Mammoth Hot Springs and the question of density

by Brian Horejsi

Most Americans know about the geothermal extravaganza called Mammoth Hot Springs, nestled in a spectacular landscape in Yellowstone National Park.

It is also a place that must serve visitors as they enjoy this exceptional place and its amazing sights: A male bison weighing well over half a ton, with a toss of his head and a stutter step, shoos away a contingent of Asian tourists as they naively crowd his space. Or elk stepping between cars in a never-ending flow of vehicles and stopping traffic cold, or else pooping on the sidewalks, resting in the shade of the post office, or more dramatically, a large male elk in full rutting regalia, taking out the grill on a Jeep after its driver treats the animal with contempt.

This may provide riveting entertainment, but it also reveals that this historical site is threatening to burst both its human and ecological seams. The town is home to Yellowstone Park administration and staff and offices, plus almost 400 concession employees, many of whom live there as well. It also offers 678 ‘pillows’ to visitors, so close to 1200 people live and work in Mammoth. Add up to 3,500 people per day coming through the Gardiner, Mont., park entrance, and congestion doesn’t begin to describe what routinely happens here.

Most visitors do not understand that the animals they can reach out and touch number but a tiny minority of the park’s population. These large animals are the super-tolerant, the habituated. Mammoth lures them with its manicured lawns and nutritious green grass, artificial habitats that stand out in a sea of relatively dry native sagebrush and grasses. And strange as it may seem, some are there because they garner a degree of security from natural threats that are fended off by the swarms of humans.

This highly artificial situation presents hundreds of thousands of Americans and foreign visitors with a false view of the relationship between wildlife and industrial development. And make no mistake: Mammoth is an industrial recreation site.

No doubt, most visitors are thrilled by the bison and elk they see up close from May to June and from September to October. But many take away a jaded notion of wildlife. Visitors watch, with a hundred others, as elk breed outside the visitors center, and they burn up video cards filming bison on the lawn just yards from the dining room. To many people, lacking either a local or regional perspective, what they ‘know’ of wildlife comes from their experiences at Mammoth.

Volunteers and concessioner employees try to keep some physical and behavioral order between humans and wildlife, but it is notable that the Park Service does not run a full-time, intensive interpretive program in spring and fall -- even though it has a captive audience. This seems like a huge opportunity lost, even a major failure. Visitors who learn more about what they’re seeing and experiencing might take home a newly found or reinforced respect for wildlife. These visitors might even become park advocates.

It is a given that parks are meant to be different. Yellowstone doesn’t, for example, allow hunting, oil and gas drilling, logging, all-terrain vehicles or mountain bikes on trails. Protecting landscapes from these threats is what Americans believe national parks are meant to do. A consequence of this century-long conservation effort is that visitors do manage to have experiences in Yellowstone that are increasingly rare anywhere else.

Yet Yellowstone’s management has ambitions to make Mammoth monstrous by driving up visitor and employees-housing numbers, a scheme now in an advanced stage. This could lead to an abusive practice of heavy-handed wildlife control and selective killing by park staff, precisely like that which characterizes the blatant domination of commercialism over the well-being of wildlife and visitor-wildlife interaction in Banff National Park, Alberta, or even the anti-bison agenda of special interests, acting in close collaboration with the Park Service, on Yellowstone’s boundary in Montana and Idaho.

It is up to Americans to prevent this ill-conceived, Park Service-instigated growth at Mammoth. They should not be fooled; what is being proposed would herald a defeat for the conservation ethic and standards that have taken over a century to establish themselves in Yellowstone.

Brian Horejsi is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). An ecologist and wildlife scientist, he began his career at Montana State University with stops thereafter at the University of Alaska and the University of Calgary. For over 15 years, he has visited Yellowstone each year.

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