By Ruffin Prevost
In 1962, pioneering wildlife biologists Frank and John Craighead attached a radio tracking collar to a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. It was the first time such gear had been used to track a large mammal, launching decades of continuing technological innovation in the field. Today, GPS satellite tracking collars gather a staggering array of fine-grained data about the movements and habits of a range of different species in Yellowstone.
But for the first time this summer—more than 50 years after that first grizzly was collared, and more than 100 years after cars were first allowed in the park—researchers will be using GPS trackers to learn more about how humans interact with Yellowstone’s roads and major attractions.
“We are finally starting to collar ourselves,” joked Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. Nickerson is one of the researchers conducting a study this summer that will place GPS-enabled tablets in the hands of randomly selected visitors as they enter Yellowstone.
The goal is to get solid, fine-scale data on how a broad cross-section of visitors travels across Yellowstone, as well as real-time feedback on how satisfied they are with their experiences at major attractions and in congested areas. The study will be a continuation of work begun in 2016 to learn more about vehicle traffic and visitor behavior following an unexpected surge in visitation the previous year.
According to Jody Lyle, Yellowstone’s chief of strategic communications, “2015 was a critical turning-point year,” for the park. “We had a 17 percent increase in visitation over the previous year and, honestly, the park was not prepared for that.”
The surge in visitors brought increased impacts to park resources and made it difficult for law enforcement and first responders to get to and from incident scenes, she said. In an effort to get a handle on the situation, park managers decided to first seek feedback from visitors and gateway communities. “We don’t want to fall into a trap of only looking through our own Park Service lens. It’s important for us to get other opinions and ideas,” Lyle said.
So a National Park Service social scientist led two studies in 2016 that looked at visitor experiences and vehicle traffic in the park. The Transportation and Vehicle Mobility Study found that the park’s busiest corridors in August were experiencing overflowing parking lots and frequent traffic jams, with places like Fishing Bridge, Canyon, and Old Faithful seeing nearly 30 percent more vehicles than roads can safely handle.
All that congestion didn’t go over well with those who came to see wildlife, scenic vistas, and thermal features, according to a Visitor Use Study conducted around the same time. More than half of those surveyed said there are too many people in the park and that roadway traffic and congestion were problems. Two thirds said parking was a problem.
Part of these problems stem from a 50 percent increase in visitation since 2000. Travelers in Yellowstone drive along alpine roads that were initially built for horse-drawn carriages. Roadside pullouts and parking lots can’t be expanded quickly enough to keep pace with the rising tide of summer sightseers.
Park managers have worked to make sure road repair and construction projects include widening shoulders and adding pullouts where possible and as budgets allow. But that process is complicated and unlikely on its own to solve traffic problems.
Christina White, a Yellowstone planner working on the visitor and traffic studies, said the National Park Service has not yet begun developing specific plans to address congestion issues. Park managers are still gathering data about why people choose to visit Yellowstone and how they move around in the park.
This summer’s surveys will run from May through September, White said, offering a broader picture than data gathered mainly in August 2016. While previous studies employed some surveys that visitors mailed back after they returned home, this summer’s work will use the GPS-enabled tablets and separate in-person “intercept surveys” at key spots to gather more real-time feedback from visitors, she said.
Nickerson said the tablets will gather anonymous data on vehicle speed, routes traveled, time spent at specific sites and other passive data, just like a GPS collar on an elk or wolf. But they will also use geofencing—a method of designating specific sites to trigger the devices—to ask visitors real-time questions about their experiences at busy spots like Old Faithful, Canyon, Grand Prismatic Spring, and elsewhere. She said the tablets have been used at ski resorts and in other outdoor recreation settings, but she was unaware of them being used in a national park before.
Researchers will ask participants to return the tablets at drop-boxes throughout the park as they exit, and the data can be immediately downloaded and reviewed to help fine-tune the process throughout the summer. In-person intercept surveys will be conducted at a variety of sites across the park. At least one interviewer will speak Mandarin, in an effort to learn more about the growing number of Chinese visitors coming to Yellowstone.
Park managers will use responses gathered this summer to help draft a range of potential options for relieving congestion and improving visitor experiences. They’ll present some of those potential options to visitors in a new round of survey questions in 2019, aimed at learning which alternatives are most or least acceptable to a broad spectrum of visitors.
The 2019 survey questions will focus on “trade-offs,” Lyle said. Visitors might be asked, for instance, if they would be willing to make a reservation to visit Old Faithful at a specific time of day if it meant they were assured of finding a parking spot. Or would they prefer the flexibility to visit any time if it meant they might spend a half-hour or more looking for parking?
Lyle also explained that the National Park Service at the national level is paying more attention to the issue of overcrowding, with parks like Arches and Yosemite struggling with congestion issues far beyond what Yellowstone is experiencing.
Trade-off questions aren’t fun to answer, and park managers are hardly excited to be asking them. But visitors’ trade-off views are likely to prove essential in finding the best path forward for ensuring a good experience for what is likely to be a steadily increasing stream of visitors to the world’s first national park.