In past years, the first day in Yellowstone involved driving up from the Tetons, with stops at the West Thumb geyser basin before hitting the iconic site of Old Faithful. This year, our introduction to the park began with Yellowstone Lake.
We entered Yellowstone through the East Entrance, which brought us to the Lake Overlook. This was the site for my first mini-lectures, on wilderness, Native traditions of the region, and the Lake ecosystem.
Historically, cutthroat trout have provided a key part of the ecosystem here. When they spawn in the creeks around Yellowstone Lake, they provide a spring food source for grizzly bears. They also feed otters, ospreys, eagles, pelicans, and many smaller predators.
It looks pristine — but not all is well. Cutthroat trout populations are suffering at the hands of non-native Lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Those trout live in deep water and spawn in the lake’s depths, making them unavailable as a food source for predators. They also eat the native cutthroats.
Other waters face their own challenges. Fly fishers say the hatches of nymphs and flies are not what they used to be. Acid rain from industrial areas to the west is changing the pH of these waters, leaching trace minerals that are key nutrients for bighorn sheep.
Changes in wetlands, lakes and rivers have also harmed Yellowstone’s amphibians. Though they are not as abundant as they used to be, we found some Tiger salamanders later in the week, at Lake Isa, on our annual salamander hunt.
In addition to these human-caused threats to the ecosystem, the Greater Yellowstone Area is in a period of extended drought. These periods have happened regularly in the park’s history, so we need not assume that global climate change is responsible. Drought has important political implications throughout the West. Industry, consumers, and especially agriculture rely on water, and water authorities must work to find new sources in a drought.
Historically the need for water has led to pressures to build dams and other projects in western national parks. In Grand Teton National Park, a dam raises the level of Jackson Lake by nine feet, water that supplies the potato farmers of Idaho’s Snake River Valley. Farmers have also cast covetous eyes at Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River, the Snake River inside Yellowstone, and the many rivers of the Bechler region in the southwest of the park. Unlike other iconic parks – Yosemite, Glacier, Rocky Mountain – there are no dams here. But there’s always the potential for new demands.
After visiting the Lake Overview, we drove to a trailhead where we saw our first bison. We hiked to Storm Point, where we were treated to wind, high waves, and a light squall. We saw the local marmot colony before returning to the van. A quick stop at the Fishing Bridge visitor center and then the West Thumb geysers completed the day.
For further reading on the health of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, check out Jack Turner’s Travels in the Greater Yellowstone.