MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. — From Beowulf to real wolves, Morgan Warthin has made some big transitions in her life, maybe none so challenging as her recent appointment to Yellowstone National Park this spring as the lead spokeswoman.
“I’ve been sprinting the whole time,” she said.
Before Warthin even made her move from Alaska in June, she was already dealing with the sudden death of Yellowstone co-worker Amy Bartlett, a flurry of national and international media attention when two tourists loaded a baby bison into their car, on top of the fact that she had to help plan this week’s 100th anniversary bash for the National Park Service in Gardiner.
To deal with the intense planning effort, the 1991 Billings Senior High graduate is relying on her training in fighting wildland fires — delegating duties via the design used for fire incident management teams. It’s the same system that helped her when she pitched in on the 2016 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the 2012 cleanup following Hurricane Sandy, and Alaska’s largest wildfire season in 2004 when 6.7 million acres burned.
It's quite the resume for a fourth-generation Montanan.
Warthin’s maiden name is Miller. Her mother is Sally McIntosh, a well-known fixture in the Billings art scene. Her father, Branger Miller, grew up in Roscoe, a descendant of a Swiss family that settled in the East Rosebud Valley in 1914 because it reminded them of their mountainous European homeland.
Yet, Warthin stepped away from all that was familiar to attend college in New York, where she became enthralled with old English literature. For her senior thesis she translated the epic poem "Beowulf" to modern English. The poem was written sometime between the eighth and early 11th centuries.
It was a visit home during that senior year of writing that Warthin caught the Yellowstone bug. By the summer of 1995 she was washing dishes at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch and also driving for Yellowstone Institute educational tours. It just happened to be the same year that wolves were reintroduced to the park, and she was at ground zero. The wolves were being penned just behind the Buffalo Ranch.
“Somehow Yellowstone grabbed me, and it still does,” she said.
From that meager toehold she worked her way through jobs at the visitor center in Mammoth, then got hired on to a park trail crew. She worked as an interpretive ranger in the winter at remote West Thumb next to Yellowstone Lake, where one of her chores was to maintain the boardwalk by walking back and forth with snowshoes to pack down the snow. Finally, Warthin learned the duties of a backcountry ranger before leaving for Alaska in 2002 for a permanent job as the region’s wildland fire communication and education specialist.
Now she’s returned to her old home, a place that has changed enormously just in the 15 years she’s been gone. Chief among those changes is more people are visiting Yellowstone. Last year set a record for visitation with more than 4 million visitors and this year seems on pace to record even more.
Take Thursday’s National Park Service centennial celebration in nearby Gardiner, for example. The 6,000 tickets given out for free online in three different releases were so popular they were snapped up in minutes.
“The beauty of the event is that it will be live-streamed and there’s a sister event in Livingston,” Warthin said.
National, regional and local media attention to the event is high with musicians Emmylou Harris and John Prine headlining an evening of entertainment emceed by actor Bill Pullman.
Considering her deep and extensive roots in the National Park Service, Warthin said she feels honored to help coordinate the celebration. To her, the Park Service is an institution that has preserved some of what’s best about America — like the exceptional landscapes, hydrothermal features and wildlife found in Yellowstone — and some of the darkest times in history like the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg and Japanese internment camps built during World War II.
Critics of the Park Service have taken advantage of the prominence that the centennial celebration is bringing to criticize the agency for such things as reports of sexism by managers in Grand Canyon National Park, the agency’s currying of money from corporations to help bolster depleted operational funds and uncontrolled visitation at parks like Yellowstone.
“Instead of ‘Find Your Park,’ this summer the challenge should be called ‘Find a Place to Park,’” charged a press release from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group.
Closer to home, the agency has been battered by many Montanans for its inability to stem the growth of the Yellowstone bison herd, which ranchers say pose a disease threat to cattle. On the opposite side of that same argument the agency has taken heat from animal rights groups for slaughtering bison to try to decrease their population.
Love them or hate them, national parks are a huge boon to surrounding communities and states driving billions of dollars of tourism spending, as well as providing jobs in often small rural communities. That benefit is regularly challenged, though, whenever the Park Service decides to change its rules, like reducing the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone, which took business away from hotels, snowmobile rental shops and restaurants in the small town of West Yellowstone.
Yet many visitors still hail Yellowstone and the Park Service. People like Swiss tourists Roger and Petra Brand, who were relaxing at a picnic table eating ice cream at Yellowstone Lake’s Bridge Bay Marina on Wednesday. What came to Roger's mind when asked about the National Park Service was, “I think it’s a great thing, the whole environment and nature protection.”
The couple was spending six days in Yellowstone, part of a tour of national parks across the west that included Bryce Canyon in Utah and Craters of the Moon in Idaho and would proceed to Grand Teton and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
“We’ve seen a lot of scenic places,” he said.
Byron, Minn., residents Cody, Molly and Dillon Schieck were also making their first trip to Yellowstone, tent camping at Canyon while touring the park. To Cody the mention of the National Park Service brought to mind all of the people who “take care of the park,” keeping it in a natural state so people like him and his family could explore the trails less traveled.
“It’s amazing,” Molly said. “Beautiful.”
“We’ve seen pictures, but to actually see it in person is breathtaking,” Cody said.
That’s a sentiment Warthin can still relate to despite her years of working the in the park, something she’s known since her first trip to Yellowstone as a young girl of about 7 with her cherished grandmother, Esther Branger Miller.
“I remember seeing a huge bull bison next to the truck,” Warthin said. “And I remember her saying, ‘That is a wild animal, Morgan!’” and then being instructed to roll up the truck window and stay inside.
“She told me later that growing up in a ranching community she had always wanted to be a Yellowstone ranger. She was so proud of me.”