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In Yellowstone Park 94 years ago

Categories: History, On the Web
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I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, writing about once a month instead of meeting the once a week goal I had set for myself. It’s not as if I weren’t thinking about Yellowstone most of every day. But most of that thinking, reading, and writing are related to my book projects rather than to my online presence.

I just came across an interesting article by Brett French, the outdoor editor at the Billings Gazette, whose writings I’ve admired for several years. It’s about the Howard Eaton Trail in Yellowstone. Brett interviewed two of the best current authorities on old trails and roads, Leslie Quinn of the Xanterra concessionaire, and M.A. Bellingham, who volunteers at least one day a week, working for Park Historian Lee Whittlesey.
Howard Eaton was a rancher from near Sheridan, Wyoming, who led horseback parties though Yellowstone from the mid 1880s for something like forty years. 1883 was when one could first send horses to the park’s northern edge by railroad.

Brett’s article did not mention that this trail was laid out by a New York horsewoman named Mrs. Robert C. Morris (in the days when married women did not use their given names in public media). In June of 1917—the year after the park was opened to automobiles—Mrs. Morris, who had a ranch near Yellowstone, began to “map out an elaborate system of trails through the park, which will make it possible for visitors to ride through the most beautiful and picturesque portions of the great ‘reservation,’ journeying in an unhurried and enjoyable fashion, seeing much that cannot be seen from the motor roads alone, and never once traveling on the motor highways.” This quote comes from the New York Times Magazine for February 10, 1918.

Mrs. Morris used existing trails, but most of the work of her pack train, which covered 1,500 miles in the park, was in finding connections and marking the suggested new trail routes. She made general recommendations to the National Park Service for constructing the trails. But most of all she emphasized the enjoyment both of blazing the trails and in the use of them by others.

The work of this dedicated woman resulted in the opening in 1923 of the Howard Eaton Trail, used for decades by horseback parties. Parts of the trail are still in use, both by riders and pedestrians. In Yellowstone Treasures I recommend the part of this trail that goes from Swan Lake Flat toward Mammoth Hot Springs, and I mention several other segments of the trail.

Brett’s article can be accessed at:


People of color in the national parks

Categories: News
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Lamar Buffalo Ranch

Lamar Buffalo Ranch at sunset (2011)

Recently an online discussion has been taking place on the subject of the numerical imbalance of people of color in our national parks. This is an issue that has been on my mind for several years, but so far, I have not begun to understand why so few black and Hispanic folks visit Yellowstone. I wrote a comment on the “High Country News” online post by James Mills, who studied the question in some southwestern national parks this summer.

When I saw the interview with the very articulate and obviously dedicated black Yosemite ranger, Shelton Johnson, on the Ken Burns/Dayton Duncan TV series on the national parks in 2009, I thought this might help to draw people of color to the parks. According to Mills, Johnson wrote a letter after that series was aired that encouraged Oprah to go on her well-publicized camping trip to Yosemite.

In May 2010 I attended an independent publishers meeting, where I brought up the subject with two black women publishers I met at an informal gathering. I asked them what I could do or what could be done in general to encourage people to try the outdoor experience. Their suggestion was to get a famous black musician or athlete to set an example and publicize his or her trip in media that is popular with black people. We probably need to see many more trips like Oprah’s by many prominent and influential people of color over a period of time to begin to make a difference.
One person who commented about Mills’s post remarked that many people don’t like to camp. I can attest that, at least in Yellowstone, it is not necessary to camp to enjoy the park; there are cabins and hotels ranging in price from $30 to $235 a night—I stayed in the whole gamut of them this summer. At the top of this post is an early July sunset from our cabin at Lamar Buffalo Ranch ($30 per person per night).

I saw more black people in Yellowstone this summer than in former years—but not very many more. Mills mentions a program in the Tetons called the National Park Service Academy that “invites college students to visit the park on spring break, and thereby be exposed to many of the careers open to them in the National Park Service.” Much more of this sort of thing is needed. Perhaps city people just don’t know what it can do for them to spend some time in nature.

All Americans, as well as people from other countries who are able to travel, should feel welcome in our national parks and should be given the opportunity to appreciate what the parks have to offer us. Programs like the NPS Academy that Mills tells us about are surely a good idea. I can’t say how we should solve it, but discussing this problem is a step in the right direction.

More “debriefing” about what I saw and thought about on this summer’s Yellowstone trip will follow here soon.

Wolves and bison, oh, my!

Categories: News, Science, Wildlife
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Just in time for National Park Week (April 16-24, 2011), when entry to Yellowstone and all other parks is free to all visitors, things have changed for the Northwest’s wolves and bison. First, the agreement between conservation groups and the U.S. Department of the Interior concerning the wolves (that I wrote about on April third) was rejected in the courts. Then this week, as broadcast in the national news, the budget agreement passed by Congress includes an unprecedented delisting of wolves from their endangered status—an act that has until now been the prerogative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency. Democratic senators Tester and Baucus from Montana signed on to the plan, stating that they had put aside their differences and worked on a responsible, common-sense plan.

Admittedly, the estimated 1700 wolves now living in the northwestern states exceeds by many times the goal stated when gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. They have restored ecological balance, and they appear to be resilient and adaptable, although in the interim their numbers have both grown and diminished, mostly from natural causes. Environmental organizations will now devote their energies to being sure that state management of wolves is “based on sound science and public involvement to ensure they continue to fill their ecological niche on the landscape,” to quote Mike Clark of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

An agreement on April 14th now gives Yellowstone bison access to 75,000 acres of land north of the park, although much of that land is not suitable for grazing. Says the National Park Traveler’s Kurt Repanshek: “Under the agreement laid out Thursday, park bison will be allowed to roam roughly 13 miles north of the park to Yankee Jim Canyon, a natural pinch-point in the landscape. There a cattle guard has been installed across the highway to discourage bison from moving further north along the road, while fencing is to be erected on U.S. Forest Service land abutting the road to keep the bison from moving around the cattle guard.”

The most desirable land for grazing from a big ungulate’s point of view is north of Yankee Jim Canyon, where ranchers irrigate many delectable acres, but any bison that somehow wanders around the fencing will be shot, according to the new plan. Still, this should be an improvement over previous arrangements for those bison who migrate north of the park in bad winters.

A new study of wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming

Categories: Science, Wildlife
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Back on April twelfth, I posted a sort of book report about Cat Urbigkit’s Yellowstone Wolves book and its eye-opening take on the 1990s wolf introduction from a Wyoming rancher’s point of view.

The item that brought me up short in a new report was this: “The study also proved beyond a doubt that wolves now living in the Northern Rockies did not somehow contaminate a remnant native wolf population.” —and— “The wolves from Canada were coming here by themselves. . . . They were already here. They walked.”

This clearly contradicts Urbigkit’s contention that the Canadian wolves brought in to the three contiguous mountain states were a different and larger species from what was here before. This news does not reduce my sympathy for ranchers who lose livestock to wolf predation, but it is another factor that justifies bringing in wolves to establish ecological balance, especially in Yellowstone Park.

The study appeared in the October [2010] issue of Molecular Ecology and was reported in some detail in the October 25th Missoulian newspaper.

Thoughts about Wyoming wolves—Report on a provocative book, 2010

Categories: Flora and Fauna, Wildlife
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Wanting to get an idea of the larger picture of the ongoing controversy about wolves, I recently bought and read my fifth book about Yellowstone and wolves, but this one from the point of view of a journalist, Wyoming resident, and (in recent years) sheep rancher named Cat Urbigkit. It’s called Yellowstone Wolves: A Chronicle of the Animal, the People, and the Politics, published by McDonald & Woodward in 2008.

Cat and her husband filed a lawsuit in the early years after wolves were reintroduced to the park. They contend that, in pushing through the wolf introduction in 1995 and 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not consider the already existing population of wolves, proven by many sightings over several decades in western Wyoming. They also feel that the native wolves should have been protected, and they believe that the Canadian wolves are a different and larger species.

Other entities filed other suits, and rulings and decisions about the wolves rolled through the courts until January 2000, when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the Canadian wolves were to stay.

Yellowstone Wolves is effectively two books in one: Chapters 1 through 19 detail the remnant wolves and the legal maneuvers, and Chapters 20 through 33 tell of wolf depredation in Wyoming and the very real hardships ranchers have encountered. An example is the large number of pet dogs that have been harassed and killed by wolves. Chapter 27 claims that the well-publicized Defenders of Wildlife payments to ranchers for livestock lost to wolves actually compensates them for only about half their losses.

The book includes an interesting foreword by former USFWS employee and wolf taxonomy expert, Ronald M. Nowak. He writes that Urbigkit “tells the story from the perspective of both a conservationist devoted to saving an endangered wolf and as a rural resident whose livelihood may be jeopardized by the wolf,” and concludes that she “has demonstrated the complexity and anguish of wolf conservation and provided a unique perspective on a fascinating story.” I remain a fan of the Yellowstone wolf introduction but have come away from reading this with an increased understanding of the controversy it has caused.

Road construction may affect your autumn trip

Categories: Trip planning
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Autumn is a beautiful time to visit Yellowstone, but you need to plan your route especially carefully this year [2009]. You’ll find construction and even closed roads in a number of areas both in and approaching the park.

Here are some places to avoid or plan around:
1. Dubois, WY through Togwotee Pass on U.S. Highways 26 and 287 has two areas being worked on, creating traffic delays (as much as three hours during late night and early morning hours), vehicle width restrictions, and special cautions to motorcyclists. Details are at The Togwotee Trail to Yellowstone.
2. Lizard Creek Campground to Flagg Ranch, the stretch of road called the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway between Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks, will experience road construction with 30 minute delays day and night through November 2009.
3. The Beartooth Highway (US 212 east from Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance) has two construction projects causing 30-minute delays and some night closures.
4. In the park itself, the road between Artists’ Paintpots through Gibbon Canyon to the Tuff Cliff Picnic Area near Madison Junction is completely closed from now through the November 2 fall closing date of most park interior roads. This project involves removing an existing bridge over the Gibbon River and building a new one; the construction will also affect traffic in the summer season of 2010.