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The 2.2-million acre Yellowstone National Park provides visitors with one of the biggest wildlife displays on the planet. And with the exception of small dips in visitation over the course of the pandemic, the park has only grown in popularity. However, the number of employees that the National Park Service within the park employs has flatlined over the past decade, leveling out at about 800 people, and many of the workers are experiencing burnout.
In an interview with Cowboy State Daily, the park’s superintendent, Cam Sholly, said that Yellowstone is struggling “with the same recruitment and retention issues that many other federal and even nonfederal organizations struggle with. And it’s gotten worse post-COVID.” Not only has the park had to work hard to find employees, but it has also been unable to retain them long-term.
Despite attempts to reinforce its workforce, the park continues to lose staff members every year. Yellowstone isn’t alone in its struggle; nearby companies are facing the same problem.
“Even our concessionaires in the park that normally employ 3,000 to 4,000 people a year have struggled with getting quality candidates to come in the right numbers to manage the restaurants and the hotels,” said Sholly. The park’s nearby lodges are responsible for employing thousands of people every year, and they’ve found it challenging to staff their properties as well.
Park employees who do choose to stick it out will spend their time educating the public, patrolling the region, monitoring potential risks such as wildfires, and acting as the main law enforcement team within the park. Others are responsible for emergency response and maintenance, attending to 2,500 garbage cans and 750 bathrooms on a daily basis. Along with crowd levels, employee responsibilities only seem to be growing, which could contribute to high turnover rates.
The demands of the job could be one thing keeping park enthusiasts away from an employee contract. Extreme living conditions and difficulty finding viable housing are additional reasons for the absence of workers. In 2019, the park’s Property and Environment Research Center’s chief executive officer, Brian Yablonski, visited the Young Adult Conservation Corps Camp, which hosts some of the park’s seasonal employees every year. Upon entering the units, it quickly became clear that they were infested and contaminated with mold.
Since initially identifying some of the contamination issues, park officials have made progress in replacing unusable trailers with the specific intention of retaining employees. Between 2018 and 2022, about 40 percent of the park’s housing saw significant improvements. The 2022 floods derailed some renovation plans, however, further straining affordable housing options for seasonal employees.
Still, officials are hopeful that continued efforts will provide solutions to Yellowstone’s housing and staffing crises. Last year, U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) visited one of the properties to see the state of the park’s employee housing for himself. As one of the champions of a bipartisan bill that aimed to provide national parks with funding to address maintenance needs, Daines stated that he intended to “build upon the good work that we’ve already done” by finding “more solutions to the housing issues faced in parks as well as gateway communities.”
Although keeping Yellowstone staffed is becoming more difficult, the park has had issues with hiring and retaining employees for years. In 2016, some park employees expressed concern after the annual visitation crested 4 million. Those who were frustrated with the strain pointed to the job demands and infrastructure concerns as reasons for their distress. Nine years later, many of the same issues remain prevalent.
Sholly hopes that future stewards of the park will use it as a resource for growth and employment: “This park is incredible,” he said. “And I think that we have so many incredible parts of this park to work in, that it’s a great opportunity for someone to pick a discipline or pick a work function, work in a great place and gain a lot of experience.”