It's 6 p.m. and the early evening sky over Yellowstone National Park is incredible. All park accommodations and campgrounds are reporting full. It's summer and 21,000 visitors are staying overnight, scattered throughout the 2,219,823 acres of the world's first national park. Just about anything can happen.
Since the 1960s, criminals have discovered how careless many park visitors can be while on vacation. Thus, the ranger most people recognize as the one in the gray and green uniform, with the gold badge and distinctive hat, who helps them with directions and presents campfire programs, must also possess skills related to law enforcement. In many parks, such as Yellowstone, rangers must combat organized theft, drugs and investigate crimes. Other calls can range from responding to traffic accidents, clearing up a "bear jam" that has traffic backed up for miles and visitors chasing bears with their cameras, to campground mishaps.
When Yellowstone was established as a national park by Congress in 1872, the action set off a national park movement throughout the world. Yellowstone came under the stewardship of the National Park Service when that agency was created in 1916. The National Park Service is, in turn, a division of the United States Department of the Interior.
Under the direction of Yellowstone's Park Superintendent Michael Finley, Chief Ranger Rick Obemesser, oversees public safety at the park. Park rangers at Yellowstone enjoy a high level of involvement and support by gateway communities that surround the park. Yellowstone rangers also maintain an excellent level of interagency cooperation with local and state law enforcement agencies from Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. All three states share a piece of the park.
An average of 80 to 90 law enforcement rangers are employed at Yellowstone during the summer, while wintertime employment averages about 60 to 70 rangers. Most positions are seasonal and competition for permanent positions is fierce. Most rangers have a four-year degree.
Rank structure is federally designated depending on experience and includes: superintendent, district ranger, sub-district ranger, area ranger and shift supervisor.
Three major districts, each with one or two ranger stations, encompass a variety of geographical areas. With such diversity, ranger assignments can be demanding. Depending on the given location, rangers may be called on to perform regular patrol operations, in addition to countless other tasks. They also often perform resource protection, visitor assistance and facilitate educational projects.
Special assignments might include technical climbing, special operations unit, hostage negotiations, and boat patrol unit. Some individual rangers also work with dogs in tracking. Other special programs include community-oriented rangering in two villages within the park's boundaries and boundary patrols.
Park rangers use a wide variety of patrol vehicles, depending on the location and terrain of their district within the park. In the high-tech area, Gateway 2000 Computers and Toshiba PCs are utilized. Rangers also use a wide range of weapons: shotguns, long rifles, mini 14s, P220 Sig Sauers, .45s and 9 mms, among others.
U.S. Park Rangers are responsible for performing a variety of duties; therefore, their training is broad in scope. Rangers in permanent positions attend the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. Seasonal rangers attend training at various academies across the country. In addition, a 40-hour refresher course is required of rangers each year, as well as quarterly training in firearms, physical fitness and emergency medical services.
Other areas of training include search and rescue, wild land and structural fire response, underwater diving, boat operations, aviation safety, domestic violence, suicide intervention, wildlife management, and all areas of public safety.
Most Significant Problems
Wildlife encountered by park rangers is often of a different nature than that encountered by most patrol officers. But not always. Three million visitors a year are drawn to Yellowstone's beauty ... sometimes bringing unsavory bits of city life with them. In fact, incidents involving gang activity can 'happen in national parks. Also, Yellowstone is a wilderness filled with natural wonders that can also pose potential hazards: falling trees, unpredictable wildlife, high altitude and scalding water in thermal areas are just a few of the dangers.
One of the greatest challenges, however, faced by Yellowstone and other parks is under funding of national parks. But it's a problem at least partially offset by the wealth of talented and dedicated rangers who work for the park service. Together they work to continue the original mission of the National Park Service: " ...to promote and regulate the use of the ... national parks ... which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
- National Park Service Organic Act.
Yellowstone National Park at a Glance
Population served: Seasonal, fluctuating
- 3,472 square miles and 2,219,823 acres
- 91% of the park is in Wyoming
- 7.6% of the park is in Idaho
- 370 miles of paved road
- Five entrances into the park
- 1,200 miles of trails and 97 trailheads
- Largest concentration of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states and the global temperate zone
- Precipitation range: from 10 inches at north boundary to 80 inches at north boundary to 80 inches in the southwest corner
- Avg. temperature range: from 10 deg. F in January to 55 deg. F. in July, at center of park
- Number of rangers; from 60 to 90 depending on the season
Most entry-level, GS-5 positions pay $9 to $12/hour; permanent positions can range to $30/hour with benefits.
Employment Information: www.usajobs.opm.gov/a.htm
Rick Gale has been a seasonal law enforcement park ranger at Yellowstone National Park since 1978. Gale has served as a night shift supervisor; field training ranger, and Crisis/hostage negotiator: He spends the rest of the year as a social science teacher in Irvine (Calif.).