Yellowstone Tragedies

Published May 31, 2016

During July 2011, I visited Yellowstone National Park. It was a month of disasters. A fly fisherman from Iowa was swept away in the rapidly moving Yellowstone River north of the park on July 14 and was later found dead. On July 1, debris from the swift current of the river ruptured an oil pipeline buried below the river 100 miles downstream from the park, causing a spill of a thousand barrels of crude oil. On July 6 at about 11:00 in the morning, two hikers were attacked and one killed on the Wapiti Trail near the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River by a grizzly sow ostensibly protecting her two cubs.

The common thread in all three incidents is the post-winter weather in the Yellowstone area. There was an unusually deep winter snow pack that is only now beginning to melt. This condition has been aggravated by heavy rains. The result is a combination of snow cover at higher elevations and swollen rivers, especially the Yellowstone.

The flooding rivers that contributed to the death of the fly fisherman were a factor in the oil spill. The spill has been difficult to contain because of the swift current. It also has dissipated much of the spilled oil. Workers from Exxon Mobil are still on the scene gathering up what oil they can recover. The company has accepted responsibility for the spill and has promised compensation for those who have suffered losses because of it.

The circumstances behind the fatality from the grizzly attack are less clear-cut. The Park Service has acknowledged that the deep snow pack has kept dangerous animals from migrating to higher elevations where they usually feed during the summer months. But the Park Service did not take measures to separate the animals from the large summer influx of tourists to the park.

The morning after the incident, I was in the canyon area at the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, within a mile or so of the grizzly attack. When I entered the park earlier at West Yellowstone, I asked whether the canyon area was closed, because I wanted to take photos of the falls in the morning sun. I was told at the entrance that all parts of the park were open.

When I arrived near the parking lot at the Wapiti Trail head, which is very close to the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, access was blocked. This forced me to park on the north side of the falls. I took my pictures of the falls, and when I returned at about 11 a.m., access to the Wapiti Trail head was open. The grizzly sow and other dangerous animals were still present, and I learned later that no action had been taken to remove the bear and her cubs, nor have barriers been erected to separate dangerous animals from the tourists.

It is clear to me that the Park Service has not taken responsibility for reducing the danger from wild animals to any substantial extent. The behavior of Exxon Mobil is much better by comparison. The irony is that the political fallout has landed mostly on Exxon Mobil and not on the Park Service.

Jim Johnston ([email protected]) is an economic advisor to The Heartland Institute.