Yellowstone National Park, Part 1. Wonders and delight

Yellowstone National Park (YNP), which is located mostly in Wyoming but also in Montana and Idaho, became the USA’s first national park on 1 March 1872. This year, the National Park Service was gearing up to celebrate Yellowstone’s 150th “birthday” and many visitors were expected.

Unfortunately, in June, storms led to catastrophic flooding of the park. Historic water levels caused mud and rock slides, leading to large-scale destruction of park infrastructure. Many road sections were destroyed and the town of Gardiner, at the North entrance, was devastated just as residents were welcoming the first summer visitors. Fortunately, significant progress has been made by the National Park Service throughout the summer and fall and entry into the park through the North and Northeast Entrance roads was restored in late 2022.

Wikimedia. Yellowstone flood event 2022- North Entrance Road washout. NPS/Jacob W. Frank

In late May, just before this episode of climatic devastation occurred, I had the very good fortune to travel through Yellowstone with my good friend, Joan. I’d visited YNP before, but this was my most enjoyable journey so far. I’d now like to share with you some of the sights we were privileged to see in a series of blogs (sometimes interspersed with some North Carolina wildlife sightings).

Yellowstone, which has a name based on an Indian word, is an area full of wonders and delight. You find yourself traveling through a large volcanic caldera — an immense depression left in the earth after a volcano erupts and then collapses in on itself. You are also in an area with the largest high-elevation lake in North America, a 670-mile waterway which is the longest free-flowing river in the Continental USA, and a spot where you are half-way between the equator and the North Pole. This area has had human occupants for at least 11,000 years according to archeological findings at nearly 2000 documented sites. Tragically, the settlers of European backgrounds and US authorities did all they could to drive the American Indian occupants away. Starting in 1886, when the US Army managed the Park, the US Cavalry patrolled it for 32 years to prevent the 27 modern-day associated tribes from hunting and gathering there. Finally, today, the Indian occupants are being rightfully acknowledged and highlighted in YNP educational and informational materials.In 1926, George LaVatta, Organizational Field Agent, led a group of Indians in costume into YNP. Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

To start off the blog series, I’ll introduce you to the place where Joan and I stayed: Gardiner, Montana, a town of only some 800-900 residents. The town comprises mostly hotels, shops and eateries. During the COVID pandemic, a couple restaurants burned down and were not replaced. We were there during the week before high season began and only a few of the remaining restaurants were open.

Neither Joan nor I were impressed with the cuisine on offer, so we began getting take-out at the local Gardiner market, a store with a nice broad selection of foodstuffs, some souvenirs and friendly staff who still served customers during a power outage.

While tourist season hadn’t begun, locals did show artwork and signs welcoming visitors.

                           

It was fairly easy to find places as there is only one main road with a limited number of side streets. A couple churches are prominent on the main drag, and one usually has some elk and/or or mule deer occupying space on their grounds.

Look well: there is an elk sheltering under the roof overhang.

  

There were warning signs here and there, reminding us of precautions for COVID and maintaining distance from wildlife, but this was disregarded in town.

   

Having walked through the backstreets to photograph birds, I can attest to the fact that it is not uncommon to turn around and find a deer or elk a couple feet behind you or moving just in front of you.

The Gardiner Catholic priest does attempt to prevent humans from taking up parking space.

A few of the houses along the main road had made some attempts at gardening, protecting plants from browsing mammals and being imaginative with rocks.

  

 

A little lending library was a nice touch, too.

As is the case in the Park proper, a great deal of care is given to avoiding trash on the ground. In 1970, open-pit garbage dumps were abolished in YNP, along with the nightly “bear shows” where visitors sitting on wooden bleachers watched bears eat garbage!

The local people do care about what is happening in the area and made this clear with signs.

     

In the park itself, visitors are warned not to move things around, like this geodetic marker.

$250 fine or imprisonment for disturbing this mark.

Our motel manager was friendly and told us about how the pandemic had made business difficult. In the past, many younger and retired people came to Gardiner and YNP to work in the motels, gift shops and other venues during the high season. I met some nice retired folks and students who had come for this reason (note the traveling home that someone had brought along).  The manager mentioned that there were now far fewer workers, however, and she and her son had been helping clean the motel rooms due to staff shortages.

When entry into YNP through the famous Roosevelt Arch was closed because of the June flooding, Gardiner took another post-pandemic blow. Hopefully, the town residents have been able to recover and can look forward to seeing more business in the seasons to come.

Next up: Visiting our first group of thermal features.

Yearning and burning for biological diversity

Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1575© Maria de Bruyn resOn 18 March, a controlled burn again took place on 18 March at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve as part of the management strategy to promote the biological diversity of native plants at this nature refuge. During a controlled understory burn, the undergrowth of a defined area is set afire in a simulation of the wildfires that have historically been a part of meadow and forest ecology.

Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1047© Maria de Bruyn resThe area to be burned is prepared by clearing a broad border of flammable materials such as leaves and twigs. If there are trees or plants that should remain but that could catch fire, for example because there are vines going up their trunks, the area around them can be raked clear or sprayed with water, creating a firebreak.

 

Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1107© Maria de Bruyn resA controlled burn requires permission from safety authorities and is monitored by a team of people, some of whom will ignite the fire and others who will patrol the perimeters and help ensure that the fire is quenched before leaving for the day. Duties are assigned during pre-burn briefings and team members have copies of maps showing which sections of the designated burn area are their responsibility. They carry out a radio check before the burn begins to ensure they can be in communication when needed.

Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1076© Maria de Bruyn resBurn 18 March 2015 IMG_1078© Maria de Bruyn res

Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1157© Maria de Bruyn resdrip torch IMG_1156© Maria de Bruyn resAt Mason Farm, the fires were ignited in lines through the use of a drip torch, which allows the person wielding it to direct a stream of flaming fuel to the area to be burned.

 

 

Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1407© Maria de Bruyn res Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1393© Maria de Bruyn res

Perimeter and interior monitors use implements such as shovels, rakes, “fire flappers” (long-handled instruments with flexible ends to swat down flames and embers) and portable water sprayers to contain the burn within its boundaries.

Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1117© Maria de Bruyn resBurn 18 March 2015 DK7A1460© Maria de Bruyn res

The burn at Mason Farm was ignited first in a small patch so that the team could observe the speed with which the fire spread and burned the ground vegetation.

Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1421© Maria de Bruyn res Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1080© Maria de Bruyn res

Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1090© Maria de Bruyn resBurn 18 March 2015 IMG_1119© Maria de Bruyn resThey also paid careful attention to the wind direction, which could transport embers and bits of burned debris away from the burn site.

Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1427© Maria de Bruyn res Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1446© Maria de Bruyn res

Controlled burns are important in eradicating invasive plants (e.g., Microstegium vimineum, commonly known as Japanese stiltgrass) and enabling native plants to thrive. Some plants are fire-resistant and suffer little damage during a burn. A variety of grasses, flowers and trees need fire for their seeds to germinate, while other plants may need less dense areas as prime growth habitat. Some of the minerals contained in slowly decaying plant matter become soluble and more available in ash, contributing to quicker rejuvenation of the soil.

Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1120© Maria de Bruyn resBurn 18 March 2015 DK7A1520© Maria de Bruyn res

Some areas of the work area burned quickly and turned into smoldering ash that occasionally flared up with a rise or turn of the wind. During this burn, some patches did not catch fire; others at first appeared immune to the fire only to burst into flame after some time.

Burn 18 March 2015 IMG_1154© Maria de Bruyn resThe flames could be quite beautiful and even mesmerizing as they flickered and flashed.

Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1627© Maria de Bruyn res Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1577© Maria de Bruyn res

At times the wind turned and brought smoke in our direction, obscuring the view but then the wind shifted again and we could see the crackling, shifting fire on logs and stumps.

Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1496© Maria de Bruyn res Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1498© Maria de Bruyn res

Burn 18 March 2015 DK7A1573© Maria de Bruyn resA concern for wildlife lovers is the possible demise of animals during a burn. Birds may lose nests but if the burn takes place outside the breeding season, the majority of birds can fly to safety. Many mammals can flee to other areas, while some reptiles and amphibians can burrow into the ground and survive. Occasionally, some animals may perish such as slow-moving turtles and arthropods (e.g., spiders) and insects. That is certainly a sad and regrettable outcome but team members sometimes can help rescue fleeing wildlife. During this burn, the marbled salamander larvae (Ambystoma opacum) continued to swim about placidly in a vernal pool in the woods across from the fire.

Marbled salamander DK7A1338© Maria de Bruyn resOverall, promoting a healthy environment for native plants not only helps restore the natural environment but is also important for wildlife species that depend on the fire-dependent plants for sustenance and habitat. Watching a burn can be an interesting and educational experience. People who want to participate in controlled burns can volunteer for this with the managers of preserved natural areas.