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New Yellowstone superintendent lays out his priorities

February 21, 2019

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS, Wyo. (AP) — Cam Sholly didn’t expect to be here. Not when he was finishing high school in Gardiner, not when he was clearing backcountry trails after leaving the Army, not when he returned to the National Park Service for good.

He doesn’t recall a time when he was aspiring to the top jobs of the agency, despite his family history — a grandfather who served as superintendent of Badlands National Park, a father who worked as Yellowstone National Park’s chief ranger.

But here he is, settled into the superintendent’s office inside the 110-year-old administration building at the nation’s first national park, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported .

“Becoming superintendent of Yellowstone was beyond my wildest dreams,” he said recently, sitting in an armchair in his office. “It wasn’t planned.”

Saying it wasn’t planned sounds like an understatement. After holding a few different high-level jobs within the Park Service, Sholly became director of the agency’s Midwest Region in 2015. He was based in Omaha, Nebraska, and he oversaw 61 park units in 13 states. He thought he’d be there a while.

Then came a controversial reassignment plan, one that resulted in former Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk saying he was being forced out of the agency. Sholly was selected to take his place.

He has been here since October. On his second day, he appeared at a field hearing in Gardiner with Republican Sen. Steve Daines. He met with Gov. Steve Bullock, too, and county commissioners and other people with a stake in the park. The five-week government shutdown interrupted his indoctrination, but he’s seen enough to get ideas of what can be done better and what he wants to keep rolling along.

He talks of the nobility of the mission of the National Park Service, which is the preservation of natural and cultural resources of the park system. In Yellowstone, that largely means the ecosystem itself. He comes with a rosy view of its state, pointing to the recovery of wolves, grizzly bears and other animals. But he has no illusions that it’s invincible.

“It is an ecosystem under threat,” Sholly said. “Whether that’s climate change, whether that’s increased visitation. It’s under threat but it is in good condition, and we need to continue to do everything we can to understand and respond effectively to those challenges in the future.”

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Sholly, 49, has been mulling a suite of priorities for the park, and near the top of the list is taking care of its staff. Among the top priorities for the near future: employee housing.

“Yellowstone employee housing is, for the most part, as a whole, embarrassing,” Sholly said.

There are employee homes all over the park, including near places like Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake. There are a total of 445 units, Sholly said, and 60 of them are trailers.

Already in his short tenure he’s heard horror stories — rodent infestations, broken stove burners and more. It’s not everywhere, he said, but it’s not nowhere, and some of the problems are hitting those who live deepest inside the park.

“These people are in the interior protecting this park in isolated conditions,” Sholly said. “The least we can do is do better with housing.”

He comes to this challenge and every other knowing what it’s like to grow up in national parks. His father worked in a few different parks before Yellowstone. Sholly has memories of growing up in Yosemite, Crater Lake, Hawaii Volcanoes.

He finished his last year-and-a-half of high school in Gardiner, graduating in 1987. Immediately afterward, he joined the U.S. Army, and he ended up being deployed to Operation Desert Storm in 1990.

Sholly was out of the Army by 1991 and back in Montana. He worked in maintenance in Yellowstone for a couple of summers, his first job with the park service, and he gave college a try at Montana State University. He didn’t finish his degree there, instead moving to California to work at Yosemite.

After a few years at Yosemite, he joined the California Highway Patrol. He stayed with the state police force for six years. It also nearly killed him.

One night in August 1999, he and a partner were patrolling south of San Francisco when they started chasing a car going well over 100 mph.

Sholly was in the passenger’s seat. His partner was driving, trying to overtake the car. He lost control.

The patrol car hit a guard rail at more than 100 mph, Sholly said, the full impact going to the passenger side.

Extrication took more than 40 minutes, Sholly said. His back and pelvis were broken in multiple places. He was 29.

“It’s at that point you kind of realize you want to have other options and alternatives in life,” he said.

He decided to finish his undergraduate degree at St. Mary’s College after the wreck. He stayed with the highway patrol for three more years, until the park service drew him back.

“It was a good chapter in my life,” he said. “I think the nobility of the park service mission is a draw. It was something I wanted to migrate back to.”

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Yosemite is where the return began in 2002. After serving as chief ranger of operations there, he moved upward. A job in the park service’s Washington, D.C. office, then superintendent of Natchez Trace Parkway in the southeast, then back to D.C., followed by the move to Omaha.

Stephanie Adams, of the National Parks Conservation Association, said moves like that are normal for agency employees, and that Sholly appeared to build a good reputation along the way.

“It seems like Cam has built a really strong track record within the park service,” Adams said.

He joined the ranks of the Senior Executive Service, an elite group of park service employees who can be easily transferred within 60 days notice. Such a reassignment comes with two options — accept or leave the agency.

His assignment to Yellowstone was reportedly part of a broader shuffle involving seven people in all. At least three people who were asked to accept new jobs, including former superintendent Wenk, retired instead.

The reassignment disrupted Sholly’s idea that he might be in Omaha for a few years. While he moved to Yellowstone, his wife and son stayed there. He visits when he can, including while on furlough during the shutdown. They plan to join him here later this year.

Sholly was fully aware of the possibility that he could be reassigned at the drop of a hat when he joined the Senior Executive Service. Such moves aren’t uncommon, he said, and he can’t say how long he’ll be in Yellowstone. But he’s happy to be here.

“My job coming in here is to keep the good things going, try to keep good momentum in places where we had momentum going, and work on areas (Wenk) didn’t get to,” Sholly said.

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At the time of the reassignments, Wenk cited a disagreement with the Trump administration over bison management. He later said he was told that wasn’t the reason he was asked to leave Yellowstone.

Still, it fueled speculation that Sholly would arrive in Yellowstone with orders to significantly reduce the bison population, which was estimated at near 4,500 last fall. Bison are the one animal the park culls, through its ship-to-slaughter program, and some wondered if the Interior Department wanted Sholly to bring numbers down.

No such order was given, according to Sholly.

“Never happened,” he said. “Never has happened.”

His vision for the park’s bison isn’t much different from Wenk’s. He said the population is at a place where they can try to keep it relatively stable, with post-calving numbers in the low- to mid-4,000s.

He also wants to see the quarantine program advance. Under Wenk, the park proposed quarantining bison for brucellosis at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in north central Montana.

Certifying bison as brucellosis free allows them to be moved more freely, and potentially released to join other wild herds or establish new ones. The park proposal was meant to help restore bison to other parts of the country and reduce the number slaughtered each year. Many conservationists support it, but some see it as the park domesticating wild bison and caving to the beef industry, which fears the spread of the disease.

The program is running now, but not at Fort Peck. Yellowstone has almost 80 bison in two quarantine corrals now going through what’s known as phase two of the process — months of brucellosis testing and time spent isolated from any wild animals. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service also has five bulls it says could go to Fort Peck for the final phase of quarantine, known as assurance testing.

Fort Peck tribal officials want to be involved at phase two, and they have corrals that meet federal quarantine requirements. But state and federal agriculture officials have concerns about moving the bison out of the Yellowstone area without first completing that round of testing.

Sholly said he wants the tribes involved earlier, too, but that he understands the concerns of the livestock officials. Part of the reason he wants the tribes involved at that stage is capacity. His corrals can only handle so many bison at once, meaning only so many bison can be restored to new places if the program is successful.

“We are going to need to determine how do we establish a quarantine infrastructure that can facilitate a larger number of bison to enter the quarantine process and ultimately get put out onto larger landscapes,” he said. “It’s something that’s a work in progress and that we need to think about. It’s not a pure National Park Service responsibility.”

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Sholly has inherited the issue of ballooning visitation. In 2018, the park counted more than 4 million visits for the fourth consecutive year. The total was more than 20 percent higher than the total in 2013.

Many conservationists are concerned about the growing crowds, and they’re wondering how many is too many.

“We certainly are paying attention to summer visitation issues and crowd management,” said Scott Christensen, conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Sholly recognizes that it’s growing, but he’s not ready to jump to a conclusion on how it should be managed. He wants more data on how people use the park. He is sure of one thing — the park is not considering a visitor cap right now.

Even if they were, he doesn’t see how a park-wide number would work with Yellowstone’s vast size and its five separate entrances.

“When a huge amount of your visitation is over in Old Faithful and West,” he said, “are you really going to say you can’t come in at Cody or you can’t come in at Cooke City?”

He added that shuttle services in specific areas may be an option, but even those could get complicated.

“I think there’s a lot of conversations to have,” he said.

He is also having conversations about the park’s budget, which he said could be managed better. He wants to make sure employees are taken care of, that they have a good work environment. And he’s serious about improving housing.

The park is working on a 5-year housing plan, and he hopes to bring in more money for housing improvements. Plans and funding are already in place for new housing at Lake Village. Work on new seasonal housing for concession employees is in its early stages, too.

It’s something he sees as a crucial part of his job, ensuring decent living conditions for the people on the front lines of preserving the wild and magnificent for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

As for the ecosystem itself, he wants to be ready to respond to the challenges of visitors run amok or climate change or anything else. He wants to avoid a situation like what happened to the Yellowstone cutthroat in Yellowstone Lake.

Illegally introduced lake trout decimated the cutthroat population. Numbers fell to 10 percent or less of historic highs, according to the park.

Upon the discovery of non-native lake trout, which gobble up cutthroat, park officials got aggressive. Since 1994, more than 2.4 million lake trout have been killed by gill-netting. They’re starting to see declining numbers of lake trout, and Sholly plans to keep the program going for the foreseeable future.

To him, it’s both a success story and cautionary tale.

“For me, I think the biggest issue is, how did we almost allow a species like the cutthroat to blink out before we took the actions that we took?” he said.