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Flood damage closes half of Yellowstone Park for the season

Yellowstone National Park was beginning to celebrate its 150th birthday when torrential rains dampened festivities earlier this week, causing streams to flood throughout the northern Greater Yellowstone region of Montana.

(CN) — Yellowstone National Park was beginning to celebrate its 150th birthday when torrential rains dampened festivities earlier this week, causing streams to flood throughout the northern Greater Yellowstone region of Montana. In the aftermath, park and community officials are trying to assess the extent of the damage but acknowledge that little is likely to return to normal this year.

At a Tuesday news conference, Yellowstone National Park supervisor Cam Sholly said he would shut the park down for at least a week so crews could evaluate damage to infrastructure and roads, several of which were torn out by flood waters.

“The billion dollar question is what’s the damage? The answer is we don’t know yet,” Sholly said.

Like much of the West, the Greater Yellowstone region has suffered drought for at least the past two years. Last summer brought heat waves that caused temperatures to soar into triple digits. Streams ran low and reservoirs dropped.

This past winter wasn’t much better. Snowpack in the Yellowstone region on was at a record low on April 1. So Montanans were relieved as May and June remained cool, allowing the meager mountain snowpack to linger.

But that’s what led to problems on Sunday into Monday when an atmospheric river of moisture streamed over the Yellowstone region from the southwest, dropping buckets of warm rain on snowy slopes. Rain-on-snow events produce huge amounts of runoff as melting snow joined rainwater sluicing down the mountainsides. A rain gage on the north side of Yellowstone Lake received 1.75 inches on Monday, beating the old daily record by more than 400%, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Straub. Up to 3 inches of rain fell in upper elevations.

Inside the northern edge of the park, the Lamar and Gardiner rivers rose quickly Monday, overflowing their banks in wider sections and cutting deep into banks along river bends, prompting park officials to evacuate the 10,000 visitors that were inside the park. Fortunately, no fatalities have been reported.

The Lamar River in the northeast corner took out a section of road leading to the Northeast Entrance, while the Gardiner River washed out many sections of road between the North Entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs. Rock and mud slides covered roads with debris. The park was without power in many locations, and water and wastewater systems have been affected in Mammoth Hot Springs and Canyon Village.

With the extensive damage to the northern roads, Sholly said it is probable that they won’t reopen this season due to the time required for repairs.

Even though roads in the southern part of the park weren’t affected, Sholly has completely closed the park at least through June 19 to allow for a thorough assessment of the damage and to develop a new plan for visitor access. Once the park does reopen — most likely on Tuesday — the park can’t handle the millions of visitors it’s welcomed in the past with only the southern-loop road available.

So similar to other national parks, Yellowstone may create a temporary reservation system to prevent gridlock and reduce impacts on park infrastructure. On a Thursday call, Sholly asked businesses for feedback on an idea to manage visitation using license plate numbers where vehicles with even-numbered plates would be let in one day, followed by odd-numbered plates the next day.

Xanterra, the park consessionaire, is cancelling June reservations but waiting before looking at July and August cancellations.

Those wishing to visit Yellowstone Park should stay informed of park road conditions through the Park Roads website. Meanwhile, the Custer Gallatin National Forest has closed three forest districts in Montana north of the park.

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While the flooding damaged parts of Yellowstone Park, communities near the northern entrances were also affected.

The Yellowstone River near the gateway town of Gardiner at the park’s North Entrance began rising rapidly late Sunday night, fed by the Lamar and Gardiner rivers and other tributaries in the park and streams from the Absaroka Mountains north of the park. By noon Monday, the Corwin Springs stream gage on the Yellowstone River downstream from Gardiner measured a flow of 48,000 cubic feet per second, beating out the 1918 record of 30,000 cfs.

The river flooded the two-lane Highway 89 in Yankee Jim Canyon near the Corwin Springs gage, isolating Gardiner, and ripped out a historic iron bridge a little farther north at Carbella. Other bridges suffered damage as the river carried logs, debris and bridge parts north toward Livingston. Officials ordered all residents of the Paradise Valley between Yankee Jim Canyon and Livingston not to travel Monday as the water spread across the valley, affecting other roads, rail lines and homes.

The Yellowstone River finally crested late Monday night but not before parts of southeast Livingston were flooded after the river overtopped levies. Residents worked into the night evacuating an animal shelter and a hospital.

The river has receded for now, although temperatures are predicted to soar into the upper 80s on Friday, causing concern that the river could surge again as more snow melts. But without the rain, it shouldn’t get as high. Highway 89 was reopened to local traffic and emergency services only with a speed limit of 35. In Gardiner, a “Do not consume water” order has been reduced to a “Boil Water” advisory.

The North Entrance wasn’t the only area affected. Cooke City and Silver Gate at the Northeast Entrance also experienced flooding that knocked out the Bannock Bridge. Helicopters were used to evacuate Silver Gate early Monday and the highway to the town finally reopened on Thursday.

Farther down the Beartooth Highway, Red Lodge was flooded as Rock Creek rose, carrying rocks and debris into the main streets of town, damaging businesses and homes. Paradise Valley biologist Jesse Logan wrote in a social media post that the Red Lodge-based Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation lost $60,000 worth of copies of an anthology intended to raise revenue for the small organization.

“In ‘Voices of Yellowstone’s Capstone,’ I wrote, ‘Every flake of snow in the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains, every drop of rain, eventually finds its way to the mighty Yellowstone River.’ Little did I realize how this would play out on June 13, 2022. Not only those catchments to the south of the (Absaroka-Beartooth) divide, but also those to the north including Rock Creek, experienced unprecedented stream flows. All remaining copies of “Yellowstone’s Capstone” were destroyed in the resulting catastrophic Red Lodge flood. The irony of the situation is not lost on me,” Logan wrote.

The Greater Gallatin United Way has set up a Flood Relief Fund for those displaced by flooding.

People living north of the park have suffered damage not only to property but also potentially to their livelihoods. After two years of complications from the Covid pandemic, many who base their businesses around Yellowstone were looking forward to the 150th anniversary events because tourists need places to eat and stay outside the park and hire guides for hiking, fishing and photography. Now, those businesses are already getting cancellations.

Jeff Reed, owner of Reed Fly Farm lodge and cabins, said Yellowstone National Park is like the anchor tenant in a mall: when that tenant shuts down, the rest of the businesses feel it.

“But the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is much bigger than YNP, and those of us in Montana working hard to preserve it can help you experience it and learn from it this summer,” Reed said. “Yes, Gardiner is going to feel the brunt of this, and the rest of us are here for our brothers and sisters there and in Cooke City and elsewhere. But, Paradise Valley is open for business. If you are visitor, perhaps one of the most important things you could do is talk to the local businesses you plan on staying with, and they will tell you the current state of affairs and what to expect for the rest of the summer.”

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