Old Faithful Fall 2019

Calls for a Yellowstone spring closure emerging

Local and state politicians are calling for a Yellowstone spring closure as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus impacting so much of American society. Here’s the latest on what could impact spring and summer travel in Yellowstone National Park.

We’ve already seen concessionaire Xanterra announce a delay in the openings of its Yellowstone National Park lodges, dining facilities, and stores, through May 21 in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Xanterra is suspending down all public national parks operations. You can read more about Xanterra’s closures and how they might affect you here.

Since Xanterra’s announcement, more public officials have requested action be taken by the National Park Service regarding Yellowstone.

The latest development: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock requested a temporary closure of Yellowstone National Park from Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly in a letter sent Monday, arguing that gatherings in the Park represents a public health threat.

“While our public lands afford many Americans with the opportunity to embrace the health benefit connected to the outdoors, we must do everything we can to reduce exposures and curtail gatherings in order to keep Montanans safe and slow the spread of COVID-19,” Bullock said in a statement Monday. “I strongly encourage Montanans and visitors to refrain from visiting the park until the appropriate decisions are made to temporarily close.”

The request from Bullock came after officials from Park County and Gallatin County, which border Yellowstone, also requested a Yellowstone closure from Sholly and U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. Their concern: Yellowstone visitors could impact the abilities of county resources to treat coronavirus victims.

The response from Sholly: It’s too early to discuss Yellowstone closures, but the topic is under review. Here’s the official response sent out last night:

“Yellowstone has received a substantial number of requests to temporarily close, from state and local partners, including the governors of Montana and Wyoming, health officials from all surrounding counties, and local government leadership. The park began receiving these requests late in the day on Sunday, March 22, through today and we immediately began conversing with National Park Service and the Department of the Interior to determine the best course of action. I have been in direct contact with the governors, many local leaders, and health officials within our gateway communities and counties. Contrary to a few press articles written today, the park is taking these requests from our local partners very seriously and will communicate decisions in the near future.”

Technically, Yellowstone National Park is open, but most of the park is inaccessible due to seasonal road closures, with only the North Entrance open to service travelers between Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City. The Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs and the Boiling River area have been closed as a precaution to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Closing Yellowstone would mostly impact anyone trying to drive to and from Silver Gate and Cooke City, as well as the wildlife watchers who gather year-round in the Lamar Valley to scout wolves and other wildlife. Some of the tours catering to wildlife watchers, however, have already shut down because of coronavirus concerns, per the Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

Carl Swoboda, owner of the wildlife tour company Safari Yellowstone, canceled his upcoming tours because of the virus. He knows of a few other businesses based in Gardiner and Big Sky that have also canceled trips.

Swoboda, who lives south of Livingston, has still been driving the road between Mammoth and Cooke City, however, because he’s been delivering supplies to a friend. He has seen several companies still leading tours. He’s also seen plenty of activity that goes against the recommendations of social distancing — like crowded parking lots and people sharing spotting scopes.

“We’re just hoping that they say, ‘Shut everybody down,’” Swoboda said. “Then that way it’s just a done deal.”

April 17 will see the first opening of Yellowstone National Park roads past the northern route, when the West Entrance to Madison Junction, Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful, and Norris to Canyon Village sections of the Grand Loop road are scheduled to open. All roads throughout the Park are not slated to fully open until May 22, when the Canyon Village to Dunraven Pass/Chittenden Road section opens, as well as the Beartooth Highway connecting Cooke City and Red Lodge. You can view all the 2020 Yellowstone openings and closing here.

Photo of Old Faithful Geyser, fall 2019 by Jim Peaco, courtesy National Park Service.

This story first appeared in the free weekly Yellowstone Insider newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Sign up here!

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