Last year, over 3.6 million people visited Yellowstone National Park, a new visitation record.  Most here expect this year’s visitation to be higher than that.  That’s a lot of folks, and it takes a large staff to ensure the park can accommodate that many people and the vehicles that bring them in.  During the summer, the park’s NPS staff hovers at just over 800 people, almost three-fifths of whom are “seasonals,” or people who only work from mid May to early October at the latest.  That doesn’t include the more than 4,000 employees who work for Xanterra, Delaware North, Medcor, YPSS, the Yellowstone Association, and the many other employers who operate the park’s various concessions.  And like any sizable organization, the park’s personnel are divided into different components that reflect how the work throughout the park gets done.

The Interpretive Division is one of the five major subdivisions of Yellowstone’s operational hierarchy, the others being Visitor and Resource Protection, Maintenance, Resource Management, and Administration.  The vast majority of people who visit the park each year don’t really have any concept of how the park is organized and how it goes about accomplishing its mission to provide “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”  But as you move through the park much of what you come to know and understand about it is the direct result of the Interpretive Division’s work.

The Interpretive Division is responsible for developing the interpretive and educational materials you see throughout the park – the signs, the informative kiosks and display boards, the displays and exhibits at the Visitor Centers and museums, and material found via a variety of other venues through which information about the park is conveyed to its visitors (including several informative features on the park’s web site).   They manage the Junior Ranger and Junior Scientist programs for the kids, and perform several other functions as well.  The park’s photographer works there, and there’s a representative who accompanies people doing commercial photography/videography throughout the park, for example. The Division’s budget is roughly $4 million, plus another $720,000.00 or so contributed by the Yellowstone Association.

Speaking of which, everything we sell in the Yellowstone Association bookstores in the park is approved by the park’s Interpretive Division.  They want to ensure the material contributes to the visitor’s educational experience and that it accurately reflects current understanding of the park’s resources and issues facing it on a daily basis.  They also approve every course YA offers through the Yellowstone Institute, its educational arm.  YA is a non-profit organization, and the money it raises through sales and its membership program goes directly to support education and preservation programs within the park.  Not surprisingly, then, the Interpretive Division is the largest beneficiary of YA’s mission.

Perhaps the most visible presence of the Interpretive Division, however, is the Interpretive Ranger, or “Interp,” as they’re known within the park community.  They’re one of the two basic types of rangers most folks see on their trip, the other being the park’s police force.  You can tell an Interp from a Law Enforcement Ranger by the simple fact that the L.E.’s carry weapons, by the way.  The Interp’s job, in a nutshell, is to help the visitor interpret what they’re seeing and experiencing as they interact with Yellowstone.  Given how large and diverse this place is, that is a rather tall order.

Interps deliver the daily ranger programs throughout the park.  These are almost always well-attended.  Each ranger is given a topic and responsible for developing the presentation and delivering it to a crowd that may range from one or two people to a room full of 200 or more.  Some lead guided walks, some give informational overviews of a specific subject or theme, some lead day-long hikes off the beaten path. Others walk through the thermal areas answering questions from people they encounter.

The New Old Faithful Visitor Education Center

They also manage and staff the park’s five primary visitor centers (Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Grant Village, Mammoth, and Old Faithful), four information stations (the Madison Museum, Museum of the National Park Ranger, Norris Geyser Basin Museum, and the West Entrance Visitor Information Center) and, during winter, four warming huts (Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Madison, and West Thumb).  The Visitor Center is where the vast majority of people come into direct contact with NPS employees in Yellowstone on a daily basis, so the Interps are often the one NPS person the average visitor encounters aside from the person who takes their money when they enter the park.  It is, therefore, one of the most important jobs in the park.

Yellowstone has about 90 interpretive rangers assigned to the field this season.  For some, this is their first summer in the park.  Others have been here for as long as 45 years.  Can you imagine being new to the park and having to learn the basics about Yellowstone, its wildlife, its flora, its lakes, rivers, and streams, its geology, its ecology, its geography, its hydrothermal features, its fires, its trails, its historic buildings, its 139 year+ history, etc., to be able to answer the wide range of questions asked by visitors on a daily basis?  Each ranger goes through two weeks of intensive, information-overload training when they arrive in May to be able to speak intelligently about all that is Yellowstone National Park.  Almost all of them have degrees in subjects such as geology, history, archaeology, fire science, or even education, and many have advanced degrees.  Starting pay for a seasonal Interp is around $15 an hour, and many live in NPS-provided housing that, quite frankly, should have long ago been condemned (for which they pay a monthly rent).

One thing that stands out with every single one of these rangers, though, is their passion for what they do.

A couple of years ago K and I decided to take the evening walking tour of Fort Yellowstone while we were in the Mammoth area.  The ranger who was to guide the tour was a tiny young lady fresh out of college; I doubt she stood a full five feet tall.  She was a fireball, though, full of spunk and she knew her stuff.  She spoke of it with all the conviction of someone who’d lived during the time when the Army was in Yellowstone.  When I first saw her come out of the Albright Visitor Center, I distinctly recall thinking to myself that there’s no way this girl was going to be able to talk convincingly about the history of the military in Yellowstone.  I also have the vivid recollection of her proving me wrong.  I walked away impressed.  In fact, I’ve never been less than impressed with any of the the Interpretive Rangers I’ve encountered in this park.

Working in the bookstore, we get to interact with the Interps at the brand new Old Faithful Visitor Education Center on a daily basis, both “on duty” and off.  I watch them ply their trade with the endless stream of visitors who approach the desk or stop them as they’re walking from one place to another to ask question after question.  The rangers answer each interrogative as if it were the first time they’ve heard it (“How often does Old Faithful erupt…?”).  When you get one of them wound up talking in depth about some particular aspect of the park, you can easily see their passion for what they do.  To a person, they’re a great group of people.

We get to do that as well – people treat those of us in the bookstore pretty much as if we know all things about the park. Many visitors mistakenly believe we’re rangers, in fact.  I guess they make that assumption because we work in the same building, even though we don’t wear the “green and gray.”  And while we’re not NPS employees, we do our best to convey what we know.  If we don’t know an answer, we refer them to the ranger desk.  Most of us working the stores have been in the park for years ourselves, and it’s fun (and fulfilling) to be able to impart information to someone here for their first visit – something to make their trip just that much more enjoyable and educational.  I’ve gained a reputation as the “historian” of the YA staff at Old Faithful, and it’s an awesome feeling to be able to explain something to someone and to put it into a historical context for them. “Well, yes, West Thumb is just a short 17 miles south of here.  When you get there, try to imagine a development almost as large as what we have here at Old Faithful.  Up until the early-1970s, that was the case…”

Thus far I’ve had the chance to meet and talk at length with people who worked at the old Canyon Hotel, the old West Thumb when it had all of its cabins, stores, and other facilities, and who were in the park at the height of the 1988 firestorm.  One visitor was a seven year old child in September of that year, and the single thing he can recall from that visit is his family driving through fire on their way out of the park.  Another gentleman has similar recollections, but also vividly recalls the tension and uncertainty in the air while they awaited an eruption of Old Faithful as the fires approached the complex, watching the firefighters lay lines and prepare to protect the Old Faithful Inn from Mother Nature’s fury.  So it’s been an educational experience for me as well.  In my mind, that’s the perfect kind of job to have.So if you get the chance to stop and talk with one of the interpretive rangers, or one of us in the bookstores around the park, feel free to ask about any subject you care to discuss about Yellowstone.  One thing all of us have in common is a deep fondness for talking about this incredible place and helping people understand how and why it works the way it does.  And if you have the opportunity to attend one of the ranger programs while you’re here, by all means make the effort to do so.  You’ll almost always find them informative, and you’ll have the chance to see your tax dollars at work.  I can assure you, you won’t be disappointed.

Bison Bison

Anyone who’s ever heard about Yellowstone, let alone spent any time here, knows that the park’s signature animal is the bison (the scientific name for which is bison bison, and thus the title of this post).  You can’t go anywhere in the park and NOT see bison.  And, in fact, that was my experience today.

I had some research to do between Old Faithful and Madison Junction, Madison Junction and Norris Junction, and Norris Junction and Canyon Junction.  The travel between Madison Junction and Norris this morning took quite a bit longer than it otherwise might have, however, because of….bison.  Lots of bison.

The park’s bison are (generally) divided into two large herds, the Northern Range Herd and the Hayden Valley Herd.  The Hayden Valley herd tends to migrate to the park’s western side during winter to escape the deep snows of Hayden.  And, of course, when spring arrives, they migrate back to Hayden Valley.  And though they will often use old routes across Mary Mountain to get there, those have quite a bit more snow on them this year than they do in a typical year.  As a result, many of the bison are using alternate routes back to their summer home.  They’re walking along the roads used by the visitors of the park, in this case, north from the Madison area to Norris, then eastward to Canyon, and then they’ll walk south down into Hayden Valley.

Today, I got caught up in said migration.  Five times.

My first encounter was with a herd of about 50 animals.  They happened to be going the same direction I was, and it always takes longer to get through that than if they’re opposing you.  If they’re headed in the opposite direction, you just sit still and wait for them to pass.  However, if you’re going the same direction they are, you have to follow them, at a pace of about 4-5 miles per hour, until THEY decide to move out of the way and let you by.  And in Gibbon Canyon, there’s no place wide enough for them to get off the road, so you’re going to follow them until there’s a hole big enough to drive through (gingerly!).  So it took me (and several other drivers) a good 45 minutes to work my way through this first jam.

The second and third jams were much less time consuming.  The herds were smaller, perhaps a dozen in each case; no big deal.

After I’d finished my business in Canyon this afternoon, I had to head back home to Old Faithful.  That meant driving back through those same areas.  Fortunately, one might suspect, I’d be going against them, so all I’d have to do is wait for them to pass me by.  Hahaha.  What happens if they decide to lie down and nap in the middle of the road?  You wait on them, of course.

My first encounter on the way back was anticlimactic.  It took all of three minutes for them to walk by me.  The second encounter was with the 50-strong herd, however.  And about a dozen of them had decided they were going to lie down right in the middle of the road and nap.  I have to imagine all of that walking tires a bison out, especially those little babies who’re only a few days old.

All of that migrating tires a bison out, ya know?

When I came up on this group and realized what was going on, I put my truck in park and prepared to wait for a while.  I’d heard a couple of rangers on the radio and knew they were close enough that they’d come across this group shortly, and they did.  The lead ranger used her siren and air horn to “encourage” the bison to awaken and continue their journey.  Many times this doesn’t work.  Fortunately, in this case, it did.  The animals got up and began trotting northward, much to the relief of those in front of me I’m sure.

I continued on my way home and calculated that I’d lost about an hour of my time today to bison.  When I’m in the park on vacation, I tend to get a bit irritated if I get stuck in one of these things for more than an hour or so.  But since I’m here all summer, losing an hour to these incredible animals seems like time well spent, watching them do what they do.  You simply cannot help but be impressed by these massive beasts when they walk by your car, literally within arm’s reach. With their winter coats on they’re just gorgeous animals.

It’s been a rough winter for the bison of Yellowstone.  The incredible amount of snow the park’s gotten this winter (most estimates I’ve seen say it’s 130% of average) here has taken its toll.  No one knows for sure how many were lost yet (the spring counts have yet to be done), but there have been many more carcasses found this spring than is typical.  And the birth rate this year is extremely low for some reason.  All of this portends a much reduced population, especially in the southern herd.

Over the past couple of weeks, there’ve been several situations involving the loss of bison that are just heartbreaking to watch.

On May 1st, a mother gave birth to what appeared to be a healthy calf on the banks of the Firehole River.  As the little calf struggled to his feet to take his first steps, he fell into the cold water.  The mother, of course, could do nothing to help the little guy.  He struggled to get out, and cried to his mother for help, to no avail.  Hypothermia soon took its toll, and there was one less little calf in Yellowstone.

Literally dozens and dozens of people called the park’s communications center or came by the ranger desk at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center to report the situation and ask rangers to help.  Many people stopped to watch as the tragedy unfolded; some took video, some snapped photos, and some just couldn’t bear to watch and went on about their business, hoping the ending would be happier than it turned out to be. Two people I know who wrote about it said it took them a full week to get to the point where they could put words on the screen. Many people said they wanted to help, and as dangerous as it would be to do that, it was fortunate, if you can use that word, the pair was on the other side of the river. The mother would likely have taken any such attempt as a threat to her baby and reacted accordingly.

My roommate and I happened to be on our way to Bozeman to shop that day.  We passed the mother and the calf and saw him lying in the water.  I knew then it was sadness in the making.

That same weekend, another tragedy was unfolding along the closed road between Lake Village and West Thumb.  A frail, pregnant bison cow, trying to keep up with her herd, simply couldn’t continue on.   She gave birth right in the middle of the deserted road.  As she delivered her calf, three coyotes attacked it.  The arrival of a park employee scared them off, so the baby did make it into the world.  However, the mom was too weak to nurse it and, as it would turn out, too weak to survive herself.  The next day, park ranger Sabrina Diaz went out to check on them, and the little calf was just….gone.  And of course, he didn’t just walk away.

The mother lingered on for a few more hours, but eventually she succumbed. Sabrina tells the heart-rending story of these two on her blog.  I came across the carcass the next day (park employees can travel on closed roads in most cases, and I was headed down to see what kind of condition our West Thumb store was in).   The NPS leaves dead animals on the highways on roads that are closed to the public, and the bison cow remained where she’d passed a few hours earlier.  All I will say is that the scavengers had begun to take advantage of her death.  Such is the circle of life.  I took a couple of photos, but they’re just too gruesome to post.

In another case late last weekend, a mother bison simply abandoned her calf after giving birth to it on Sylvan Pass, one of the coldest and most inhospitable places in the park.   The little calf wandered around for a while before he found refuge under someone’s vehicle.  The owner called rangers, who notified the park’s Resource Management staff (the folks responsible for managing the wildlife in the park).

Typically, RM doesn’t interfere with natural processes, but recognizing that the high snow banks on the road meant the calf would likely get hit by a car, they bundled it up and transported it to Hayden Valley, releasing it in the hopes that one of the cows there might adopt it.  The next day he was still alone. I don’t know what became of him.  I hope he survived, but Hayden Valley is home to a number of grizzly bears and a wolf population. You do the math.

So, given all of that, I was more than happy to sit and wait for these magnificent animals to take their time getting to their summer homes. I would have waited for hours if that’s what it took.

People have used all sorts of superlatives to refer to this place, from “Wonderland” to “Paradise,” and everything in between.  And to many there’s some irony that, in a such a magical place, these kinds of things are “allowed to occur.”  But that’s one thing that makes this place what it is.  As painful as it is to watch, this natural chain of events is what makes Yellowstone the place it is.

I’ve told myself that many times over the past few days, but I’ll tell you this: It sure doesn’t make watching it happen any less heartbreaking.