BOZEMAN — As the summer hiking season ramps up coast to coast, our national and state parks are seeing more and more annual visitors.
With more interest in the outdoors, especially since the pandemic, the need for rescues is also increasing.
That's putting a nationwide strain on volunteer first responders, who are now looking for help.
Captain Scott Secor, Gallatin SAR Commander with the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office, says search and rescue recruiting is not a problem in Bozeman, but there is a shortage of volunteers in both Big Sky and West Yellowstone.
The National Park Service reported nearly 300 million visits last year, a 25 percent jump from 2020. The pandemic also spurred a migration -- urbanites searching for a more serene life in the mountains moved away from the city. Drew Hildner of Rocky Mountain Rescue in Colorado says all this is putting stress on crews, both physically and financially.
Anna DeBattiste is with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. She says the increase in rescues adds up to many volunteers spending thousands of dollars of their own money. There's also a shortage of volunteers after many older rescuers retired during the pandemic.
"We need to recruit younger," she said. "And it's very hard for those younger folks who have the endurance and the strong backs that we need to afford the cost of living here."
Although the nonprofit model has been put to the test, Drew and Anna say it still doesn't quite make sense for search and rescue to be funded like a fire station, but they say something needs to give. In their state of Colorado, lawmakers just passed a bill allocating more money and resources to teams, something they hope will also help with recruiting.
States seeing an increase in outdoor recreation, such as Montana, Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire, and the Dakotas, are figuring out -- in their own way -- how to deal with this issue but Anna and Drew hope Colorado's legislation becomes a model for other states.