Yellowstone, Grand Teton chiefs discuss range of issues in Cody

Heavy snow this winter and lingering wet, cold weather this spring has made travel in Yellowstone National Park a tricky proposition for some early visitors. Superintendent Dan Wenk said Monday that early park visitors should keep in mind that additional slides may cause temporary road closures.

“Every entrance road has had a temporary closure,” Wenk said. “We will continue to ensure the safety of visitors while staying open to the greatest extent possible.”

Speaking at the annual National Parks Day Luncheon in Cody, Wyo., the superintendent also updated tourism representatives and business people about renovations at Lake Hotel and Canyon, wildlife issues and an upcoming National Geographic special edition.

David Vela, new superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, also spoke, introducing himself for the first time to Cody and speaking about his passion for making national parks relevant to young people.

Even as crews clear Dunraven Pass and the Beartooth Highway in anticipation of opening Friday, Wenk noted that Yellowstone received unusually heavy snow during the winter and that’s been evident along the primary entrance roads since they opened May 9.

“I was on Sylvan Pass the day it opened and we were watching the slides coming down,” Wenk said.

Recalling the heroic efforts by gateway communities last year to open park roads in the face of a federal government shutdown, Wenk said that achievement might not have been possible this year because the snowpack is so much heavier.

Park roads have been subject to temporary closures, notably for three hours May 2 at the East Entrance because of avalanche activity on Sylvan Pass.

Wenk expressed excitement about ongoing work by National Geographic focusing in-depth on the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Photography and research will be vigorous during the next 15 months, toward an expected November 2015 publication.

“National Geographic will explore not only the ecosystem but also the threats to the ecosystem, the importance of the surrounding communities, the opportunities, problems, and what we have to do to keep Yellowstone vibrant,” Wenk said.

In his update on facilities, Wenk said ongoing renovations to the east wing of Lake Hotel, spearheaded by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, are “dramatic” and, when completed, will leave the hotel in the best shape it’s been in for 50 or 60 years.

All of the hotel, including the dining room and lobby remain open during the work and the hotel has begun accepting reservations for east wing rooms as of June 20, according to Rick Hoeninghausen, Xanterra’s director of sales and marketing.

Renovation of the east wing is the final phase of a project that began the day the hotel closed for the 2012 summer season. The last substantial renovations of the hotel, more than 120 years old, occurred in the late 1980s.

Wenk said dramatic improvements are also underway at Canyon Lodge where Xanterra is preparing to build five modern lodges to replace cabins from the 1950s and 60s. He said the new lodges will be modern and more compact than the old units, creating less impact on the environment.

“You’ll start to see the first foundations going in, and the first one or two lodges will be opening by August or Fall 2015,” Wenk said.

On wildlife and mangement issues, Wenk said it’s an “incredible thing” that a sustainable winter-use plan, “slogged out” for 15 years, has yet to receive a court challenge. Should a challenge arise, the superintendent said the park is ready to defend it.

Yellowstone officials were expecting to meet later Monday with the Montana Department of Livestock to discuss whether it’s time to haze bison back into the park. Bison management at the Montana line continues to pose the most difficult wildlife challenge, Wenk said.

Meantime, efforts to restore Yellowstone cutthroat trout are paying off with the first-ever signs of an actual rebound as counts of juvenile fish in Yellowstone Lake have increased. During the past three years, an estimated 850,000 invasive lake trout have been removed in a partnership with conservationists.

The park chief told the story of a sign in his office that proclaims “Lake Trout Kill Elk.” He recalled that grizzlies used to eat cutthroats but as the cutthroat population diminished due to predatory lake trout, the grizzlies turned to eating more elk calves.

On his first visit to Cody, Teton’s superintendent, David Vela, recalled a trip to Yellowstone he took in his teens. Admiring the park rangers, he realized what his calling would be in life. With a park service career dating to 1981, Vela has covered a lot of territory as a ranger or superintendent from Texas to Virginia and Philadelphia.

“This is my 11th move,” he said, “and I can’t think of a more welcoming community and state.”

Prior to being named Teton superintendent, Vela was associate director of Workforce, Relevancy and Inclusion at the NPS Washington, D.C., headquarters. He’ll be putting the passion he pursued there to work in Grand Teton.

“When we look at the next generation coming up, they have a different way of thinking,” Vela said. “And this is the next generation of land-management stewards. My focus is to make sure the national parks are relevant to them. If they’re not relevant to this generation, who’s going to carry the ball?”

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