In the weeks following Glacier National Park’s phased reopening in June, hikers and backpackers swarmed the park. Weeks later, Glacier National Park spokesperson Gina Kerzman says, the lots fill so quickly that the Park Service often has to close them to traffic early in the day.
Those crowds are exactly what the Blackfeet Nation hopes to avoid. At the end of June, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voted to close roads to non-essential travel within the reservation, eliminating outsider access to Glacier National Park’s eastern entrances.
Montana, where the Blackfeet reservation is located, hasn’t been hit as hard by coronavirus as most other states—only Hawaii has a lower infection rate. However, new COVID cases have increased dramatically over the past week. On July 8, Montana reported a record-breaking 96 new cases in the state, the largest jump in cases in a single day since the outbreak began. Out of 1,466 cases, 15 to 18 of them are on the Blackfeet Reservation, according to Eileen Henderson, public information officer for the Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command. The reservation is currently under a 14-day stay-at-home order, and has banned all public gatherings.
The reservation’s location in a rural area with limited healthcare facilities makes it vulnerable to a possible outbreak brought in by tourists. One of the council’s stated reasons in imposing a closure was to protect the community’s elders, who are more likely to die or suffer severe health consequences from COVID-19. Mark Pollock, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said in a recorded announcement on Facebook that many of the elders carry “knowledge that hasn’t been passed on yet.”
“We have a high rate of our population that does not know the Blackfeet language,” Henderson said. “So losing the elders and losing that language, losing those teachers and educators, is something that is detrimental to the Blackfeet culture.”
The closure of Glacier National Park’s eastern entrances will continue until the end of the tourist season, around August or September, when Kerzman says visitors begin to taper off.
In the meantime, the park is devising ways to better manage the crowds that have concentrated on the park’s western side. Along with the closure, buses and shuttles are suspended, making it hard to effectively disperse visitors and putting more pressure on parking. In response, the park is considering implementing a ticketed entry system, like what Rocky Mountain National Park has put in place. Park authorities hope to avoid crowding Going-to-the-Sun Road, a high-elevation path that traverses Glacier and will provide access to more remote hiking trails when its upper section opens.
Both the Park Service and Blackfeet authorities say they hope to quickly return to a semblance of peace. In the meantime, says Pollock, “wear your mask. Be safe for yourself, be safe for your family.”