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  • Writer's pictureRocky Barker

Yellowstone remains regal despite changes

Updated: May 10

A visitor making their first trip to Yellowstone National Park will find a landscape as wonderous as I found when I first arrived to cover the park as a reporter in 1985.

Its steaming, sulfurous thermal features, mountain peaks, wild rivers and grand canyon are as unique today as they were for members of the 1870 Washburn expedition and other visitors like, John Muir, Chief Joseph and President Barack Obama and his family. But little did I know 35 years ago Yellowstone  was on the precipice of a great transformation of geologic proportions.

In 1988 more than 700,000 acres of the national park and surrounding national forests burned in America’s first megafire since the great fires of 1910. Soon giant fires became routine across the West, forcing thousands to flee. The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 were the signal fires of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels starting at the dawn of the Industrial age. Since then megafires have burned nearly half of the Northern Rockies and through communities from Colorado Springs, San Diego to Santa Rosa and Paradise.

Yellowstone is hotter, especially in the spring and at night. The time between the last freeze of the spring to the first of the fall has grown by nearly 30 days since 1985. The runoff comes earlier and the snow melts faster, changing the biological clock for everything from the hibernating grizzly bears to migrating bison and the returning song birds and pollinators. This extraordinary rapid warming trend will continue at least until the end of this century even if human civilization succeeds to shifting to an economy free of carbon and greenhouse gas production.

That means the forest that has regrown since 1988 will likely burn again and again until Ponderosa pines grow where lodgepole dominate today.

Then there is the volcanic action that created the geysers, hot pots and fumeroles that are the main attraction. Old Faithful’s interval has grown from 72 minutes on average in 1987 to 90 to 92 minutes today. In 2011 scientists said the ground above the magma reservoir that heats the water rose 11 inches in seven years.

The reservoir itself is two and half times what geologists believed before increasing the still long odds for a supervolcano eruption.

Yellowstone visitation has grown annually to more than 4 million people since 2015 but an increasing number come from overseas. The park fee has risen to $35 a car, one of the best entertainment deals in the world.

Wolves were returned to the park in 1995 reversing a century of long outdated ideas that fewer predators would mean more elk and deer. Today the elk population is healthy, biologists say.

More than 700 grizzly bears roam the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and like wolves, the population has been delisted as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Seeing wild grizzlies in the park is a regular event that visitors can depend on if they stay for more than a couple of days.

The success stories of wolves and grizzlies shows what we can accomplish in conservation even amid growing visitor numbers. But uncertainty remains over what carrying capacity is for this place that will change dramatically before the end of this century due to our worldwide greenhouse gas impact.

In a recent 171-page report Robert B. Keiter, the Wallace Stegner Professor of Law at the University of Utah Law School and director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment, reexamined the impacts on the park and its surrounding 18 million-acre ecosystem. In the report, “The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Revisited: Law, Science, and the Pursuit of Ecosystem Management In An Iconic Landscape,” Keiter lays out in detail the changes I have watched and how they threaten the place we all love. He says what conservationists have been telling us since I arrived.

“To address these new challenges and solidify existing achievements, current Greater Yellowstone conservation efforts must be expanded in scale to embrace a larger landscape—one that connects Greater Yellowstone to more distant ecosystems stretching across the central Idaho wilderness complex to the Crown of the Continent region and into southern Wyoming.”

These are the landscapes that keep the American West wild and help keep all of us who live and visit here free. Each will become even more precious as we fill the rest of the public and private lands of what Stegner called “the native home of hope.”

The dramatic conservation efforts I’ve watched over the last 35 years have continued to serve as a model for the whole world. How well we carry Yellowstone and its ecosystem through the climate bottleneck before us will tell how well wildness survives on the other side.


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