CODY — The first time Cameron Sholly worked at Yellowstone National Park he was a lower grade employee than he is now.
The new superintendent of the world’s oldest national park is 49. When he worked in the maintenance division he was in his early 20s. In his new assignment, Sholly, who succeeded Dan Wenk last fall, will have a broader perspective, being responsible for just about everybody and everything as opposed to just picking up trash.
A career National Park Service executive, Sholly is the front man for the most beloved and best-known Park in the system. He speaks for the other workers, the bears, the bison, the wolves and the other inhabitants of the 2-million-acre landscape, as well as speaking to the millions of Yellowstone fans who cherish the Park’s mission to protect and preserve for future generations.
“People take a lot of pride in it,” Sholly said in a recent interview. “It is one of the few places in the Lower 48 states where Americans can view the type of wildlife up close that roamed the West a century-and-a-half ago. I think a lot of it is the diversity and the wilderness of this park.”
Sholly’s most recent Park Service assignment, starting in 2015, was as the Midwest Regional Director, overseeing 2,000 employees and a $250 million budget and 61 Park Sites distributed across 13 states. Previously, Sholly, who goes by Cam, was the Associate Director for Visitor and Resources Protection at Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Also, Sholly as superintendent of Natchez Trace Parkway, and was superintendent of the year for the southeastern region. In addition, Sholly was chief of rangers branch at Yosemite National Park.
In the waning days of Wenk’s administration, which ended in controversy when he was replaced in the job before his planned retirement, there was much talk about managing the Park’s bison and whether the hordes of people who have been visiting Yellowstone at the rate of more than 4 million per year since 2015, may overwhelm the facilities and create too much overcrowding.
Bison management has been a testy topic. Montana ranchers worry that brucellosis-infected bison will harm their cattle herds. The Interagency Bison Management Plan has set a Yellowstone herd size goal in the mid-3,000s. Annually bison are culled to reduce the population. At the same time the Park has agreements with Montana Native American tribes to quarantine and set aside some bison that can be transferred to those groups to jump-start their own herds.
Sholly said after culling this winter the Yellowstone bison population should be in “the low 4,000s. We feel that’s a good population to try and hit.”
When surveyed, Yellowstone tourists say the chance to see bison in the wild is high on the list of reasons they come to Wyoming and Montana for a Park visit.
“Visitors rank bison as the top thing to look at,” Sholly said.
The National Park Service’s 100th anniversary celebration was in 2016 and the agency advertised heavily, urging Americans to visit their national parks. Yellowstone officials prepared for a strong influx of visitors that year, but were surprised when a new attendance record was set in 2015 instead.
Nearly 4.1 million people came to the Park that year. The total was unexpected because 2014 attendance was 3.5 million. When the year-long observance of the Park Service anniversary took place, the record grew again, with 4,257,177 visitors catalogued. That remains the single-year attendance record for Yellowstone. However, in 2017 visitation topped 4,116,000 and in 2018, attendance nearly equaled it at 4,115,000.
This raised the issue of whether Yellowstone fans were in danger of loving the Park to death. Under Wenk, some statistical surveys were taken to gauge trends. They examined the timing of visits (the heart of the summer always being busiest) and the areas of the Park where traffic jams actually caused by traffic and not bison sashaying along the road.
While no decisions have been made about in-Park travel, many options have been discussed. One prospect would be banning private automobiles from Yellowstone altogether and relying solely on bus service. Another idea is to institute shuttle buses to carry people between two popular sites while their cars remain parked as they travel.
While Yellowstone attendance has held fairly steady for four years around the 4 million mark, Sholly said that doesn’t mean it couldn’t continue to expand to new levels. Different solutions could be applied if growth still shoots up.
“Protection of this place has to be the priority,” Sholly said.
Regular Park visitors recognize from being in the midst of the action, rather than studying statistics, that some areas are burdened with heavy traffic on select days and in other regions of the Park drivers can flow along without difficulty at 45 mph. The Old Faithful region is often more crowded than anywhere else and the nearby roads deal with the comings and goings of vehicles to the internationally renowned geyser.
Places like Cody and Jackson, and West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City, Mont., represent approaches to the Park from different entrances. Those communities are heavily linked to Yellowstone business. If changes are in the offing, Sholly said, there will be meetings with authorities from those cities.
How travel changes may apply to cars and buses will be topics of discussion with those communities’ leaders before anything is done.
“I really commend Dan Wenk for proactively getting those surveys out,” Sholly said. “I consider us in the data-gathering phase.”
Any commitment to alternative strategies is “premature,” Sholly said. “But I do believe there are certain corridors that are busier than others.”
As previous superintendents have done, Sholly expects to visit Cody for its annual National Parks Day luncheon in the spring, around the time the Park’s East Gate opens for the summer season.
Sholly’s earliest days on the job overlapped with the conclusion of the summer season, the Park’s closure between summer and winter and the slower winter season. Then came the 35-day government shutdown as President Trump and Congress sparred over budgetary funding.
More recently, Sholly has taken periodic trips inside the Park to visit snowbound sites.
“It’s a beautiful place in the winter,” Sholly said. “It’s a spectacular place.”