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2016: Yellowstone National Park breaks previous year’s visitation record

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2016 was another record-breaking year for visitation in Yellowstone National Park. The park tallied a total of 4.25 million visits this past year, a 3.9 percent increase from 2015 when nearly 4.1 million people visited the park and a whopping 21percent increase over 2014 numbers.

National park visitation was strong in Montana and Wyoming throughout the National Park Service’s centennial. Glacier National Park to the north of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park to its south also posted record years. 2016 was the third consecutive year that both parks set visitation records.

One of the most notable trends in recent years is the marked increase of commercial tour buses entering Yellowstone’s gates. In 2016, nearly 13,000 commercial bus tours were counted, a 21 percent increase over 2015 entries and a 46.5 percent increase from 2014 figures. Park management is currently considering options for commercial tour bus management.

Although the park does not include visitor nationality in its statistics, it’s significant that the park hired three interpretive rangers who speak Mandarin Chinese last year.

Yellowstone spokeswoman Linda Veress said unexpectedly high visitation in 2015 led the park to make changes in 2016 that included increased signage in multiple languages, more bathroom facilities in high-use areas and the creation of the Yellowstone Pledge, a 10-point standard of conduct designed to protect Yellowstone’s resources and keep visitors safe.

The Yellowstone Pledge directs people to refrain from approaching wildlife to take selfies; stay on boardwalks in thermal areas; and travel safely in bear country by carrying bear spray, making noise and hiking in groups.

Veress said she expects the increased visitation trend will continue into 2017.

“During the busiest times of the year, visitation levels in the park have led to long lines, traffic congestion, diminishing visitor experiences, and impacts on park resources,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk in a press release. “It’s our job to recognize the trend, how it’s affecting this magnificent park, understand our visitors, and what we may need to do to protect Yellowstone for future generations. All options are on the table.”

This past August, the park conducted social science studies to better understand visitors including their demographics, experiences, opinions and preferences. The data will help park managers make decisions that reflect the experiences and needs of visitors both in the present and in the future. The results of the study are expected this spring.

Taking a longer view, the growth of visitation over the last century is impressive. One hundred years ago, shortly after automobile travel was first permitted in Yellowstone, approximately 36,000 visitors came to the park. Fifty years ago in 1966, the park saw 2.13 million visits. Since that time, visitation has grown 99.8 percent.

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