Yellowstone National Park (44°08' - 45°07'N, 109°10' - 111°10'W) is a World Heritage Site in Wyoming, United States. It was established in 1872 and covers 9,000 square kilometers (km2) of a vast natural forest of the southern Rocky Mountains in the North American west. It boasts an impressive array of geothermal phenomena, with more than 3,000 geysers, lava formations, fumaroles, hot springs and waterfalls, lakes and canyons. It is equally known for its wildlife: grizzly bears, bison, wolves and wapiti, North American elk.
Threats to the site
The Park was placed on the List of the World Heritage in Danger in 1995, because proposed adjacent mining for gold, silver and copper threatened the ecology and wildlife of the Yellowstone River. Ongoing contamination includes leaking sewage and waste, illegally introduced non-native lake trout which compete with the endemic Yellowstone cut-throat trout, road construction and year-round visitor pressures including the use of air-polluting snowmobiles in winter. Hundreds of bison were slaughtered in 1997 to eradicate brucellosis, a disease seen to endanger surrounding cattle. The authorities undertook to analyze thoroughly any measures taken to mitigate negative impacts.
The mine proposed in 1990 4 kilometers (km) from the northeast boundary would have stored toxic waste in the headwater area of major rivers. But in 1996 the President announced the removal of the threat through a US$65 million land-trade, which included clearing up local mine contamination. Other progress reported to the World Heritage Committee were the repair of sewer lines, the removal of exotic trout in 2001 and the planned control of brucellosis by the Interim Bison Management Plan of the Greater Yellowstone Brucellosis Committee which included state and federal agencies and local cattle ranchers concerned with the potential spread of the disease. As a result of these measures the World Heritage Committee took the Park off the list of endangered sites in 2003.
In the southern third of the northern Rocky Mountains, in northwestern Wyoming state, with small adjacent areas of Montana to the north and Idaho to the west. The eastern boundary is largely topographically defined; other boundaries are largely geometric. 44°08' - 45°07'N, 109°10' - 111°10'W.
Date and history of establishment
- 1872: Designated by the U.S. Congress, as the world's first National Park. Protection was provided by several congressional acts, initially under civilian then army administration
- 1915: U.S. National Park Service (NPS) created and assumed management
- 1976: The geothermal site was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve under the UNESCO MAB program
The park spans 898,700 hectares (ha) over three states: (Wyoming: 824,263 ha, Montana: 61,144 ha, Idaho: 12,743 ha). The park is surrounded by the wilderness and wildlands of six national forests, two national wildlife refuges and Grand Teton National Park to the south. This Greater Yellowstone area is four times the size of the park itself and is considered the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate zone. The Biosphere Reserve is 898,349 ha.
Federal government, except for 7.7 ha. Administered by the National Park Service (NPS).
Ranges from 1,610 meters (m) to 3,462 m. The plateau averages 2,500 m.
The park lies in a caldera basin over a volcanic hot spot in the most seismically active region of the Rocky Mountains. Its central plateau is a 650,000 ha forest surrounded by mountains that rise to 4,000 m. Crustal uplifts 65 million years ago raised vast blocks of sedimentary rock to form the southern Rocky Mountains. For 25 million years andesitic volcanic ashflows and mudflows were common, covering and petrifying forests: nearly 200 species of petrified plants have been found. A more recent period of rhyolitic volcanism began in the region about two million years ago. During this time thousands of cubic kilometers of rhyolitic magma filled immense chambers under the plateau, then erupted to the surface. Three cycles of eruption, dated at 2.2 million, 1.2 million and 630,000 years ago, produced huge explosive outbursts of ash. The latest eruptive cycle formed a caldera 45 km wide and 75 km long when the active magma chambers erupted and collapsed, forming the Yellowstone plateau. The crystallizing magma and injections of new magma are the source of heat for the hydrothermal geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles. Yellowstone contains more geysers than all the rest of the world with more than 300 in all, 200-250 being active, and more than 10,000 hydrothermal features.
Most of the area was glaciated during the Pleistocene, and many glacial features remain. The park lies on the headwaters of three major rivers: the Yellowstone River, a major tributary of the Missouri that flows via the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, Firehole and Gibbon Rivers that unite to form the Madison River, which also joins the Missouri, and the Snake River that rises near the park's southern boundary and joins the Columbia to flow into the Pacific. Yellowstone Lake, 35,400 ha in area, 2,357 m high with a maximum known depth of 122 m, is the largest high elevation lake in North America. Lower Yellowstone Falls, 94 m high, is the highest of more than 40 named waterfalls in the park.
Precipitation ranges from 258 millimeters (mm) on the northern boundary to an estimated 2,050 mm in the south-west corner, falling mainly as snow. Temperatures range from a January mean of -12°C to a July mean of 13°C at Mammoth.
Approximately 80% of the park is forested, and 80% of that is dominated by lodgepole pine Pinus contorta. 15% is grassland. Great elevational differences produce a range of plant communities, from semi-arid steppe to alpine tundra. Eight species of coniferous trees and about 1,700 species of vascular plants grow in the park. Two, Ross's bentgrass Agrostis rossiae and Yellowstone sand verbena Abronia ammophila, are endemic. The thermal areas contain unique assemblages of thermal algae and bacteria. However the National Parks Conservation Association reports that there are also some 200 invasive species.
The Park has about 58 species of mammals. There are seven species of ungulates native to the Park: elk Cervus elaphus, mule deer Odocoileus hemionus, bison Bison bison, moose Alces alces shirasi, bighorn sheep Ovis canadensis, pronghorn deer Antilocapra americana, a population recently halved in number' and white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus. One non-native, mountain goat Oreamnos americanus may be colonizing the park. Among carnivores a nationally threatened species, grizzly bear Ursus arctos is present. There are over 105 breeding females in the greater Yellowstone area, and 205 cubs have been born in the last three years. There are an estimated 280-610 grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone area. Black bear U. americanus is also abundant.Some 25-30 mountain lions Felis concolor occupy the Northern Range of the Park, others enter the Park seasonally. Lynx Lynx canadensis are found and coyote Canis latrans are numerous. The coyote population in the Northern Range has declined 30-50% since wolves were introduced. The grey wolf (Canis lupus (EN) was native, was extirpated by the 1930s but was reintroduced in 1994-5, with the aim of 30 wolf packs reproducing in three recovery areas (Yellowstone, Idaho, northwest Montana) for three successive years before de-listing of the species. This has succeeded. There are now 145 free-ranging wolves in 14 packs.
A palaeotological study of Lamar Cave yielded the remains of over 30 mammal species. This suggests a diversity of fauna in prehistoric times much like that found in Yellowstone today. Elk were found in six out of nine levels above and below a layer radiocarbon dated at 960 years BP. Grey wolf bones were found below the 960 BP layer, and a wolf carnassial tooth even lower.
290 bird species have been recorded, 148 breeding in the Park. Of special interest are the whooping crane Grus americana (EN), the nationally threatened bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus, and trumpeter swan Cygnus buccinator. There are 13 native fish species. Yellowstone cut-throat trout Oncorhyncus clarki bouvieri and Arctic grayling Thymallus arcticus (V), are protected by regulations that also permit taking of non-native introduced species. Six exotic species of fish have been introduced, including brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis, lake trout S. namycush, brown trout Salmo trutta, rainbow trout Oncorhyncus mykiss and lakechub Couecius plumbeus. There are also 6 reptile and 4 amphibian species.
The Park's cultural history dates back 12,000 years. It includes prehistoric and historic use by a variety of American Indian groups who relied heavily on the resources of the area, exploration by trappers and adventurers and use by contemporary American Indians, some resident up to the time of the Park's designation. About 2% of the park has been inventoried for archaeological resources, and some 575 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites have been recorded of which approximately 84% are American Indian. Yellowstone has over 1,000 historic structures associated with the Euroamerican occupation and management of the park where the legacy of the early civilian and army administration and the history of concessions in national parks are preserved. Six of these structures are National Historic Landmarks: Fishing Bridge Trailside Museum, Madison Junction Trailside Museum, Norris Geyser Basin Trailside Museum, Northeast Entrance Station, Obsidian Cliff and Old Faithful Inn. There are four National Historic Districts: Lake Fish Hatchery, Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful and Roosevelt Lodge. And there are five National Historic Sites: Lake Hotel, Lamar Buffalo Ranch, Obsidian Cliff Kiosk, Queen's Laundry Bath House and the U.S. Post Office at Mammoth Hot Springs. The Park's collections have some 200,000 natural and cultural objects including artwork, ethnographic and archaeological artifacts, historic objects, and natural resource specimens.
Local human population
A permanent community of about 300 people associated with park operations is located at Mammoth Hot Springs, the park headquarters. Smaller groups are stationed throughout the park at ten other locations.
Visitors and visitor facilities
Yellowstone Park has had a long history of tourism, promoted at first by railroads; a 735 km paved or graveled road system now provides access. There are five major developed areas in the Park which offer food, lodging, visitors' centers, camping and recreational vehicle parking. These are Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, Canyon Village, Lake/Fishing Bridge and Grant Village/West Thumb. Smaller areas include Norris, Lamar, Tower/Roosevelt, Madison, East Entrance, Northeast Entrance, South Entrance, West Entrance and Bechler. Ninety-seven trailheads provide access to 1,930 km of trails and 287 backcountry campsites. In 2001, 6105 backcountry use permits were issued - 19,230 persons for 43,302 use-nights, and 5,533 stock nights. In winter, most roads are groomed as snowmobile trails, and winter use has increased from virtually zero 30 years ago, to 143,491 in 2001-2002, but individual snowmobiling may be phased out in future and replaced by multi-person snowcoaches.
Scientific research and facilities
There is a well established tradition of scientific research into the wildlife both natural and managed, sustained by over 150 research projects at present. There is a resident research staff of 32 permanent and 40 seasonal employees who study large mammals, especially grizzly bears which have been studied for more than 35 years, fisheries, vegetation, fire ecology and geology and assist with park management and interpretation. Another 250 to 300 independent researchers work in the park annually. Research projects requiring a natural environment or those orientated to management are given preference. Research requiring significant modification of the biota or environment is not permitted. A large area allowing natural processes (including fire) to operate makes the park an excellent area to research these. Limited laboratory space is available. Access to the backcountry is limited to non-mechanized means. A wide range of federal agencies pursue scientific projects in Yellowstone, including the Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey, and National Aeronautic and Space Administration.
Yellowstone provides a clear record of volcanic eruptions which have occurred over the past 55 million years and contains over 10,000 hydrothermal features, including fumaroles, mudpots, hot springs and over 300 geysers. The park is also a reservoir of genetic diversity and contains a natural forest ecosystem vast enough for the perpetuation of grizzly bear, wolf, bison and wapiti populations.
Historically, Yellowstone has been managed both for the preservation of its resources in their natural condition and as the 'pleasuring ground' for tourists that it was also created to be. Wolves, mountain lions and coyotes were seen as threats both to the park's ungulates and to safe tourism, and from 1915 onwards were eradicated in an efficient predator control program. This led to overpopulation and disease amongst ungulates, necessitating large scale culls which caused controversy. Later, the desire to re-establish a more natural ecological balance has led to the reintroduction of some species formerly eliminated. Today there are three defined management zones: natural, 897,656 ha; historic, 32 ha; and development, 810 ha. A master plan (1973), land protection plan (1986), an exotic vegetation management plan (1986) statement for management (1991), and a natural resources management plan (1995), are among the documents that guide conservation of park resources. A fire management plan was adopted in 1972, expanded in 1976 and revised in 1986. Following the major fire in 1988 it was revised again in 1990,1992 and after the 1994 fire season again in 1995.
Grizzly bears have been the subject of intensive study and management for more than 35 years. Their recovery has been of highest priority in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem since the species was listed as threatened in 1975, under the Endangered Species Act. This promoted an unprecedented level of interagency cooperation, and public controversy. Interagency Grizzly Bear Guidelines (1986) and a 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan are followed for their management. Cooperative interagency teams also direct the research into, monitoring and management of ungulates, mountain lions, coyotes, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and trumpeter swans with many other species and resources in the greater Yellowstone area. Hunting, logging, mining, and domestic livestock grazing are prohibited. Regulated fishing and camping are allowed.
Although a very large area, Yellowstone is ecologically an island which is subject to the fragmentation of its habitats and is surrounded by livestock raising and mining claims which have made the protection of a buffer area of a Greater Yellowstone ecosystem controversial. This applies especially to its population of bison which are the only wild continuously free-ranging bison in the United States, numbering about 3,500 in the winter of 1996-7 and have enormous national symbolic value. Winter weather naturally regulates their numbers in the Park, but snow-plowing of park roads for snowmobiles facilitates their movement and their recolonizing of lands outside the park. This has led to the perceived need for an annual cull north and west of the park during which thousands of bison have been killed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Montana Department of Livestock since 1985. This not only keeps their numbers in check, but is held to reduce the spread of brucellosis, a disease which some of the Yellowstone bison population harbors and is said to cause brucellosis, causing cows them to abort their calves, and threatening the interstate shipment of cattle.
In 1995 the State of Montana sued the National Park Service and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for delaying their long-term bison management planning and during winter of 1996-7 its agents shot and shipped to slaughter 1,500 bison in a brucellosis control campaign which became a nationally important public issue. After long negotiations, the federal agencies developed and in 2000, persuaded the State of Montana to adopt its final environmental impact statement on bison management designed to reconcile the free-ranging population with protection of Montana's livestock industry from the threat of disease. Measures include monitoring the population, permitting bison to range some of the public lands adjoining the Park in winter when there are no cattle present, and eventually vaccination.
The winter range of the northern Yellowstone elk herd has been under study since the 1920s. Past winter feeding by the management in the past increased numbers which then required control. To deal with overpopulation and overgrazing, elk were translocated to restock other ranges and numbers were reduced by ranger shootings until 1968. Since then, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks have experimented with natural regulation, coupled with continuous monitoring, range studies, and hunting outside the park. Five of the seven elk herds are migratory which exposes them to conditions outside the Park's boundaries such as the carrying by some elk in both Wyoming and Idaho of brucellosis.
The isolated pronghorn population may also be threatened by commercial development and subdivision of private lands north of the park. Rainbow and brown trout have replaced cut-throat trout and grayling in much of the Madison River. Predatory lake and brown trout have severely affected the Snake River fine-spotted cut-throat. Lake trout were apparently illegally stocked in Yellowstone Lake some time before 1994 and threaten the native cutthroat trout and piscivorous species and ecosystem that depend on them - grizzly bears, bald eagles and several other species of mammals and birds. Some progress has been made by an intensive campaign since 1995 to eradicate lake trout - 43,000 were removed in 2001, but it will need constant work. Another threat is invasion by the whitebark pine blister rust which destroys a source of grizzly bear fodder.
Among other threats, 248 fire starts were recorded in the greater Yellowstone area in 1988. A let-burn policy towards naturally started fires allowed 31 to burn as prescribed fires, covering 157,480 ha. Of five large fires originating outside the park, three, including the largest of all (the North Fork Fire, 201,610 ha) were man-made. They were fought from the start, but still destroyed 36% (321,520 ha) of the area within the Park. Surface mining, oil, gas and geothermal exploration and extraction near park boundaries, leakage from sewer lines, contamination by wastes, by road construction and maintenance and the year-round pressure of visitors all potentially threaten the park's air and water quality, visual integrity and critical habitat for wildlife. One example is the intrusion, sanctioned by the federal government in mid-2002, of individual snowmobiles which may total 75,000 and introduce fumes and noise into the winter wilderness. This was done in the face of a previous Park Service ban, the findings of a major study, wide public opposition to snowmobile use and the Park authority's advocacy of less polluting snow-coaches.
A major challenge was the proposed New World mine 4.2 km from the northeast corner of the park in the headwaters of three streams. Toxic waste from this would have threatened the Park's streams and affected grizzly bears, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, elk, fish and many smaller animals. Such plans to exploit its resources led to Yellowstone being placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger in 1995, an action questioned by defenders of national sovereignty over property rights in the U.S. In 1998 the government compensated the company with $65 million for divesting its interest in the gold mine site. A moratorium has also since been placed on mining around Yellowstone to prevent the expansion of existing mines. However, pollution from abandoned tailings will have to be warded off in permanently. A proposed nuclear waste incinerator in Idaho, is also seen by conservationists as a potential threat to its air quality.
There is a permanent staff of 380 organized into seven operating divisions; Management including Planning, Safety and Public Affairs, Interpretation, Resource Management Operations, Business Management, and the Yellowstone Center for Resources. Permanent and TERM staff expertise and specialists include: 3 public affairs specialists, one industrial hygienist, approximately 8 concessionaires, 20 interpretive park rangers, 57 park law enforcement rangers, 14 fire protection specialists and technicians, 5 engineers, 7 landscape architects, 16 utility system operators, numerous journeymen, craftspeople, equipment operators, automotive mechanics; also 5 planners, one archivist, one museum curator, one historical architect, 23 biologists and resource managers, 6 biological technicians, 3 information technology specialists and various administrative specialists and clerks.
In summer, the staff is supplemented by some 450 seasonal employees, including approximately 58 park rangers in interpretation and 71 in visitor protection, 40 fee collectors, 6 forestry technicians, 50 maintenance workers, 50 motor vehicle operators, 95 laborers, 15 equipment operators, 20 biological technicians and aides and 49 other seasonal trade and support personnel.
US$ 26,500,000 was budgeted for fiscal year 2002 but this level of support is still not enough to maintain the services of the Park without constant retrenchments.
IUCN management category
- II (National Park)
- Biosphere Reserve
- Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1978. Natural Criteria i, ii, iii, iv
Listed as World Heritage in Danger in 1995 because of proposed adjacent mining, pollution of rivers, year-round visitor pressure and road construction. De-listed in 2003.
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