhere with it. The office of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana was approached by a friend of mine who has also been concerned about our national parks and again, no response. Infrastructure has fallen apart in all of our national parks which I've regularly visited the past 40 years (throughout the West). Yellowstone has been clueless with it's responsibility in providing a good visitor experience. Who are these visitors? It should be listed as to how many foreign visitors are now entering Yellowstone and all of our parks, either by bus, a rented RV, or in rented cars. As much as I've traveled in parks around the world, a foreigner is always charged more. We need to establish a foreign fee for foreign visitors to help generate funds for more staff, to help re build roads and maintain them that are over used by busses, RV's , huge mobile homes, etc. . Pay volunteers and use them to take surveys and to tell rules while people are in car jams at entrance stations. The fee collectors see everybody who pass through the entrance gates and can easily share one to two key rules with people ...about wildlife distance, dogs in the park, stay on boardwalks, the ban on drones, and the list goes on. These people need to speak out about the rules and take the time. No one reads the rules that are listed in the free newspaper handed to visitors when they enter the park gate, including guests I've had in my own car. (Polich is a professional nature photographer who led photo safaris to protected areas around the world).
 
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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