National Parks Journal: Yellowstone’s Tara Ross on the ‘Unpredictability’ of Being a Ranger

by Jon D. B.

“It’s never the same. And never what you’d expect.” Outsider‘s exclusive chat with longtime Yellowstone National Park Ranger Tara Ross shows just how unpredictable—and remarkable—the job truly is.

Tara Ross always thought she would be a state park ranger. But our grand national parks system had other plans for her, specifically Yellowstone. It’s where she met her husband. Where she’d have her children. Yellowstone is Tara’s home.

Tara’s career began at our local Montgomery Bell State Park in Dickson, Tennessee—about 30 minutes west of Nashville proper. This is where she—alongside both our families—grew up.

After completing law enforcement training and considerable parks experience in Colorado, she wound up taking a seasonal park ranger position at Yellowstone in 1987. Now, Tara’s been with the oldest national park in the world for more than 30 years. Or, as she puts it, before I was “even a thought!” And at 32 myself, she’s absolutely right.

Today, Tara is in charge of responding to the victims of crimes, not only for Yellowstone National Park, but also for the entire national parks system. “My chain of command is out of the Washington office,” she clarifies without a hint of hubris.

As such, her current title is National Park Service Victim Assistance Program (VAP) Manager. In fact, Tara founded the entire program for victim assistance our national parks system knows today. She began it within Yellowstone. And founding this program came from the unpredictability of being a park ranger itself.

“Anywhere you have people, you have the same crimes. Whether it’s a park or a neighborhood. Domestic violence. Sexual assaults. Homocide. People being stranded, too, of course. That sort of thing,” Ross says.

So as you can imagine, in those 3-plus decades within Yellowstone she’s seen some things. Things she never would’ve imagined, nor would visitors to this most remarkable place. We’ll have much more from her in the future, but this is what we want to focus on today:

What exactly is the day-to-day of a Yellowstone National Park Ranger?

In short, Tara says, “It’s never the same. And never what you’d expect.”

Getty Images

“You can’t make this stuff up, the things that happen in Yellowstone. I think I didn’t really know what to expect. My experience working for that first national park in Colorado was much different.”

From day one, she says, you’re thrown into the thick of it. “They did it differently then. It was like, ‘Here’s your ticket book, here’s your gun, get to work!’ Yep. From day one!”

In Yellowstone, for example, she says, “It’s the oldest national park in the world, and it’s exclusively federal jurisdiction. So every crime in Yellowstone National Park is a federal crime.”

So what does the day-to-day look like for a Yellowstone National Park ranger? “You’re either in a patrol car. Or you’re on a trail or you’re on a boat! And that becomes your patrol area, then you respond to whatever calls come in. Some of which are . . . intense,” she says with a laugh.

‘It is different every single day’

And that’s exactly what she loves about Yellowstone. “It is unique from most parks . . . You are the ambulance crew. You are the EMS providers. And you are the structural fire responders. You are the cops. And those are just a few of the hats we wear.

“It is different every single day. There are different kinds of park rangers and different parks do it differently. Interpretive rangers may have a very similar day-to-day, for example. But for a law enforcement and emergency response-type ranger, you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Whether it’s responding to the “historic” Yellowstone National Park Fires of 1988 (one of Tara’s first big jobs tackled for the park), or helping a victim navigate the post-traumatic stress of a crime within her jurisdiction: “It includes being jerked out of bed in the middle of the night,” Tara explains.

“But when you’re younger, you don’t think about it! You’re just thinking ‘Wow, okay, I’m getting called to respond to this big thing!’ . . . But now, I still have trouble sleeping sometimes. It can be a mess, for sure. But I love it.”

Stick with Outsider for much more from Tara Ross and her grand Yellowstone National Park adventures soon.