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Yellowstone

Yellowstone Officials Prepare For Three Major Road Projects In 2021

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

They say there are two seasons in Yellowstone – winter and road construction.

Even though Yellowstone National Park is set to open its gates beginning April 16, preparations are already being made for three major road construction projects will occur in the park this year.

One project will force the closure of the highway between Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon Junction, while the other two projects will cause delays and/or traffic pattern changes — one at the Old Faithful Overpass Bridge and the other at the North Entrance.

Morgan Warthin, Public Affairs Specialist for Yellowstone, asked for patience from motorists who are visiting the “upper loop” of the Park this summer.

“Last year, the road from Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Village was closed — and we ask for visitors’ patience, because that road again will be closed this year for road construction,” she said. 

This is the second year of the project that will widen the road, provide additional or improved pullouts, create a larger, safer parking area at Tower Fall General Store and improve the Tower Fall’s trail and overlook. The project’s anticipated completion date is May of 2022.

But Warthin added that with the closure of that road comes an additional inconvenience.

“That means access to all of the trails around the Mount Washburn area are also closed because of the road construction,” she said.

However, Yellowstone officials point out that the Park has more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails – in lieu of Mount Washburn, hikers could consider Bunsen Peak near Mammoth Hot Springs, Purple Mountain north of Madison Junction or Avalanche Peak along the East Entrance Road.

The two other road construction projects in Yellowstone are finishing up and are expected to be completed later this year.

According to park officials, the North Entrance is not equipped to meet the challenges of increasing visitation and traffic.

The construction project there will improve traffic and pedestrian flow. The project is being funded by the Federal Highways Administration, Yellowstone Forever, the National Park Foundation and fees collected in the park.

While no delays are expected with the North Entrance construction project, the same is not true for the Old Faithful Overpass Bridge. 

Motorists are cautioned that delays up to 15 minutes could occur to accommodate one-lane travel over the overpass bridge. However, travelers will be able to access Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin, lodges, stores, clinic and gas station.

Park officials urge motorists to drive slowly through road construction and be alert to workers, heavy equipment, wildlife and other hazards.

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Yellowstone Looking Forward to Record-Breaking 2021 Season

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Coming on the heels of one of Yellowstone National Park’s most popular years, park officials are preparing for another busy tourism season in 2021.

Yellowstone is popular any year — but last year’s coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions left people looking for outdoor destinations, making the wide open spaces and natural splendor of Yellowstone prime selections. 

Last year’s visitation broke several monthly records, said Morgan Warthin, a public affairs specialist for the park, and officials expect the trend to continue.

“But to underscore last year’s really busy visitation, last year, September and October were busier – our busiest months on record,” she said. “We anticipate high visitation this year as well, and we’re getting ready for it.”

Roads in Yellowstone will begin to open April 16, less than two weeks from now. But the pandemic still casts a shadow on activities in the Park.

Warthin said all national parks are under a mask mandate this year, but as an improvement over last year, staff in Yellowstone will be able to conduct their Ranger programs and hope to open visitor centers in mid-summer.

“We had last year to refine our mitigation protocols and procedures,” she explains. “So we can take that experience into this year and apply some of those lessons learned.”

What remains, though, is restrictions on bus traffic — which Rick Hoeninghausen with Xanterra Parks and Resorts, manager of the park’s lodging and other amenities, said will affect visitation.

“There’s a limit to how many passengers you can have in a vehicle in the park, and that’s 10 – that includes the driver and the tour director. So you know, if they can’t come there, they’ll be canceling to here, and many of them have already.”

But Warthin stressed that the Park Service is working closely with motorcoach industry leaders.

“No decisions have been made yet,” she pointed out. “But we are certainly hopeful to re-engage with that industry.”

Despite the limits on buses, the people are coming — but due to the pandemic, opening dates for some lodging properties have shifted.

For example, Grant Village was going to open May 28 – but now it won’t open until June 18. Old Faithful Inn was going to open May 7 — now, according to Hoeninghausen, it won’t open until June 4. 

“And when it does open, it’s only got the East Wing, so about 80 of 329 rooms,” he said.

That means that Hoeninghausen is already fielding calls from visitors whose reservations have to be modified.

“We have thousands of guests that potentially are impacted, the ones that are arriving between April 30 and June 1,” he said.

Hoeninghausen says the staggered and delayed opening for lodging properties and restaurants relates to the Park Service wanting to not just “go full barrel” into summer, but instead, to protect the health and safety of employees and guests. 

But he added that so far, the vast majority of visitors have been able to rebook later in the summer. Adding to the craziness, Hoeninghausen said, is a new reservation system that will put a pause on bookings for the next few days.

“That (updating) process will run into next week, but hopefully, we’re back up and running and open to the public again by Wednesday,” he said.

And for those who aren’t able to change their plans, Rick said he’s encouraging them to look at the gateway communities for lodging.

“I mean, any year, we’re going to eventually fill up anyway,” he pointed out. “In fact, our website has links to the [gateway community] chambers of commerce.” 

And he noted out that no matter where they stay, visitors can still have that western experience.

“The park doesn’t change,” he said. “Yellowstone is still Yellowstone, bison are still roaming. Geysers are still going. But at the end of the day, guests can still find a place near the park, if not in it, and still have the same experience they would have had in terms of the wildlife and the natural features of Yellowstone.” 

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Yellowstone Proposes To Add Fiber Optic Lines

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By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune

Yellowstone National Park’s telecommunications system currently consists of an array of outdated antennas and dishes scattered across the park’s backcountry and developed areas. Park officials are hoping to trade them in for fiber optic cable.

Under a proposal now out for public comment, the National Park Service would allow a private company to install 187 miles of fiber optics along the park’s major roads. While the project would not expand the areas where cellphone and internet service is available, it would dramatically improve the coverage already in place. Adding the cabling would also allow the Park Service to remove five 28-foot-high microwave radio reflectors from mountaintops and the backcountry.

Diamond Communications LLC, a company based in New Jersey, would construct and maintain the fiber network, building it over a series of three construction seasons. Most of the work would be completed in the first two years, with up-to-30-minute traffic delays expected.

When finished, the network would run along almost all of the park’s Grand Loop Road, stretching from the North Entrance to the South Entrance while hitting all of the developed areas — from Tower Falls to Fishing Bridge to Grant Village. Almost all of the cable would be buried just off the roadway, creating few new disturbances to the soil.

The Park Service says it would put various restrictions in place to minimize the impacts to travelers and to Yellowstone’s flora and fauna. As just a couple examples, the contractor may be required to use rubber-tracked vehicles and no trees could be removed during raptor and songbird nesting seasons.

Diamond Communications would recover its construction costs by leasing the fiber optic infrastructure to service providers, such as cellphone companies.

“The proposed action may also lead to requests by service providers to construct cell towers in developed areas or to add equipment to existing infrastructure,” the Park Service acknowledged in an environmental assessment. However, it said any such requests would be evaluated at the time they’re received, stressing in a news release that the fiber optic proposal itself “would not expand authorized cellular phone coverage areas.”

The assessment notes that some Yellowstone visitors come to the park to get away from it all, but says that, even after improvements are made, “the very limited data services provide excellent opportunities for visitors to disconnect.”

At present, the Park Service suggests that Yellowstone’s developed areas are a little too disconnected.

“Due to the immense size and relative isolation of the park, employees rely heavily on telecommunications equipment and technology to effectively communicate,” the document says.

PVHC

The Mammoth Hot Springs area already has fiber service, but the bandwidth available in most of the other developed parts of Yellowstone is “profoundly inadequate,” the assessment says. Currently, the roughly 40-year-old microwave radio reflectors allow 240 Mbps of bandwidth to be shared between nine areas. To put that in context, a single smartphone requires an average of 5-12 Mbps of bandwidth — meaning it can theoretically take only a couple dozen people to tie up the system. And Yellowstone hosts thousands, not dozens, at any given time.

Beyond the millions of visitors who travel to Yellowstone each year, roughly 4,000 people work in the park, either for the government or for private concessionaires. Park officials say the telecommunications equipment now in place can’t keep up. The system is unreliable, they say — going offline three times in the past five years — and it’s often overwhelmed by data requests in the summer months. That impacts emails, phone calls and credit card transactions at park stores and can even affect 911 calls and emergency responses.

In a 2016 survey, just over half of Yellowstone visitors rated their connectivity as either poor or nonexistent. Those working in the park, meanwhile, report having a hard time getting online for banking, classes, healthcare, shopping and video chats, text messaging and email.

“Many previous employees have described the feeling of digital isolation as one of the primary reasons for choosing not to return to Yellowstone,” the assessment says. 

While services have been upgraded in Mammoth and Canyon Village, the connectivity in Lake, Grant Village and Old Faithful “continue to be virtually inoperable throughout the day and night,” the document says.

Park officials say that also leaves them with no good way to communicate with visitors about road closures, delays and other time-sensitive information; the assessment indicates the Park Service would like to offer “interactive educational tools” like phone apps as well.

According to the Park Service, the 57-page environmental assessment cost approximately $200,000 to produce — including $161,452 paid to an outside contractor.

Public comments on the fiber optics proposal are being accepted through April 21. To submit a comment or learn more, visit parkplanning.nps.gov/fiberEA.

A final decision is expected this summer.

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Yellowstone Doubles, Triples, Even Quadruples Fishing and Boating Fees

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On its face, the quadrupling of some permit fees in Yellowstone may seem surprising but considering the last time some of these fees were increased President Clinton was in his first year of office, that sting might be somewhat relieved.

The new fee schedule was announced Wednesday by the park and the highest increase was for 7-day boating permits. The price of the fees for both motorized and non-motorized boating permits quadrupled, going from $5 to $20 for non-motorized boats and $10 to $40 for motorized boats. The last time these fees were increased was 1993.

Fishing fees were hiked as well, going from $18 to $40 for a 3-day permit, while a 7-day permit saw an increase from $25 to $55.  Season permits went from $40 to $75. The last time these fees were increased was 2012.

Yellowstone officials said the increase in costs was needed to guarantee funding and provide a sustained revenue source that will contribute to continued efforts to reduce non-native lake trout and increase the park’s aquatic invasive species inspection capacity.

“We continue to make substantial progress in our native fish restoration efforts in Yellowstone Lake and many other areas of the park,” said Superintendent Cam Sholly. “Efforts to restore native fish in Yellowstone Lake remain one of our highest conservation priorities.”

Some Yellowstone enthusiasts were less than pleased at the news of the permit hikes, blaming President Biden and the Democratic Party for the increases.

“What a joke! Democrats are in control!! Stick it to everyone!!” said Ed Bennett on the park’s Facebook page.

“That’s the Biden way,” said commenter Ed Stringer.

Other commenters took the increases in stride. Robin Krause urged people to put the costs in perspective.

“Wow, really shocked that people are complaining about the price but yet most people will spend $5 for a Starbucks coffee, $10 for a fast food meal, $100 for dinner for two. $1,000 for a cell phone,” she said.

The park also announced anglers will be able to purchase fishing permits online via Recreation.gov for the upcoming season in addition to in-park stores and surrounding communities beginning this spring.

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First Grizzly Bear Of 2021 Spotted In Yellowstone

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Yellowstone National Park has documented its first bear sighting of the year, it announced Tuesday.

On Saturday, a pilot supporting park wildlife studies observed a grizzly from the air. The pilot saw the bear interact with wolves at a carcass in the northern part of the park.

While this is the first bear sighting of the 2021, tracks have been seen on several occasions in the last two weeks. This comes almost one week later than the first sighting of 2020, which occurred on March 7.

Male grizzlies come out of hibernation in early March. Female with cubs usually emerge in April and early May.

“When bears first emerge from hibernation, they look for carcasses at lower elevations and spring vegetation in thermal meadows and south-facing slopes or nourishment,” said Kerry Gunther, the park’s bear management biologist.

While this may be good news for wildlife enthusiasts, it may bring up different emotions for people who have been attacked by bears like the Choteau, Montana, man who nearly had his head ripped off by a grizzly last July.

Shannun Rammel said he heard there was a grizzly bear around his property and when he saw the door of an abandoned shed open, he snuck up to it only to find the bear he was looking for. The bear was not impressed and subsequently attacked Rammel.

If it wasn’t for his quick-thinking wife who tried to run over the bear in her truck, he may not have lived through the incident.

When bears emerge from hibernation, they look for food and often feed on elk and bison that died over the winter. Sometimes, bears will react aggressively while feeding on carcasses.

All of Yellowstone National Park is bear country: from the deepest backcountry to the boardwalks around Old Faithful.

The chances for encounters between bears and visitors are slim right now — the park’s winter season ended Monday and it is not scheduled to open for the spring season until mid-April and early May.

Nonetheless, the park is reminding any visitors to protect themselves and the bears by following certain guidelines:

  • Prepare for a bear encounter.
  • Carry bear spray, know how to use it, and make sure it’s accessible.
  • Stay alert.
  • Hike or ski in groups of three or more, stay on maintained trails, and make noise. Avoid hiking at dusk, dawn, or at night.
  • Do not run if you encounter a bear.
  • Stay 100 yards (91 m) away from black and grizzly bears. Use binoculars, a telescope, or telephoto lens to get a closer look.
  • Store food, garbage, barbecue grills, and other attractants in hard-sided vehicles or bear-proof food storage boxes.
  • Report bear sightings and encounters to a park ranger immediately.
  • Learn more about bear safety.

While firearms are allowed in the park, the discharge of a firearm by visitors is a violation of park regulations.

Bear spray has proven effective in deterring bears defending cubs and food sources. It can also reduce the number of bears killed by people in self-defense.

The park restricts certain visitor activities in locations where there is a high density of elk and bison carcasses and lots of bears.

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Organization Working to Create Yellowstone Bison Refuge to Increase Herds

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The nonprofit arm of Yellowstone National Park is working to expand a refuge and transfer area for bison to protect them from potential slaughter or hazing operations.

Yellowstone Forever is attempting to raise $250,000 by June to create the refuge area, which would allow Yellowstone National Park to increase the number of bison it is able to quarantine and make eligible for transfer.

Yellowstone quarantines bison to make sure they are free of brucellosis, a disease that can be transmitted to cattle and cause heifers to abort thier calves.

Bison without the disease are to be used to establish new tribal and conservation herds across North America through the foundation’s Bison Conservation and Transfer Program.

The program is designed to protect the bison, support the culture and economy of Native Americans and preserve the unique Yellowstone bison genome.

Yellowstone’s facility for quarantining bison and ensuring they are disease-free is currently at capacity. The park is unable to take in any more bison this coming winter.

The expansion of Yellowstone’s quarantine facility will increase the percentage of quarantine-eligible bison that can enter the program, the foundation said.

Currently, about 75% of bison eligible to be placed in the quarantine program are sent to slaughter due to lack of space. The expansion will reduce that number to 35%.

Capacity will increase from 100 animals entering the program to 250 animals over three-year intervals and the number of bison transferred to new areas each year will increase on average from 30 to 80 animals. 

By 2023 this could result in almost 400 wild Yellowstone bison being diverted from slaughter. By 2024 these bison will be ready for transport to other tribal or conservation herds.

Since the program began in 2016, 104 Yellowstone bison have been certified brucellosis-free and transferred to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to complete assurance testing.

The park diverted an additional 105 bison from slaughter in March 2020 by placing them in the limited capacity facilities in and just outside the park.

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Yellowstone Eruption Would Mean Lava, Not Armageddon, Scientist Says

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By Tom Ninnemann, Cowboy State Daily

A volcanic eruption in the Yellowstone caldera would not lead to “Armageddon” in the West as is commonly believed, according to the scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Mike Poland, in his monthly update on activity in the caldera, said these lava flows in Yellowstone aren’t that common. They happen only once every few tens of thousands of years.

“A big misconception is that if Yellowstone were to erupt, it would be Armageddon — that only explosive eruptions are possible. And that’s just not true. In fact, the most common form of activity at Yellowstone is a lava flow,” Poland said.

The last big explosive eruption at Yellowstone was 631,000 years ago and resulted in the caldera that contains the world’s first national park, Poland said.

The last eruption of note, though, happened around 174,000 years ago, creating what is now the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. There have been 60 smaller eruptions since, the last of which occurred around 70,000 years ago.

Since that time, there have been about 20 or more lava flows that have occurred in the caldera region, he said. These lava flows are very thick, pasty rhyolite flows, not like the fast-moving flows seen from Hawaiian volcanic activity. 

The flows don’t move very quickly, but they are huge, Poland said. 

He added, however, that lava flows are still rare, with the last one occurring about 70,000 years ago. 

If you want to see the results of lava flows, they are easy to find as they are located in some of the most popular parts of the Park.

“If you stand in the Old Faithful area, what you’re seeing all around you are some of these really great big lava flows,” Poland said. “And if you want to see into the guts of these lava flows, go to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.”

Poland previously said that even if the volcano erupted on a schedule, the math didn’t work out to it erupting “soon.” Really, the math showed the volcano wouldn’t erupt again for another 100,000 years.

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Yellowstone Saw 67 Earthquakes In February

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Yellowstone National Park saw 67 earthquakes throughout the month of February, although most were small, with the strongest having a magnitude of 2.4.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in its monthly Yellowstone Volcano Observatory update published Monday, said many of the earthquakes seen during the month were part of a swarm of 20 with magnitudes between 0.3 and 2.3, recorded in the area of West Yellowstone, Montana, from Feb. 1-16.

The largest earthquake of the swarm occurred at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 4 and was located one mile southwest of West Yellowstone.

Earthquake sequences like these are common and account for roughly 50% of the total seismicity in the Yellowstone region.

Of the 67 earthquakes that occurred last month, the strongest was a 2.4 magnitude located 13 miles of Pahaska Tepee that was recorded at 3:08 a.m. on Feb. 2.

Steamboat Geyser had two major water eruptions in the past month, on Feb. 3 and 21. This is typical of winter, when low groundwater levels seem to correlate with longer intervals between Steamboat’s eruptions.

The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory provides long-term monitoring of volcanic and earthquake activity in the Yellowstone National Park region. Yellowstone is the site of the largest and most diverse collection of natural thermal features in the world and the first National Park.

YVO is one of the five USGS Volcano Observatories that monitor volcanoes within the United States for science and public safety.

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Yellowstone Tourists Prove That They Can Be Idiots in The Winter Too

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Most of the time when tourists are in the news for being idiots in Yellowstone, it’s during the summer.

That’s because the visitation rate is so much higher, not because people are more intelligent in the winter.

Proof in point: last week in Yellowstone.

A group of snowmobilers ran into a herd of bison and instead of moving away from them, they stopped — thereby blocking the bison from crossing the trail.

If you give the snowmobilers the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they were boxed in. Perhaps the bison came out of nowhere and they couldn’t move or get out of the way.

It’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt after seeing so many stupid people in Yellowstone, however. Like the woman last summer who thought the Park was a petting zoo and nearly got killed after attempting to pet a bison.

In this video, the visitors sat on their snowmobiles and filmed the frustrated bison, laughing when one of the animals charged a snowmobiler.

Were the snowmobilers worried?

Hard to say. The person who took the video thought it was all “exciting.”

“Exciting day!!!! One in our group got hit by two buffalo fighting, knocking her sled sideways and knocking off the back hand grip.  Thank God Lisa was okay and thank God no one was riding with her,” Lisa Long Giles posted on her Facebook page (the video has now been removed but is still present on YouTube).

Later in the day, Giles posted a video of snowmobilers laughing while bison were running away from them. “Stampede!” Giles wrote.

When admonished by one of her friends on Facebook for being so close to the bison, she said “there wasn’t much choice.”

“You can suddenly be surrounded by them in a blink of an eye,” she said.

Calls to the public affairs office at Yellowstone National Park were not immediately returned. 

In the past, public information officers have reminded people that bison are dangerous and should be avoided.

Bison have injured more people in Yellowstone than any other animal. Bison are unpredictable and can run three times faster than humans,” the National Park Service has said in the past. “Always stay at least 25 yards away from bison.”

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Yellowstone Scientist: No, We’re Not Overdue for Volcanic Eruption

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A scientist studying Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic activity diffused any rumors that the park is overdue for a large eruption earlier this week.

In the Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory’s monthly update, scientist Mike Poland shot down the notion that Yellowstone’s supervolcano is overdue for eruption and that lava could start flowing any second.

“This isn’t true,” he said. “There’s two reasons why this is the case. First: volcanoes don’t work that way. They don’t erupt on schedules.”

Yellowstone has three calderas and two resurgent domes

Poland explained that volcanoes erupt when there is a sufficient supply of a reputable magma beneath its surface coupled with enough pressure to get that magma up to the surface.

He added that the magma chamber underneath the volcano is only 5-15% magma, which is not enough to generate a large eruption or explosion.

According to the Yellowstone website, the volcano’s last large eruption happened around 174,000 years ago, creating what is now the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.

There have been 60 smaller eruptions since, the last of which occurred around 70,000 years ago.

Poland said that even if the volcano erupted on a schedule, the math didn’t work out to it erupting “soon.” Really, the math showed the volcano wouldn’t erupt again for another 100,000 years.

“Point being, Yellowstone is not overdue,” Poland said. “And frankly, if you hear someone on a documentary or the internet saying ‘Yellowstone’s overdue,’ you know right off the bat that they don’t know what they’re talking about at all.”

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