Bison at Undine Falls in Yellowstone

Two wayward male bison travel on their own along a flat piece of land above the frozen Undine Falls Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at Yellowstone National Park.

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Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks closed to visitors Tuesday, taking another step in the effort to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

The two parks announced the closure in a joint news release Tuesday morning.

The closure shuts off visitor access to the parks. Roads that cross park and state boundaries will stay open, however, such as the stretch of U.S. Highway 191 between Big Sky and West Yellowstone that passes through the park.

The move came two days after Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and local health officials from counties bordering Yellowstone urged the park to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone, said the decision came after talking with numerous officials from Wyoming and Montana, including both governors and several local officials in gateway towns.

An end date has not been set. Sholly said park officials will evaluate the closure on an ongoing basis and stay in contact with the states and public health officials “with an eye on reopening when it’s safe to do so.”

“We’re all in this together and we’ll look to get out of it together,” he said.

It’s still winter in Yellowstone, meaning much of the park has been closed because of snow. Park staff began plowing interior roads March 15 with hopes of starting to open them in mid-April. Sholly said that work will continue.

One road stays open year-round — from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City. People who need to travel that route will still have access during the closure, Sholly said, with an emphasis on Cooke City residents, people who work there and people delivering supplies to the town. Rangers will staff the gate in Gardiner to screen people as they come through.

People won’t be allowed to stop on that road. Rangers will be patrolling. Public restrooms along the road will be closed.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton joined a growing list of national park closures and restrictions due to the virus. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee also announced Tuesday it would close to visitors.

It’s a change from last Wednesday, when the National Park Service announced it would temporarily suspend entrance fees at parks nationwide. That decision was criticized by conservation groups and others who said it ran counter to social distancing guidance and that it was the wrong time to encourage visitation to parks.

The same day the fee waiver was announced, Yellowstone closed off the Boiling River and the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs. But pressure for a full closure increased. Bullock and health officials from Gallatin and Park counties in Montana wrote letters to the park and the Interior Department on Sunday asking for a closure. The letters raised concerns that keeping the park open and not charging fees would bring in more visitors, threaten to overrun the region’s health care services and strain local businesses and governments.

Sholly said in a statement issued around 8 p.m. Monday that the park had received a “substantial number of requests” for a closure beginning Sunday. He said park leadership immediately started talking to higher ups in the park service and interior department about what should be done.

The closure was announced just before noon on Tuesday — a little less than 16 hours later.

Betsy Buffington, a regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement that the group supports the decision to close the parks, but that it recognizes the move won’t come without pain.

“These are difficult times for us all, but protecting park staff, surrounding communities and visitors is paramount,” Buffington said. “People across the country and beyond are making hard choices and personal sacrifices to ensure families, neighbors and communities stay safe.”

She added that she hopes visitors will reschedule their trips and “return to bask in the glory of the world’s first national park at a time when concerns for public health and safety have passed.”

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