Parts of Yellowstone will reopen to visitors Wednesday morning, after dramatic floods forced the national park to shut down last week.
“Less than six days ago, Yellowstone National Park was hit with devastating floods,” Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said in the release. “Thanks to the tremendous efforts of our teams and partners, we are prepared to reopen the south loop of Yellowstone.”
The south loop includes the Old Faithful geyser and Yellowstone Lake and is accessed via the south, east and west entrances of the park. Some parts of the south loop, including four camp grounds in Wyoming near the border with Idaho and Montana, will remain closed.
Local residents, business owners and tourists are likely to be relieved that parts of the park will reopen. Yellowstone receives most of its visitors between June and September, and this summer’s season was expected to be a particularly busy one, as the national park prepared to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
In an earlier news conference, the park superintendent said he believed it was the first time since Yellowstone opened 150 years ago that it had to shut down due to flooding.
Scientists say climate change is making extreme weather events more common globally. The flooding around Yellowstone was just one of several climate disasters recorded across the United States this month.
The U.S. Geological Survey, a government agency, said the floods affecting the national park last week represent a once-in-500 years event.
Katherine Chase, a USGS hydrologist, said provisional data from measurement stations on the Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs and Livingston suggest that “the peak streamflow” had a 0.2 percent — or 1 in 500 — chance of happening. Near Billings, the provisional streamflow was “between the 1% (or 1 in 100) and 0.2% (1 in 500) flood,” the USGS said in a statement.
Still, Chase noted, “while these floods are often referred to as greater than (or rarer than) a 1 in 500-year event, there is the same probability that they could occur in any given year.”
To avoid a crush and further damage to nature and infrastructure in the park once the entrances to Yellowstone’s southern loop reopen, authorities plan to limit the number of prospective visitors. Accordingly, the park has devised a system based on vehicle license plates to determine entry.
On odd calendar dates, only vehicles whose license plates end in an odd number will be allowed in. Even-numbered calendar dates will allow in cars with plates ending in even numbers. Some vehicles will be exempt from this “alternating license plate system,” including essential workers, tour operators and visitors who have booked a stay at hotels or campgrounds inside the park.
“Entrance station staff will turn away vehicles attempting to enter the park when the odd/even numerical digits do not correspond to the odd/even calendar date for entrance,” the Park Service said.
Sholly said park authorities would “monitor” the system and “work together to make adjustments that may be necessary.” He asked those who want to visit the park to “plan ahead and be patient with us.”
As authorities survey the damage, they have indicated that the park’s northern loop could remain closed all summer while they work to repair roads, wastewater lines, trails and other infrastructure there.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) urged tourists Saturday to visit Montana and help support tourism-reliant towns that have been devastated by the flooding.
The Montana Democratic Party and some residents criticized the governor for his absence when Yellowstone had to shut down. His office confirmed he was traveling with his wife through Italy when the floods began. While he was overseas, he “delegated his authority to respond to the disaster to Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras,” his office said.
Gianforte was back in the state Friday and visited Gardiner, a gateway community of Yellowstone whose economy relies on tourism. Access to Gardiner was temporarily cut off by the floods last week but has been restored. Gianforte tweeted Saturday that the town, and its neighbor to the north, Paradise Valley, are “open for business.”
The Park Service also urged visitors to come back to Yellowstone when they could. It said Friday that although access to Yellowstone “will be less than normal until further notice, there are still incredible opportunities for recreation, wildlife viewing, and great experiences in the park’s gateway communities … as well as surrounding areas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”