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Yellowstone Spring 2020 Trip Report, Days 5 & 6

June 6, 2020

I allowed us to sleep in on Saturday morning. All the way until five o’clock. We both needed it, but it did little good. I got very little sleep Friday night, probably because I’ve been processing too many photos for these reports. There’s a simple solution to that, however: Don’t find any wildlife in the park!

Saturday was perfect in that sense.

Looking back, the morning is a bit of a haze. It felt that way in real-time too. We were both zombies, sort of going through the motions as we drove along the northern road. The park was very quiet too, so everything just felt like a slog. Movement was slow both inside and outside the car, like I was wading through a pool of cake batter (not molasses… that’s clichéd and not nearly goopy enough to adequately represent the malaise).

There was one brief spark that made us perk up. As we approached Floating Island Lake, we spied a black bear sow and her two yearling cubs running down the hill. They were on the run from something (I surmised it to be another bear, as we’ve seen a lone black in the area). They approached a tree and quickly started to climb… even mom.

Black Bears

She didn’t make it very far before changing her mind. Adult black bears don’t have much trouble climbing trees, but perhaps this one had too big a breakfast. She quickly gave up and walked off. Then the cubs followed, they all ran a little farther on (only like 30 yards), and then stopped, settled and started to graze. Eventually, they disappeared into the trees.

Bears were the only thing we touched our cameras for during the first couple hours this morning. There was a small black yearling grazing along a treacherous stretch of road past Hellroaring. It seems there’s always a small black yearling grazing in this area every spring. Maybe it’s the same tiny bear, but it’s actually 15 years old.

The sun was shining in the Lamar Valley when we eventually drove back through. A lone wolf sat backlit on the hillside far from the road, then walked away. A bit farther east, a trio of grizzlies were hidden among the wildflowers dotting the high slopes. They may have had a carcass there, as a couple of coyotes were also roaming the area and ravens flew overhead.

We were still struggling to wake up at this point. I figured the best solution was to go for a hike. I was silently plotting a return to Trout Lake. Otters are a cure-all, I figured. I didn’t say anything to my father. He had no idea I was about to unleash that hill on him. But when we arrived at the trailhead, some folks were just coming down. They hadn’t seen any sign of otters. So I offered my dad an alternative. We could go on walkabout and explore an area I’d only visited once before to search for owls.

He was actually game, so we got moving. The first hill was tough. It was perhaps worse than the Trout Lake trail. By the time I got up into the meadows, my heart was pounding in a booming accelerando. Wait, no. That was actually a Ruffed Grouse drumming somewhere off in the woods.

We spent a lot of time scouring the edges of different meadows. A Western Tanager alighted in a nearby tree, so I got to photograph something.

Western Tanager

A couple of times, I ventured solo into the woods to take a quick look around. Didn’t find much until I came across a massive pile of grizzly bear scat (we’d found black bear scat earlier). Soon after that, another pile. I’ll spare you the pictures. It didn’t look recent (maybe a day old), but naturally I kept my eyes peeled and continued to call out as I always do when bushwhacking.

No bears or owls, so we began to descend. We’d been hearing a woodpecker of some sort going to town below the top meadow, so we headed that way. We didn’t actually find the noisy one (I suspect it was a flicker), but we did find a quieter Three-toed Woodpecker! I haven’t seen these too often in the park, and it was my father’s first. A nice reward for all the effort we put in over two hours.

Three-toed Woodpecker

When we returned to the parking lot at last, it was time to head home for a much-needed nap. But first we stopped to see what all the fuss was about in Round Prairie. Another distant wolf, way out in the meadow. Okay, time for bed.

The nap did wonders, as one might expect, and I thought we were in for a good afternoon. But I read about the closing of the Yellowstone Institute (more on that later), and felt like I needed a pick-me-up… in the form of a Stop the Car Trading Post milkshake of course! Buffalo Chip, this time.

My goal for the afternoon was to head west, since I’d received a report of some activity on the Old Gardiner Road. There was very little going on during our drive over, but when we reached Mammoth (lots of Western Tanagers around!), we discovered that the road was closed again. But we had a backup plan in place which was just as exciting: gas and groceries in Gardiner. After we returned to the park, it was obvious that the weather was about to turn nasty again. More lightning! Still, I wanted to make a quick run up to Swan Lake Flat in case a bear was around. Some folks were looking way off in the distance, but there was nothing that convinced us to stop.

The drive home was messy. Rain, hard rain, and more lightning. When we entered the Lamar, we could see a mist rising off the valley floor. Details were obscured. Everything was mushy and opaque. In other words, the valley looked the way I felt in the morning!

This bison was not wet enough, apparently. It went for a swim before running up to cross the road.

Bison

A bull moose didn’t mind getting wet either as it grazed across from the Soda Butte Creek Picnic Area. Then as we arrived in Silver Gate, a lightning bolt crashed down in the hills just beyond town. We were in for a long, wet night.

 

June 7, 2020

Apparently I still did too much shooting on Saturday, because Sunday saw even less action. Once again we made a valiant effort to get to Hayden Valley early (3:30 wakeup, 4am departure), after getting reports that the wolves and bears down south had been active. The dark roads were a bit more hazardous this time. Bison on the road were silhouetted by the large moon peeking through the clouds above. Beautiful, but a bit tense in the darkness.

We made good time. There were far too many clouds for any sort of decent sunrise, but some bright patches eventually shone through the dark cover. Wolves (beyond a distant one we never saw) weren’t out, so I spent most of my efforts photographing on bull bison silhouetted against the varied sky.

American Bison

I actually did go back three times to shoot him, and on the fourth go got turned away when my dramatic background suddenly vanished.

During one of those attempts, the valley was filled with a chorus of howls from the trees to the west. The wolves were near, but remained hidden.

Attempts to locate bears, owls, and the wolves failed repeatedly the rest of the morning. On our final pass north through Hayden Valley I did find an excuse to finally break out the Lensbaby, which I haven’t used here in ages.

American Bison

I had yet to touch my big lens, and it was looking like it wouldn’t be used the rest of the day. We went to Gardiner for supplies, and then it was time to drive home. Passing through Little America, a departing (small) grizzly caused a massive jam. In the Lamar, I finally found my excuse to break out the 600mm. Folks were gathered by the road pointing up at the northern hillside. I thought maybe it was a badger, but it turned out to be a newborn pronghorn fawn, less than an hour old.

Pronghorn Fawn

I had been dropped off so I could walk down to join the others, and realized too late that I accidentally left my rain cover in the car. So when the skies opened up, my jacket went on the camera and lens, and I got soaked by rain and hail. It felt miserable to me, but imagine how that fawn was feeling. Welcome to the world.

One more stop on the way, as what appeared to be the same fox from two evenings ago was hunting in the Upper Barronette meadow. I only got to see it cross the road, and then it moused a bit along the pavement as we were trying to drive home. The car in front of us kept driving parallel to it, so we couldn’t pass safely, nor could we stop and shoot… we were forced to sit and watch until they were done getting all their pictures.

We arrived in Silver Gate to greet our first cabin guest of the season (hooray!), and, after changing out of my wet clothes, I managed to soak another pair of clothes by walking to the Stop the Car for goodies. Not sure how wet it’s going to be tomorrow, but at least I can say we’re not waking up at 3:30!


A Note About the Yellowstone Institute

It was announced yesterday that Yellowstone Forever has chosen to shut down the Yellowstone Institute. The Institute was formed in 1976, and served countless park visitors in the form of classes, workshops, and field trips covering a variety of subjects pertaining to Yellowstone’s ecology and history.

As part of the Yellowstone Association, the Institute was merged with the Yellowstone Park Foundation to form Yellowstone Forever a few years ago. Update, 6/8/20: Tyrene Riedl, who was just laid off as part of the Institute closure, provided a detailed history and timeline of the Institute, all the way to present day and the current situation. Read the timeline at the bottom of this page.

Prior to the merger, I had long been supporting the Yellowstone Park Foundation through donations from my online store sales. I original chose YPF in order to help fund park improvement projects. Little did I know that this merger brought some of the worst aspects of YPF to the forefront of the new Yellowstone Forever. Soon this new combined non-profit was making headlines for all the wrong reasons: financial mismanagement and greed from its executives. When these problems came to light, I suspended my own donations to Yellowstone Forever (which I had continued making following the merger), pending noticeable improvement of their operating style. Despite the ouster of their CEO, YF’s problems persisted.

The first victims in this process were YF’s many laid-off employees. Now the Institute has been taken to the chopping block, sacrificing even more employees (the Institute was actually the second-largest employer in Gardiner, after the national park itself!), as well as the collective knowledge and intangible assets the organization provided park visitors throughout the years. Numerous people I know have worked, taught, or guided for the Institute. Many others have participated in and learned from its programs and courses over the years.

Regarding the Institute, Dr. James Halfpenny wrote, “(it) represented the largest collective knowledge of all aspects of Yellowstone National Park possible. Never again will there be such a collection of knowledge and participation as we’ve enjoyed over the decades.”

The loss of such a valuable educational tool will do great harm to the park itself, as the Institute expanded visitors’ knowledge and appreciation for the many aspects of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A whole team of enthusiastic park ambassadors can no longer ply their trade. And it’s safe to assume that this decision will likely harm Yellowstone Forever more than help it. They already suffered from enough bad publicity prior to this announcement, which was affecting donations (I’m proof of that). Imagine what this move by a misguided and seemingly-money-hungry board will do for their public image.

In a statement regarding the closure (describing it as a “suspension”) of the Institute, Yellowstone Forever cited financial struggles and the aftermath of COVID-19 as justification for the decision. However, the financial viability of the Institute itself has never been in question, according to those familiar with the organization and its finances. In an open letter to park superintendent Cameron Sholly, Carolyn Harwood Bulin wrote about the subterfuge and skewed facts putting the Institute at risk before the decision was even announced. I hope you’ll take time to read this powerful letter (below) and consider what this decision means for the future of park education. Like many others, I now hope that the Institute can be resurrected in some form, independent of the corporate powers that latched onto it and guided it toward its demise.

Carolyn Harwood Bulin’s Letter:

An open letter to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly. I wrote this before we got word that the Institute was being dissolved, hence the speculative tense – but the truth remains the same.

Cam, I am writing because I am once again gravely concerned about the future of Yellowstone Forever.

A year ago, I was optimistic that the organization was ready to heal after the removal of Heather White. Now it is clear that the real problem is much bigger, and it is so grave that I can’t afford the luxury of tact, so instead I will be blunt: In order for Yellowstone Forever to survive, our Board needs a serious overhaul. First and foremost, Board Chair Kay Yeager and acting President & CEO Edna Johnson must go.

The staff who work tirelessly every day to support Yellowstone Forever’s mission and Yellowstone National Park dedicate our lives to being the very best possible partners to the park. It is disheartening and, frankly, embarrassing that the Board continues to throw away our hard work and your funding.

You may recall that when the Board removed Heather a year ago, some Board members were reluctant to act; some tried to claim that Heather had misled them and that the Board didn’t understand the true financial situation of the organization. At that time, they pledged to help the organization heal financially. Over the past year, however, we have seen zero positive change in our Board’s actions, and no evidence that they have learned any lessons from the hardships we faced then.

On the contrary, we have seen ample evidence that the Board, not Heather, was and is the real problem. We continue to see the same – let’s call it what it is – bullshit: financial dishonesty, lying about the trajectory of the organization, incompetence, and disregard for the hard work that all of us – Yellowstone National Park and Yellowstone Forever staff alike – put forth to preserve this place for future generations.

For example, it is no secret among YF staff that some Board members strongly resisted Heather’s removal, or that some of them are still in close, friendly contact with her in spite of the lasting damage she inflicted upon this organization.

Further breeding distrust, Board Chair Kay Yeager continues to be dishonest with staff. When John Walda abruptly departed last month, the explanation that Kay provided to staff via e-mail (that John’s 1-year interim term was up) was a flat-out lie. That sort of dishonesty is just the tip of the iceberg of lies, and feeds a distrust of the entire Board as well as any President & CEO whom the Board appoints or hires.

As long as our current Board “leadership” remains in place, there will be no trust within this organization, and therefore the organization will never function to its full potential.

Finally, I understand that there has been recent discussion among the Board about dissolving the Institute under the guise that the Institute loses money, which is another lie. I trust that you have been or will be in contact with YF staff who know more about the organization’s financial situation than I do. In case you are unaware, they can explain to you how the organization’s financial records have been adjusted to tell the narrative that the Institute loses money.

For now, please be aware that when Edna tells you at the Board meetings next week that the Institute is losing money, and when she tries to blame the collapse of the Institute on the economic impacts of COVID-19: Since 2016, the Institute has always made money and demonstrated annual growth in numbers of participants and in revenue; and the poor leadership decisions that have put the organization in such a vulnerable financial position were made by this Board well before COVID-19 existed, so using the pandemic as an excuse is a cowardly cover-up of their lack of leadership.

Furthermore, pre-merger the Yellowstone Association and its Institute were on solid financial footing: All buildings and other assets were completely paid for, largely as a result of a Capital Campaign that was successful because donors wanted to support education; the organization as a whole was in the black annually, and the Institute operated on a break-even budget. Since 2016, the Institute has gone from a break-even budget to a revenue-generating budget, (and, again, has seen regular increases in participants served and in revenue earned).

Please know that I bring up YA pre-merger not to make this a YA vs. YPF issue, and not to blame our current misfortunes on the merger per se. Instead, it is to say that an Institute in Yellowstone has been successful since the 1970s, is currently successful, and can continue to be successful if the truth is told.

Many staff across the organization have embraced the merger; we have spent countless hours tirelessly explaining to Institute participants, donors, community members, and supporters that the merger has been a good thing, that education and philanthropy support one another, and that we can accomplish more as one organization than we could as two.

We all desperately want that to be true. We have poured our hearts and our souls into trying to make that come true. But as long as our Board “leadership” continues to mislead us, continues to lie to you, and continues to fail, that will never be true.

If the Board chooses to inflict further damage by dissolving the Institute, the organization will not recover. Donors want to support education in addition to the dozens of other projects for which we raise funds. Donors have been skeptical for years about the merger, and if the Institute is dissolved under the guise of COVID-19 impacts, legions of supporters will know the truth. Yellowstone Forever’s reputation will not recover again, and there will be dire impacts on project funding for the park. If our philanthropy team is struggling to raise money now, how are they supposed to do so in the face of such additional adversity?

I have been deeply connected to Yellowstone National Park for more than two decades, and have had the honor and privilege of working to preserve it for nearly a decade. I met my husband here; a year ago we bought a house in Gardiner, and this summer we will welcome our first child into the world. We intend to raise our family here, contribute to this wonderful community, and dedicate our lives to preserving this park.

Many YF staff have stories like ours. Many of us have dedicated years or decades to this organization and this place, and many of us intend to continue to do just that for decades to come. What we need is honest Board leadership that supports our work before it is too late.”

 

Tyrene Riedl’s Timeline of the Institute (including some interesting financial facts):

“I apologize for incorrect dates. My notes and resources are scattered and at times inconsistent. But the time frames are accurate.

1933
The Yellowstone Association is established as a research library

1976
The Yellowstone Association Institute is ceated as an extension of the Yellowstone Research Library to provide field based educational opportunities by offering programming to the public designed to inspire, educate, and encourage preservation.

1979
The National Park Service allows the YA Institute to use the Lamar Buffalo Ranch bunkhouse for in-depth, topic specific educational opportunities. These became known as field seminars and are taught by experts in their respective fields.

1981
18 guest cabins are relocated from the former Fishing Bridge lodging facility to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch to allow field seminar participants a truly immersive Yellowstone educational experience by providing overnight accommodations in the heart of the Lamar Valley.

1993
The Yellowstone Association Institute moves to the Chittenden House in Mammoth Hot Springs.

1995
Gray wolves are re-established in Yellowstone after a 69 year absence. The Rose Creek pack acclimation pen is located behind the Buffalo Ranch. It still stands today. For 2 decades, 1000’s of previous YA/YF participants have been gifted a chance to stand in that pen and share a deep connection with our human history, ecological processes, and one of the greatest conservation successes in history. It is humbling and it is spiritual.

1996
Yellowstone Park Foundation is created as a philanthropic partner to the NPS to support major park projects.

2005
Yellowstone Association moves from Mammoth to the Arch House in Gardiner Montana.

2010
Diana Blank generously donates the property that becomes the Yellowstone Association Overlook Campus. While it provides lodging for any program participant, it’s greatest benefit is allowing our youth programs an affordable housing option from which to participate in field based experiential learning within Yellowstone National Park. Thousands of young adults have graced the grounds of the Overlook campus as they enrich their understanding of the natural world.

2013
Yellowstone Association Institute moves into the newly converted office space at the Arch House, a Robert Reamer building, in Gardiner.

2016 – November
Yellowstone Park Foundation & Yellowstone Association merge. Heather White is hired as the new CEO. She joins the organization with a team of colleagues spanning the United States. They have little experience with Yellowstone. Some have never been here.

2017
The official roll out of the new Yellowstone Forever “brand” is complete. The former “YA” board members, are replaced with a new board, led by Chairwoman Kay Yeager, focusing heavily on philanthropy.

2017-2019
While YA, growing to include the Institute, has for 87 years, either broken even or generated revenue, the new board continues to approve a massive increase in spending that ultimately puts the organization in deep financial trouble.

May 2019
The board members & CEO Heather White choose to lay off several long term employees, many of whom began as YA employees, under the guise of cost saving at a time that financial disclosure is illuminating glaring mismanagement of funds.

June 2019
Heather White resigns her position as CEO of Yellowstone Forever under both internal and external pressure. Board member John Walda takes over as interim CEO.

End of 2019
The Yellowstone Forever Institute is still operating in the black, continuing to generate much needed revenue for the entire organization.

March 2020
Most Institute staff is furloughed due to the park closure stemming from Covid-19. This is the ONLY thing within YF (a lack of work requiring furlough due to park being closed) that can be blamed on the pandemic.

April-May 2020
John Walda resigns and Edna Johnson takes over as interim CEO. Most of us still don’t why. We don’t hear a peep from Edna or the board for 2 months.

June 5, 2020
Yellowstone Forever’s Board of Directors – under the guidance of Chairwoman Kay Yeager – makes the choice to suspend, with no end date and no messaging regarding a true commitment to re-instate – 87 years of park research, visitor education, and tireless preservation efforts. We are contacted by phone by the HR Director.

To sum up:

1933-2016 (83 years)
Yellowstone Association operates at a self sustaining level to support park research, education, and projects.

2017-2020 (3+ years)
Yellowstone Forever is established, under new leadership, and within 2 and a half years the organization is in deep financial trouble – resulting in the elimination of the educational, and financially stable, face of the organization.”
 

Both the letter and timeline above are shared with permission from their authors.

4 Comments

  1. Laura Collins June 9, 2020 Reply

    Thanks so much for the pictures and story of your adventure in Yellowstone! Also, it is a sad day for the Yellowstone Institute and the financial woes it has experienced. Any chance criminal charges can be brought against the board for financial malfeasance? Maybe recoup some of the money lost.
    Yellowstone has lost an important educational feature of it’s park.

    • Author
      Max June 9, 2020 Reply

      Hi Laura. I’m not really sure how that could all work. The previous CEO simply lost her job, but escaped any sort of liability as far as I know. I’m not familiar enough with management and boards to know if they’ll get in hot water.

  2. Sue Reigle June 10, 2020 Reply

    Max, so enjoyable as always; few photographs or not! Loved mama black bear and the two cubs tree climbing as well as the stark shot of the bison in black and white. Really had to chuckle at your haziness and malaise at your & Dad’s early rising! No judgement now but since retired I love being able to sleep in past 8 a.m. or so, and the few times I’ve needed to be up early (like 5 or 6, for medical reasons, tests, etc) my “feelings” were just as you described, ha ha!! Keep up these great reports!! Sue😊

    • Author
      Max June 10, 2020 Reply

      Thank you, Sue!

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