POWELL — Yellowstone National Park officials are ramping up plans for its 150th birthday celebration. However, thanks to the global pandemic, the party will be somewhat subdued.
“COVID-19 makes it difficult to plan large events. As of this point, we will not have any large major events in the park,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly.
Instead, park officials will concentrate on smaller events, including virtual presentations between March and August to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the world’s first national park.
Sholly pointed out achieving true conservation of the land and animals living in Yellowstone was counterproductive for the first 90-100 years.
While Yellowstone was protected by law beginning in 1872, there were only a handful of people available to actually protect its resources until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service.
“The small group trying to protect it had a really tough time initially,” Sholly said. “Although it was protected officially by law, there was no formal nomenclature to actually protect the resources on the ground.”
Early efforts failed miserably, he said, pointing out the government tried to rid the park of all predators and decimated the population of bison, “from tens of thousands to less than 25 animals.”
“We basically tinkered with the ecosystem and took it completely out of balance, unknowingly, at that point in time. Even if you fast forward to the 1960s, we were feeding bears out of garbage dumps so visitors could see them.”
Thirty-five national parks already existed at the time the Park Service was created. Now there are 423 National Park properties. Even then, it took until the 1960s before modern conservation efforts actually took hold, Sholly said.
Officials for the service became much smarter about large landscape conservation and wildlife management in the ’60s and ’70s, he said, realizing how previous management wasn’t ethical or sustainable.
“As a country, we started to wake up to the need for more principled conservation and preservation values,” Sholly said.
In the following decades, conservation actions began paying off, he said, starting with the return of a higher population of predators — including grizzly bears and wolves.
“The reintroduction of wolves in 1995 remains probably the single largest successful conservation effort in the history of this country, if not the world,” Sholly said, adding that “ungulate populations are once again in balance.”
Grizzly bear numbers are back to levels higher than what they were before Yellowstone became a park and cougars are back, he said. The park’s bison population is also at the highest level since 1872.
On Jan. 12, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation completed the transfer of 28 Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Poplar, Montana, under the Bison Conservation Transfer Program. Since 2019, 182 bison have gone to the two tribes, with 82 animals transferred to the InterTribal Buffalo Council, which distributed them to 18 tribes in 10 states.
Scott Fraser, director of Project Indigenous, said he is happy to see the bison population rebound.
“To me, the buffaloes are the most important thing in Yellowstone. Their numbers were reduced down into small numbers at one point, as well as the Native American people,” he said. “We, as Native American people, we are the buffalo people, we are related to the buffalo, we are the same thing.”
The park has invited multiple tribal nations to participate in this anniversary.
“Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary is an important moment in time for the world,” Sholly said in a press release. “It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the lessons of the past while focusing our efforts to strengthen Yellowstone and our many partnerships for the future.”
The superintendent said he shared the vision of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Park Service Director Chuck Sams “on our responsibility to more fully engage with Tribal Nations to honor and learn from their ancestral and modern connections to Yellowstone.”
In a Zoom meeting last week between park, tribal and concession officials with members of the media, Sholly previewed some of the activities scheduled to honor Native American cultures. Events include a Native American art exhibition and marketplace in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn in May and multiple tribal nations erecting a tepee village near the Roosevelt Arch in August.
“This will be an opportunity for multiple tribal nations to be here on the landscape in the park, directly interfacing with visitors and talking about and educating visitors about their culture and their heritage,” he said.
At Old Faithful, the park is converting a current structure near the visitor center into a tribal Heritage Center, envisioned to be a place where tribal nations can display their artwork and cultural items, and interact with a large number of visitors directly.
Since coming to the park, Sholly has made employee housing a priority. This year Yellowstone will celebrate the opening of 40 new units throughout the park along with groundbreakings on other projects totaling more than $125 million, funded through the Great American Outdoors Act.
“These projects include two of the largest historic preservation projects in the country and a range of transportation projects that will address aging infrastructure,” the superintendent’s office reported.
The University of Wyoming’s College of Law and the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources will host a symposium at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody May 19-20. The two-day event is open to the public and will feature keynote speakers and panel discussions to celebrate the past and look to the future of the park.
Presenters — who include Sholly — will examine how the park has met its original goals of preserving natural wonders and making those treasures accessible to visitors from around the world. Discussions also will focus on how Yellowstone National Park can adapt to modern and future values, knowledge and needs.
“This celebratory event will enable us to learn from the past, appreciate the present and envision the future of our iconic and foundational park,” said John Koprowski, dean of the Haub School.
Cody resident Jake Vogt, a third-year UW law student and editor-in-chief of the Wyoming Law Review, is the lead organizer of the symposium.
This year will also mark the reopening of Tower Fall to Chittenden Road (near Dunraven Pass), a $28 million road improvement project completed over the past two years.
Despite the celebration, Sholly said the park is still threatened, with climate change being the “single biggest threat.”
“Our ability to manage species and help them adapt and understand what the impacts of climate change are on the resources of this park is extremely important,” he said.