Old Faithful Geyser

History & Culture

Yellowstone National Park has rich human and ecological stories that continue to unfold. People have spent time in the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Many tribes and bands used the park as their home, hunting grounds, and transportation routes prior to and after European American arrival. Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park in 1872.

Preserving Cultural Resources

Yellowstone’s cultural resources tell the stories of people, shown here around 1910 near the Old Faithful Inn, and their connections to the park. The protection of these resources affects how the park is managed today. NPS Yellowstone National Park’s mission includes preserving and interpreting evidence of past human activity through archeology and historic preservation; features that are integral to how a group of people identifies itself (ethnographic resources); and places associated with a significant event, activity, person or group of people that provide a sense of place and identity (historic buildings, roads, and cultural landscapes). All of these materials and places tell the story of people in Yellowstone. Collectively, they are referred to as cultural resources.

Archeological resources are the primary—and often the only—source of information about humans in Yellowstone for nearly the entire time that people have been in the area. Archeological evidence indicates that people began traveling through and using the area that was to become Yellowstone National Park more than 11,000 years ago. Because the intensity of use varies through time as environmental conditions shift, archeological resources also provide a means for interdisciplinary investigations of past climate and biotic change.

Many thermal areas contain evidence that early people camped there. At Obsidian Cliff, a National Historic Landmark, volcanic glass was quarried for the manufacture of tools and ceremonial artifacts that entered a trading network extending from western Canada to the Midwest. These remnants of past cultures must be preserved as they are invaluable in our understanding of early people in the area. Historic archeological sites in Yellowstone include the remains of early tourist hotels and army soldier stations.

Findings in Yellowstone

Although more than 1,850 archeological sites have been documented since the archeology program began in 1995, less than 3% of the park has been inventoried. Most documented sites are in developed areas because archeological evidence has been identified there inadvertently, or as part of National Historic Preservation Act compliance related to construction, hazard fuel reduction, or other projects.

Condition assessments performed on most of the documented sites found 1013 in good condition, 383 were fair, 190 sites were in poor condition. Twenty-five of the sites no longer existed because of natural factors or disturbance as a result of construction or other authorized activity, and 238 are lacking condition data. Emergency excavations have been conducted at some sites where archeological remains are especially vulnerable to disturbance or loss through erosion or illegal collecting.

Multiple significant sites along the Yellowstone River have been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. These contain projectile points or arrowheads, scrapers and other tools, and concentrations of burned and butchered bone, including the first evidence of fishing found in the park.

Radiocarbon dating is used to establish the age of organic artifacts such as charcoal or bone. However, organic materials (wood, bone, basketry, textiles) rarely persist in the Yellowstone environment because of the acidic thermally-influenced soils. Stone artifacts provide most of the chronological information on Yellowstone’s prehistory. Most of the stone tools that can be associated with a particular time period are projectile points. At Malin Creek, campsites from five distinct periods of indigenous use spanning over 9,000 years are stacked upon each other starting at five feet below the surface. These occupations have revealed how tool manufacture and foodways changed over time.


The earliest evidence of humans in Yellowstone is an 11,000-year-old Clovis type spear point found near the park’s north entrance in Gardiner, Montana, made of obsidian from Obsidian Cliff. (Obsidian from different lava flows can be chemically fingerprinted using x-ray fluorescence analysis.) Later in time, point types increase in number and type which may indicate that the number of people in the area was becoming larger as well as more diverse. Most documented sites in the park date to the Archaic period (8,000 to 1,800 years ago), suggesting that it was the most intense period of use by prehistoric people. Recent archeological surveys have identified a large number of sites dating to later periods in prehistory (approximately 1400–1800 CE). Distinguishing use of these sites by different ethnic groups or tribes, however, has not yet been possible.

Native American Affairs

Yellowstone’s location at the convergence of the Great Plains, Great Basin, and Plateau Indian cultures means that many Native American tribes have a traditional connection to the land and its resources. For thousands of years before the park was established, this area was a place where Indians hunted, fished, gathered plants, quarried obsidian, and used the thermal waters for religious and medicinal purposes.

Yellowstone’s “ethnographic” resources are the natural and cultural features that are significant to tribes. They include sites, plant and animal species, objects associated with routine or ceremonial activities, and migration routes. Federal law requires the National Park Service to consult with Yellowstone’s associated tribes on a government-to-government basis on decisions which affect resources that are significant to tribes.

Consultation and Associated Tribes

The first tribes to request association came forward in 1996. Now 26 tribes are formally associated with Yellowstone. Since 2002, park managers have met periodically with tribal representatives to exchange information about park projects and ethnographic resources. The tribes have requested to participate in resource management and decision-making, to conduct ceremonies and other events in the park, and to collect plants and minerals for traditional uses.


Tribes are most concerned about the management of bison that leave the park; many tribes have a physical and spiritual connection to bison in Yellowstone. Since 2007, some associated tribes have had the opportunity to conduct bison hunts outside the park boundaries. Since November 2009, the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, the InterTribal Buffalo Council, and the Nez Perce Tribe have joined the Interagency Bison Management Plan and participate in the development of adaptive management strategies for bison and Brucellosis in the areas immediately outside Yellowstone National Park.


In 2018, the park consulted with associated tribes on increasing opportunities for non-consumptive ceremonial use of the park. Consultants will also review park educational media and programming for representation of native peoples and perspectives. Previous education consultation focussed on the Yellowstone segment of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and the associated sites and events of the 1877 Nez Perce War.

Park Names

In 2016, the Executive Committee of the Blackfoot Nation contacted Yellowstone National Park to request that the names of two locations inside the park be changed. National place names are managed by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) and the representatives were referred to the USGS Board of Geographic Names at that time.

The committee requested the park change Mount Doane to “First People’s Mountain” and that Hayden Valley be changed to “Buffalo People’s Valley.” They requested the changes to reflect an acknowledgement of Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane’s involvement in the 1870 Marias massacre of the Piikani (Peigan) tribe, and Ferdinand V. Hayden’s insistence on the settlement or “extermination” of native people in the Yellowstone area.

Native Student Opportunities

Currently, Yellowstone hosts an internship program which places Native American students from the University of Montana into resource management and resource education jobs with the National Park Service. In addition, Yellowstone also hosts Native American youth conservation volunteers through the Montana Conservation Corps.

Cultural Landscapes

Cultural landscapes are settings that human beings have created in the natural world. They are geographic areas that have been shaped by human manipulation of natural and cultural resources and are associated with historic events, people, or activities in the park. They reflect significance of the historic setting and recognize the influence of human beliefs and actions over time on the natural landscape. A cultural landscape is an indicator of cultural patterns, values, and heritage through the way the land is organized and divided, patterns of settlement, land use, circulation, and the types of structures that are built and their placement in the landscape.

Yellowstone National Park contains an array of landscapes that reflect the park’s history, development patterns, and a changing relationship between people and the unique Yellowstone environment. In Yellowstone, these landscapes are often a physical record of the early and ongoing efforts to balance resource preservation and facility development for public enjoyment. They include sites such as Artist Point and Apollinaris Spring and the landscape features and patterns that contribute to the character of the Roosevelt Lodge Historic District. They also include areas significant to Native American cultures, such as Obsidian Cliff and sacred sites. Yellowstone’s cultural landscapes are being inventoried to identify landscapes eligible for the National Register and to ensure new undertakings are compatible with them.

Soul of the Wilderness

On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park for all to enjoy the unique hydrothermal wonders. One hundred years later, in 1972, 90% of Yellowstone was recommended for federal wilderness designation. There are many opportunities for visitors to experience wilderness throughout the park.

Yellowstone National Park has always managed its backcountry to protect natural and cultural resources and to provide visitors with the opportunity to enjoy a pristine environment within a setting of solitude. Yet none of the park is designated as federal wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

In 1972, in accordance with that law, the Secretary of the Interior recommended 2,016,181 acres of Yellowstone’s backcountry be designated as wilderness. Although Congress has not acted on this recommendation, all lands that fall within Yellowstone’s Recommended Wilderness are managed to maintain their natural wilderness character so as not to preclude wilderness designation in the future. The last Yellowstone wilderness recommendation sent to Congress was for 2,032,721 acres.

Wilderness in the National Park System

Congress specifically included the National Park Service in the Wilderness Act and directed the National Park Service to evaluate all its lands for suitability as wilderness. Lands evaluated and categorized as “designated,” “recommended,” “proposed,” “suitable,” or “study area” in the Wilderness Preservation System must be managed in such a way as to (1) not diminish their suitability as wilderness, and (2) apply the concepts of “minimum requirements” to all management decisions affecting those lands, regardless of the wilderness category. Some activities that are typically prohibited under the Wilderness Act are motorized or mechanized equipment use and the installation of structures.

Director’s Order 41

In 1999, Director’s Order 41 was issued to guide National Park Service efforts to meet the 1964 Wilderness Act, directing that recommended wilderness must be managed to protect wilderness resources and values.

Revised in 2013, Director’s Order 41, provides clearer guidance on contemporary issues in wilderness stewardship and management . It provides accountability, consistency, and continuity to the National Park Service’s Wilderness Stewardship Program, and guides the National Park Service efforts to meet the letter and spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Instructions include:

  • “The NPS will apply the guidance contained in [Director’s Order 41] to all of its wilderness stewardship activities. For the purpose of applying guidance, unless specifically noted, the term “wilderness” includes the categories of eligible, proposed, recommended, and designated. Potential wilderness may be identified within the proposed, recommended, or designated categories.”
  • “For every designated wilderness, a Wilderness Stewardship Plan will guide management actions to preserve wilderness character… Parks with lands determined eligible, proposed, or recommended should also develop plans to preserve wilderness character… Preservation of wilderness character will be incorporated into appropriate sections of park planning and management documents.”

Minimum Requirement Analysis

In 2003, the National Park Service Intermountain Region implemented a Minimum Requirement Policy to evaluate proposed management actions within recommended wilderness areas, saying “all management decisions affecting wilderness must be consistent with the minimum requirement concept.” This concept allows managers to assess:

This concept allows managers to assess:

  1. If the proposed management action is appropriate or necessary for administering the area as wilderness and does not impact wilderness significantly (Why must the activity occur in recommended wilderness?)
  2. What techniques and type of equipment are needed to minimize impacts to the wilderness resource. (If the project is necessary to conduct in wilderness, what is the appropriate means to conduct it that will cause the minimum impact to the wilderness resource, character, and experience that will still get the job done?)

Superintendents apply the minimum requirement concept to all administrative practices, proposed special uses, scientific activities, and equipment use in wilderness. They must consider potential disruption of wilderness character and resources before, and give significantly more weight than, economic efficiency and convenience. If the wilderness resource or character impact is unavoidable, the only acceptable actions are those preserving wilderness character or having localized, short-term adverse impacts.

Wilderness Designation and Current Practices

Yellowstone’s Backcountry Management Plan and environmental assessment were drafted in 1994, but were never signed. Though unofficial, both began to provide management guidance to park managers. As managers consider wilderness in Yellowstone today, they must determine how current practices in the park will be handled within areas that are managed as wilderness:

  • Protecting natural and cultural resources while also maintaining the wilderness character of the park’s lands managed as wilderness.
  • Managing administrative and scientific use to provide the greatest contribution with the minimum amount of intrusion on lands managed as wilderness.
  • Monitoring wilderness character to develop and enact long-range strategies to better protect wilderness resources and enhance visitor experiences.
  • Minimizing visitor wilderness recreation impacts by educating users in Leave No Trace outdoor skills and ethics that promote responsible outdoor recreation and stewardship.
  • Evaluating the impacts to wilderness resources among other parameters for all research projects that will take place on lands managed as wilderness in Yellowstone.


Yellowstone managers will continue to steward lands managed as wilderness in such a way that sustains the wilderness resource and wilderness character while providing wilderness recreational opportunities for park visitors. If or when Congress acts upon the recommendation to designate much of Yellowstone as wilderness, park managers will continue to manage those areas accordingly.

Land Use

How land is used outside the park can disrupt ecological processes within the park. Though still sparse in the early 2000s, the population in Greater Yellowstone has grown steadily since 1970. Data compiled by the Greater Yellowstone Inventory and Monitoring Network show that from 1990 to 2010, the population in and near the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem increased nearly 50% (approximately 220,000 to 323,000). About 27% of land in the counties that comprise the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is privately owned. Much of the growth occurred in rural residential areas. Development density is expected to increase, but with rural residential development continuing to dominate. The distribution of population growth on private land in recent decades is having a larger impact on the ecosystem than the population increase itself.

Private land in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is primarily located in valley bottoms and flood plains, which generally have longer growing seasons and higher plant productivity than the higher elevation areas that are protected as public land. In addition, new homes have been disproportionately located in areas that are important for biodiversity, especially grizzly bear habitat, bird hot spots, and riparian zones. The percentage of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem used for agriculture remained rela­tively constant from 1920 to 1990, but has declined slightly since then to about 18%. Agriculture is still a significant use of the land. In 2007, the percentage of agricultural crop land in the counties in and near the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem ranged from less than 5% to more than 50%.


Nine webcams—one live-streaming and eight static—provide views of the current conditions around the North Entrance and Mammoth Hot SpringsMount Washburn, the West Entrance, and the Upper Geyser Basin. Unfamiliar with the park? Check on the location map to see where each webcam is located.