Yellowstone’s Sholly talks holding the line

April 11, 2019

MAMMOTH — Directing the fifth-most visited national park is unavoidably and chiefly a desk job, but Cam Sholly isn’t about to give up on pastime passions.

Yellowstone’s new superintendent had two previous stints in the park, first attending high school in Gardiner, Montana, as the son of a chief ranger, and then again in his 20s working on a National Park Service trail crew. That upbringing instilled in him a love of the land and a zeal for exploring some of the seldom-visited haunts in the 2 million acres of backcountry he’s now charged with overseeing.

“I’ve probably been to 25 of the 32 backcountry cabins in this park,” said Sholly, sporting his Park Service uniform while seated at a coffee table in his park headquarters office.

“Cabin Creek. Mountain Creek cabin is one of the best,” he said, ticking them off from memory. “Thorofare, Heart Lake, Shoshone. There’s some great ones up here: Slough Creek, Blacktail, Hellroaring Creek cabin.”

The Trail Creek patrol cabin — off the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake’s southern arm — sits high on his list of favorites.

“You canoe down there,” Sholly said. “It’s back there far enough that it’s hard enough to access, but not that hard. I’ve caught so many cutthroat out of that lake. And you can base out of there and hike in a lot of different directions.”

Almost six months into the job Sholly shared his first impressions and views of some of the most pressing issues facing Yellowstone National Park. This interview has been lightly edited and reorganized for readability and space.

Q: You’ve said before you’re not in favor of a hard cap on visitation. Looking at the visitation numbers, you can tell it’s heading into uncharted waters. In planning for the future is there a threshold — it might be 5 million people a year — that will demand some type of fundamental change to transportation and how visitors are funned through?

A: Right now we’re not considering any reservation system or visitation cap. I would suggest that we’re in a data-gathering stage and figuring out how to understand how increased visitation impacts resources and impacts infrastructure staffing operations and local communities.

Q: The park’s been in that stage for a while now, three or four years. What have you learned?

A: It’s true. These guys did a phenomenal visitor use study in 2016 over a 10-day period in August. One of the things we’ve learned, and I really commend Dan Wenk, Jody Lyle and the crew here, is they realized the 10-day period wasn’t enough for making informed decisions about what actions are necessary. We just came off of a much more comprehensive survey from May to September last year, and we’re starting to get some preliminary results. You’d be surprised by some of the results.

Perceptions of visitation at various points in time in various locations were not necessarily unfavorable as far as traffic congestion. [It questions] the narrative that the park is being overrun and the resource damage is out of control. It’s not that there’s not an issue. There is. But we have better context. We know that to a degree more visitors translates to impacts on resources, but what we don’t know is, what was the impact at 3 million visitors? And what’s been the difference from 3 million to 4 million? We have a hard time quantifying some of those resource damage impacts.

Q: The park spends millions of dollars annually running netting boats to suppress non-native lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Is there a long-term solution that isn’t so invasive and costly?

A: It’s a success and a failure, right? It’s a success in that we got a hold of it, and we didn’t let a keystone species like the cutthroat blink out. It’s a failure that we didn’t act more aggressively earlier. How do we do a better job of understanding what the science may look like and of taking the right action early on, so we’re not spending $2.2 million per year?

We’re never going to eradicate to zero, but we will continue to invest in this to the point where we feel that the amount of money and effort that we’re putting in will not give us the return that we want. I don’t know what the number is, but I’ve asked for us to look at that. It could be that no matter what we do there’s always going to be 100,000 lake trout in Yellowstone Lake, and we’ll need to put this level of investment in to make sure they don’t proliferate again.

Q: What other invasive species issues loom? Cheatgrass?

A: We can carpet-bomb that. I’m kidding. But where do you start so you don’t see what we’re seeing at the North Entrance here? We see pockets developing in certain places. We have a tendency to say, “We’re starting to see it here and here and here, hopefully it doesn’t grow.” Well, hope is not a strategy, as Dan Wenk would say. While it’s controllable we should really try to get a hold of it, or 20 or 30 years from now it’s going to be a hell of a lot worse. That conversation probably transcends many different topics in relation to us doing a better job early on.

I caveat all that by saying if you look at this ecosystem as a whole, it’s in incredible shape. It’s under threat. Increased visitors. Climate change. But look at the success stories in the last 30 or 40 years in this park: recovery of grayling, recovery of grizzlies, of wolves. The ecosystem is in a better place now than it has been in 200 years.

Q: I just read something the other day about research that suggests the climate-driven conversion of Yellowstone’s lodgepole forests to grassland is going to start happening in the middle of this century. When you see foreboding projections like that, what goes through your mind?

A: National parks are great laboratories for observing the impacts of climate change. There are many ways in which we can use the information that comes out of that to address strategies and actions on the ground.

Q: Should we help? Are you in favor of facilitating adaptation to climate change?

A: I think there are cases where that’s necessary. I’ll give you the recent example of wolves in Isle Royale National Park. You can argue that the wolves were there because they crossed an ice bridge that was there on a very regular basis, and because of climate change it’s no longer regularly there. And we’ve got a moose population that’s out of control because there’s no apex predator. Do you intervene, as we are now? That’s a good example. While we might not normally intervene, we did.

It’s not always simple. Look at mountain pine beetles and whitebark pines. The mountain pine beetle is a native species. It’s easy for me to say, “Hey, let’s go take out lake trout.” But are you going to go spray and take out one native species to protect another that’s under threat?

Q: Cross-boundary Yellowstone bison management is a thorny, long-standing wildlife controversy like so many others in this ecosystem. What changes can you make to better square bison management with the Park Service’s mission?

A: Bison are the only species that we actually constrain. There’s basically three ways of managing the herd size: hunting and the harvest of bison with Native American and state hunters, which is something I’m very supportive of. Shipping to slaughter, which is not a popular option and no one likes to see, but it’s not something that’s not going away quickly, unfortunately. The third part is something I very much support, which is getting Yellowstone bison into a quarantine to go through a multiyear protocol to allow us to guarantee brucellosis-free bison that can be transferred to larger landscapes.

The quarantine program, although fledgling, has promise. The Stephens Creek [bison pen] is our only facility. The capacity is not where it needs to be, and we’re spending a large amount of money every year on it. While symbolically very important — we have 77 bison down there — that pipeline is insufficient to substantially reduce the number of bison going to slaughter. My question for the state, for APHIS, for the tribes is: How do we collectively look at quarantine, and do we want to expand the quarantine program? The progress on this is microscopic, but there is progress.

Q: With grizzlies and wolves, have you thought about how you will work with states to cooperatively manage for animals that move in and out of the park?

A: I think that there is a reason why none of the top 10 most endangered species in the world are in the United States. It’s because of the Endangered Species Act. The ESA cannot be a vehicle for preventing grizzlies from being hunted. Recovery thresholds have been met. The fact of the matter is once they are delisted, the states then manage the wildlife. It’s up to the public and for us to work closely with the states, and we will, to get to the best consistency and balance in ensuring that how they manage grizzlies outside of the boundary, that they’re doing that as prudent as possible. It’s an ongoing dialogue, but at the end of the day the states make the decision once the grizzlies are delisted.

Q: Before you got here the park removed price controls from a lot of the lodging in Yellowstone and left it up to concessionaires. Are you worried that working-class Americans will get priced out of staying here?

A: Absolutely, no question. There’s a balance. Our concessionaires, probably the best group of concessionaires I’ve ever seen, are running businesses. I don’t think people are necessarily being priced out right now, but it’s definitely something to be aware of.

Q: Coming back to Yellowstone after a long absence, is there anything that’s struck you?

A: Not really. I was in South Korea two years ago helping them look at their national parks, and everywhere I went it was, “Yellowstone this, and Yellowstone that.” This is a park that represents the very best in America. It’s a standard not only here but globally. It’s probably good that when you asked me that question I didn’t say, “Oh yeah, a ton has changed.” That’s the cool thing. A ton hasn’t changed. That’s how we want to keep it.