Yellowstone asked to close

A group stops along Northeast Entrance Road on March 3 at Yellowstone.

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County health officials and Montana’s governor have urged the federal government to close the world’s first national park in order to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

Health officers in Park and Gallatin counties sent separate letters Sunday to the Secretary of the Interior urging a temporary closure of Yellowstone National Park.

And Montana Gov. Steve Bullock wrote a letter to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly saying that keeping the park open promotes unnecessary travel and “undermines our efforts to reduce exposures and exacerbates risks for all Montanans.”

“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.”

As of Monday afternoon, Yellowstone was still open. Linda Veress, a park spokeswoman, said Monday that park managers are constantly evaluating the situation because “things are changing so quickly.”

That could change. Bullock’s office said it expects a decision will be made Tuesday morning.

The push follows the Interior Department’s decision to waive park entrance fees nationwide, a move that has drawn criticism from national groups who say it encourages people to flock to parks during a time when health officials advise against large crowds.

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a group of retired park officials, was among the critics of that decision.

Yellowstone has already taken steps to limit crowding because of the virus. It shuttered the Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs and closed the Boiling River to the public earlier this month.

It’s a slower time of year for the park. Only the north entrance — in Gardiner — is open and staff are still plowing the interior roads. Most roads are scheduled to stay closed until April 17. Heavy visitation doesn’t pick up until May, though the park is fresh off its busiest February since 2002 — with a little more than 41,000 visits.

One road is open to cars all year — from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City — and the parking lots along it can be prone to crowding. Wildlife watching tours and other visitors use the same pullouts to set up spotting scopes to scan the landscape for wolves or grizzly bears.

The letters from the two counties, first reported by the Montana Free Press, raise concerns that bringing more people to the Yellowstone region during the global pandemic complicates local efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 and could strain local health care providers, government resources and people who live here.

“We have historically welcomed visitors to share in our beautiful culture, scenery, wildlife and open spaces,” wrote Laurel Desnick, the Park County health officer. “However, at this time, increased tourism puts our citizens and resources at unnecessary risk.”

Matt Kelley, public health officer at the Gallatin City-County Health Department, said the letters grew out of concern that the interior department was encouraging people to visit parks during the pandemic. He added that a temporary closure would help protect health care services from becoming overrun with people.

“Now is not the time for tourism,” Kelley said. “We need people to stay home.”

Desnick said Park County residents had raised concerns with the level of visitation the park had seen this winter amid the pandemic. Even she was surprised at the crowds when she went to the park on Saturday.

“I’ve been here for decades and was absolutely shocked at the number of cars passing through the Mammoth gate,” she said.

Guided wildlife watching tours fuel some of the winter traffic, with visitors coming in from all over to have a guide take them to see wolves or other animals. Some of those businesses have already shut down for the season, not wanting to risk spreading the virus.

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.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.