438 hats pulled from Yellowstone hot springs — and 16,404 bits of litter, rangers say

Hats off to this Yellowstone National Park clean-up crew.

Yellowstone’s Thermal Area Preservation Program, which dredges up litter stuck in the park’s iconic hot springs, pulled out an astounding 438 hats this summer alone — as well as 16,404 pieces of litter, park rangers said in a Facebook post Wednesday.

Rangers said the team collects data on the abandoned items, which “is used to guide management decisions in order to better protect these natural resources for the future.”

Visitors to the park — which spans Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — don’t usually intend to litter or sacrifice their articles of clothing in hot springs, rangers said.

“Most people know not to throw things into hot springs, but many of the impacts we’re seeing seem to be accidental,” Megan Norr, a geothermal monitor at the park, said in the Facebook post. “So hold onto your hats!”

Norr explained how those accidents happen.

“Reach into your pocket for your camera and out comes a stray wrapper along with it,” Norr said. “A brief gust of wind and say bye to your hat.”

Park rangers shared a photo showing one geothermal monitor standing on a boardwalk and using a tool to grab a hat. Another photo shows the kaleidoscope of hats all lined up together.

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But sometimes litter makes its way out of hot springs on its own — like when hot pools erupt.

Last September, a generally placid hot pool called Ear Spring in the Upper Geyser Basin shot water as high as 30 feet in the air, making it the largest eruption at the spring since 1957, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The basin is also home to Old Faithful and other geysers and hot springs.

Following that eruption, park officials discovered years of human-generated trash that had been tossed at the hot spring — including a handful of cigarette butts, a Hamm’s beer can, part of a cement block, a plastic spoon, a straw, a baby’s pacifier, coins, a piece of rubber that looks like a heel insert, a blue pencil and more, photos show.

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“Foreign objects can damage hot springs and geysers,” park rangers wrote in a Facebook post following the eruption. “The next time Ear Spring erupts we hope it’s nothing but natural rocks and water. You can help by never throwing anything into Yellowstone’s thermal features!”

Some material in the story appeared in a previous article by the author.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.