CODY, Wyo. — Every year, scientists and researchers come to Yellowstone National Park to learn more about wildlife ranging from grizzly bears to gray wolves, badgers to bison. But this summer, park officials are planning some field work involving a species that hasn’t been studied much in the park: Homo sapiens.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk told a travel and tourism group here that he wants more scientific data about why people visit Yellowstone, what they expect from their trip, and what drives their actions in the park.
“Right now, the least studied species in this ecosystem is the human,” Wenk said during the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce’s annual National Parks Day luncheon.
He cited a recent incident in which a father and son picked up a baby bison in the Lamar Valley and drove it in their vehicle to a ranger station, concerned that the animal was cold. That bison calf was later killed by wildlife managers.
“I don’t know how we deal with those things, I really don’t, in terms of people taking those kinds of actions,” he said, adding that the park welcomes any help from gateway communities in helping visitors understand how to behave in the park.
Wenk said Yellowstone is employing a full-time social scientist who will work to learn more about visitor expectations, and how the park can more effectively deliver safety messages, protect resources and alleviate over-crowding.
“We have to do a better job of figuring out what it’s going to take to provide a great visitor experience and preserve this place at the same time,” he said.
Park managers were “overwhelmed with a 17 percent increase” in visitors in 2015, Wenk said. That surge was partly the result of a National Park Service campaign last year urging Americans to “Find Your Park.”
“Last year was an invitation — we invited the American people to find their park. This year, we’re asking people to find another park,” Wenk joked before saying that he anticipates “great numbers” of visitors for this year’s celebrations focused on the Park Service’s centennial.
With tourist traffic in Cody comparatively lighter than in Jackson, Wyo., and West Yellowstone there may be an opportunity to market the town and surrounding area as a less crowded alternative, said Bruce Eldredge, executive director of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Eldredge was among a smaller group of tourism leaders who met with Wenk and other Yellowstone staffers.
Among the topics discussed in that meeting was a concern that Yellowstone is at or near its capacity for handling visitors during peak summer days. Infrastructure ranging from roads to restrooms to restaurants is being stretched to the limit, Eldredge said.
With a two-hour wait some days to get into Yellowstone via the West Entrance, sending more visitors to Cody as an alternative to other gateway towns may help, Eldredge said. But it won’t solve the problem.
“Even here, we’re already seeing more of our visitors arriving earlier and staying later in the shoulder seasons,” he said.
Wenk said during a similar meeting with Cody tourism leaders last fall that it may be necessary to eventually take steps to reduce the number of vehicles in the park during peak periods, but that he wanted to gather more data before tackling that issue. He repeated that refrain during Monday’s luncheon, citing his experiences working with gateway communities on managing snow coach and snowmobile traffic in Yellowstone.
“You can’t make decisions in this ecosystem that effect the local economy, people, their businesses, and the things they do without having the science on which to back those decisions,” he said.
Despite the challenges that come with bigger crowds, the park and its infrastructure are doing well, said Wenk, who previously worked in Yellowstone during the early 1980s.
“I can tell you without a doubt … Yellowstone and this ecosystem is in better shape today than it was 30 years ago,” he said. “But it’s an effort we all have to continue for our children and our children’s children.”