By Jim Stanford on August 30, 2013
A few months ago, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk raised eyebrows when, at a joint meeting of town and county leaders, he said the park does not have 3 million visitors per year, as often touted. Rather, Wenk said, the park attracts more like 1.5 million people, some of whom visit multiple times.
A study released by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance this month further calls into question the widely held notion that Teton County hosts 3 million — sometimes stretched to 4 million — visitors per year.
The study gives a snapshot of the county’s “effective population,” or the total number of people found here at a given time. The tally combines permanent residents, second home owners, seasonal workers, commuters and tourists.
At the peak of summer (July 15), that total is more than 60,000. In winter (Feb. 15), the effective population is 40,000, and even in the shoulder seasons (April and November) the tally is 30,000.
During the busiest time of year, the study pegs the number of visitors at 24,000 per day. Winter tourism is estimated at 9,100 per day.
So how many total visitors does Teton County draw per year? That’s harder to calculate, owing to the fact that most visitors stay longer than one day.
Assuming the summer peak is good for two months, July and August, and June and September draw roughly two-thirds of the peak, the total number of daily visitors is roughly 2.52 million for the season. Using the same methodology for winter, the figure is 912,000. Assuming the April and November numbers are good for two months each, the total for the shoulder seasons is 318,000.
That makes for a year-round visitation tally of 3.75 million (perhaps where the conventional notion comes from). But most of these visitors are staying longer than one day, so the tally is counting them multiple times.
Let’s assume the average length of stay is three days, a very conservative estimate. That makes for 1.25 million visitors per year — which sounds more reasonable and is in keeping with Superintendent Wenk’s statement.
What are these figures good for? Well, for local government making decisions about transportation, the lodging overlay, tourism promotion and such, it helps to have good numbers to work with. And a better tally for year-round visitation helps dispel the myth of “3 million visitors.”
A recent News&Guide story about bear attacks, for instance, contained this line: “Yellowstone, with more than four million visitors a year …”
In an interview, Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash conceded that the park likely does not have 3 million visitors per year. Rather, the park tallied 3.4 million recreational visits in 2012.
“Without question, we know that we count some people more than once,” Nash said. “If someone comes in and out of the park, they get counted every time they come in and out. We don’t have a way to track those discrete kind of visits.”
Counting cars at the entrance gates is the only methodology available to the Park Service, Nash said.
At the very least, when asked by rafting clients about visitation, I can answer accurately that Teton County has more than a million visitors per year, with nearly three times as many tourists in summer than in winter. (Tourists often are surprised to hear this, under the impression that ski season is busier.)
The effective population study is part of the ongoing monitoring required by the Comprehensive Plan. A summerlong project by grad student Kara Silbernagel, the study sets up a thorough methodology, mostly using Census data, by which county planning staff can plug in updated numbers in coming years.
Jonathan Schechter did the last such study in 1993. He found the effective population at the time to be roughly 20,000 in the shoulder seasons, 26,000 in winter and 52,000 in summer.