MISSOULA — Montana's National Parks are getting overrun. With last year's unprecedented rise in tourism in both Yellowstone and Glacier — which capped off years of similar dramatic increases — there are more arrests, car accidents, search and rescue operations, traffic headaches, full parking lots, long lines at overused bathrooms, crowds in scenic overlooks, full campgrounds and myriad other problems.
Many park managers are now having to deal with the same emergency situations as cities that have a police force and other city departments to manage the problem, according to Norma Nickerson, Ph.D., the director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research in the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana.
She recently published a report called “Montana’s Crowded Parks” for UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research that looked at potential solutions to the problem.
Nickerson focused her report on Glacier and Yellowstone, two parks in Montana that draw nearly half of all Montana’s nonresident visitors to one or both.
Nearly 3 million people visited Glacier last year, a record that was more than a fifth more than the 2015 visitation numbers.
“Many say the parks are crowded,” Nickerson wrote. “There are lines to get through the entrance gates, lines at the bathrooms, campgrounds full by mid-morning and traffic is rush-hour-like on park roads. With duties similar to those of a mayor and city council, Glacier and Yellowstone managers have responsibility for public services such as police, fire, sanitation, water, gas, roads and so on to provide a healthy living environment and keep people safe.”
Not only that, but park managers have a federally mandated duty to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife in the parks in a manner that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
In Glacier, it’s not uncommon for the Logan Pass parking lot to fill up by 11 a.m. every day in July and August. Apgar, the largest campground in Glacier with 194 sites, only had six total days in July and August with sites available. The other three large campgrounds did not have a single July day with a vacancy, and only two days in August. The Avalanche Lake trail has gone from about 30,000 hikers in the 1988 season to 90,000 in the 2011 season, and it has undoubtedly increased since then.
In Yellowstone, search and rescue incidents were up 61 percent in 2015 and motor vehicle accidents with injuries were up 167 percent. Emergency medical responses were up 37 percent and Life Flight evacuations were up 25 percent.
Yellowstone National Park social scientist Ryan Atwell kept track of all the incidents on August 9, 2015, and called it “A Day in the Life of Yellowstone.”
There were two arrests before 9 a.m., and the day included four major car crashes with one fatality, seven Emergency Medical Services responses, six Life Flights and one ambulance ride. There were 44 traffic stops that day, two cases of domestic violence at Old Faithful, two hiker injuries, one horse accident, one back injury and one emergency call from a campground visitor who sprayed herself with bear spray. There were also numerous other minor calls.
Nickerson said that there’s a lot of research to back up the fact that most people are more bothered by annoying visitors – those who litter, get too close to wildlife, talk too loudly, etc. – than the sheer number of visitors. Nickerson said that this suggests that some possible solutions could include having more “boots on the ground” in the form of rangers who are there for educational and control purposes. There could also be ways to educate visitors before they enter certain sensitive areas. Or, fines for bad behavior could increase.
Because so many people want to get wildlife photos, Nickerson said that parks could highlight areas outside the parks that have equal opportunities to see animals, such as the National Bison Range, the C.M. Russell Wildlife Refuge and other “hot spots” in Montana. Nickerson also thinks that park managers should be enabled to enact management techniques when they see environmental conditions deteriorating.
“With current visitation trends over the past few years, Glacier and Yellowstone managers are planning for uncertainty,” Nickerson said.