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Yellowstone shooting just another day in America for some visitors

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Kate Ready and Billy Arnold with the Jackson Hole News&Guide, via the Wyoming News Exchange

Canyon Village closures rattle some visitors, while others ask, "What shooting?"

JACKSON — Canyon Village appeared, at first blush, to be operating as if nothing happened. Tourists bustled in and out of the Canyon Village General Store, licking ice cream, eyeing Yellowstone National Park merchandise and purchasing sundries to take back to their RVs.

But the lodge next door had been cordoned off with cones, vehicles and security personnel. Behind the plastic and human barriers, employees from Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the private company that operates Canyon Lodge and other hotels in the park, sat at sun-drenched picnic tables in small clusters eating dinner.

At 6 p.m. Monday evening, Richard Arsenault stood a few hundred feet away from the Canyon Lodge, the dining area in the center of Yellowstone, where four days earlier law enforcement rangers shot and killed a man after he walked toward the lodge’s service entrance shooting a semi-automatic rifle.

Leaning against his truck, Arsenault lightly shook his head. The deadly shooting in America’s first national park on the nation’s birthday surprised him.

But it didn’t catch him totally off guard, given the rash of gun violence in the United States.

“You think of the threat in the park as grizzlies, not employees,” Arsenault said, adding that he considers national parks safe. “But the weekly shootings in the United States are crazy.”

This year, there has been an average of 10 mass shootings per week — where more than four people, not including the gunman, were injured or killed — according to the Gun Violence Archive.

On Monday and Tuesday, the News&Guide spoke with about 20 visitors in and around Yellowstone. The vast majority were unaware anything had happened during the Independence Day holiday.

“It’s really unfortunate that there can be an incident like this and then a couple hours later, everything’s back to normal,” said Brian Jarvis, a former mayor of Beavercreek, Ohio, who was visiting Canyon Village, and one of 200 diners in the lodge during the shootout. (See related story on cover) “These things happen so often you hope that you’re not involved with one, and if you’re not, you simply go on.”

After the shooting, Xanterra closed Canyon Village accommodations, with more than 500 rooms and cabins, and the 270-site campground, sending hundreds of guests hunting for places to stay to afford employees time to heal and give the FBI space to conduct their investigation. A sign Xanterra posted on a campground picnic bench that was provided to the News&Guide said: “We have been instructed to shut down all our services. We apologize for the inconvenience. You will receive a full refund.”

It also included five pages of alternative campgrounds for people to consider.

In Yellowstone, there is little cell service, visitors travel in from across the world, and often plan their trips months, if not years, in advance. Some visitors who spoke with the News&Guide said they struggled with an information vacuum over the weekend. In the wake of the incident, Yellowstone and Xanterra published little information about operational changes in Canyon, the largest lodging complex in Yellowstone.

The company posted leaflets on guests’ doors and an online alert Saturday to explain the decision to close over the weekend.

Outside of Canyon, there was little communication about the incident.

A visitor from Boise, Idaho, Arsenault heard about the incident after a friend from Maryland pinged him Friday. Arsenault didn’t see any notices about limited visitor services at Canyon posted at the visitor center in Cody or at Lake Village where the 63-year-old had been staying.

Canadian visitors Stefani and her partner, Matt, who asked that only their first names be used, didn’t know what to expect.

“I had service until [Sunday] evening and I never heard anything,” Stefani said. “I didn’t know if we still had a reservation because the website said limited space would be available.”

She first heard about the incident Sunday night from a worker in Madison County, Montana, who told them the Canyon campground might be closed. They arrived in Yellowstone around noon Monday, when a ranger told them that the Canyon Village Campground, operated by Xanterra, had opened only 20 minutes prior.

The person who checked them in at the campsite reluctantly said there was a shooting when the couple asked, Stefani said, but nothing more. A private email sent to Xanterra employees after the incident asked them to direct all inquiries to the National Park Service. The couple would have liked more communication over the weekend to make alternative arrangements.

“It’s not like we live around here,” Stefani said.

Arsenault and the Canadian couple were some of the only people the News&Guide found Monday in the park who said their trip was impacted by the shooting and resulting closure. Aside from wondering whether their lodging was available or if they’d need to scramble and find alternative arrangements, they said their trip wasn’t impacted.

Xanterra said the decision to temporarily close was difficult. In a statement Tuesday, the company said it was working diligently to reopen.

“We thank our Xanterra employees who are working through these difficult issues and are serving our guests and our company in such a dedicated manner,” the statement said. “Similarly, we thank all our guests for their kindness, patience, and understanding regarding their interactions with our employees as we continue to work through these events, and their travel disruptions.”

The majority of people who were interviewed or approached by the News&Guide at the General Store and campground didn’t know that anything had happened. Other people asked for information and, after hearing about the incident, expressed surprise. Many simply shrugged.

But some were disturbed by the incident. For them, it broke a veneer of tranquility.

“It’s more expected at a state park. But a national park? There’s a certain reverence there. You think it’s untouchable,” said Claire Tatum, 23. “It’s unfortunate that you can’t escape gun threats in one of the most remote areas that’s supposed to be this pristine environment.”

Tatum, 23, is from Alabama and said she hears semi-automatic gunfire once a week by her house. She had friends in school at the University of Virginia and University of North Carolina during shootings, and a family member who’s a teacher that’s dealt with threats. But when she heard about the shooting in Yellowstone, she, like Arsenault, was saddened but not entirely surprised.

“It sucks, but I’m so desensitized to it,” Tatum said.

A camper from New York roasting a hot dog in the campground Monday night described it as a “freak thing that could happen at the supermarket.” At a KOA campground outside of the park Tuesday, a Florida couple hadn’t heard of the incident but said that “it happens everywhere.”

Around the bustling campground Monday evening, which was not accepting walk-ins, some loops remained empty. But most areas of the campground hummed with activity. Groups from the United States and abroad laughed around crackling campfires, kids hit badminton birdies in the road, and mosquitoes buzzed around campsites packed with tents, fishing gear and bikes.

On Tuesday, Cherie Roedel, who owns the Fox Den RV Park and Campground in West Yellowstone, Montana, said her husband told her about the incident. None of her guests mentioned it.

“I don’t think it’s very known,” Roedel said Tuesday morning. “I’m glad it wasn’t here, but it wouldn’t surprise me.”

This story was published on July 10, 2024.

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