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2-legged critters in green take care of oldest park

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park inevitably see bison, elk and other wild creatures. Another important resident is often forgotten during these tours, a resident of the two-legged variety - generally without fur - and often dressed in green: the park ranger.

The park ranger is a warmblooded being who most often lives in Yellowstone year-round. While its physical traits make this species particularly sensitive to long, cold winters, its amazing ability to understand its environment and adapt have helped it to survive and flourish with modern technology.Though the life is often difficult, rangers interviewed recently exhibited a few common characteristics: a love of the outdoors and a desire to dedicate their lives to the plants and animals that make up Yel-low-stone.

"I feel like Yellowstone is home, even if I were to leave Yellowstone," said Mona Divine, north district ranger and current acting chief ranger for Yellowstone.

Divine worked as a waitress at the Old Faithful Inn during her college years, and she just "kept coming back." Now, her 21 years as a park ranger make up almost half her lifetime.

"It was basically a summer job that I never grew out of," she said.

As the daughter of a military man, Divine grew up here and there. She said she was always interested in the outdoors but when she first came to Yellowstone, she thought perhaps she could be a tourist-in-residence. But years of experience have proved her wrong.

"You think you will, or you think you might do it for just a few years . . . but it's almost like a religious calling," she said. "If you're interested in nature and conservation, Yellowstone has an almost magnetic pull."

Mike Ross, backcountry supervisor for the Lamar Valley ranger district, would agree. Having lived much of his life in Yellowstone, Ross is walking in the steps of his father and two brothers, all rangers.

After working for about 11 years in the park's backcountry, Ross said the work can consume every fiber of a ranger's being - and a little more - if you don't watch out.

"I know it takes up a large part of my life, but I'm not opposed to that. Some (rangers) want to have something outside of the park, and it's tougher on them," he said. "It's not really a job. It's more of a life-style."

Depending on where a ranger ranges and the season of the ranging, a ranger's duties will vary enormously, said Brian Chan, assistant subdistrict ranger in the Lamar Valley.

"It's pretty hard to say what you do in any one day," he said - and that may be one reason rangers do what they do.

He noted the varied geography, tourist demographics and duties a ranger may encounter throughout Yellowstone as possible reasons so many in Yellowstone never leave.

Duties for Chan and Ross during the winter include driving the roads, pulling cars out of ditches, checking the cross-country ski trails and weather equipment and patrolling for violations.

And there is always paperwork, both rangers noted with a smile.

In the interior, winter is a time for two-cycle snowmobile engines. Rangers work with snowmobilers, on snowmobiles - they even use snowmobiles to go to the store.

Most rangers agreed that their lifestyles can be hard on families or relationships, but that doesn't stop many.

The park's current head ranger married a fellow ranger in 1981, but it wasn't until just a few years ago that the two actually lived together.

For more than a decade, that's just the way it had to be, Divine said. She and her husband couldn't live together because then they would have to work together, and to do that, one would need to directly supervise the other, which park policy does not allow.

Ranger positions in the interior are sparse enough that couples will always have a hard time working together while maintaining the degree of separation most employers require.

"It puts a lot of stress on your family, personal life. It's not a normal job," Divine said.

After 10 years of living in cabins and trailers, commuting, stockpiling food in the fall like squirrels, Divine said she and her husband were happy when they were able to make the move to Mammoth, where the park's headquarters is located.

But Divine is quick to comment on the positive aspects of winter life in Yellowstone.

"It's not all hardships. . . . The cross-country skiing is great. There's a lot of wildlife and spectacular scenery," she said. "Millions of people come to Yellowstone, and we have the advantage of being part of a really spectacular environment."

Married with children, Les and Dawn Inafuku tell a similar story. Both came to the park as young, adventuresome souls, and neither left.

"When I came here in 1975, my intention was just to be here in the summer and then go to grad school (in marine biology), and my socks were knocked off," Les Inafuku said.

Dawn Inafuku began working at Yellowstone in the summers several years after Les Inafuku, and the two were married in 1985. Today, the couple has two children, Miyeko, 8, and Niki Miyuki, 5.

Reversing the general interior-to-exterior trend, the Inafukus seized the "last opportunity to work in the interior" and moved away from an easier life in Mammoth to Old Faithful. "At times we love our lifestyle. At other times, we sort of have to curse under our breath," Les Inafuku said. "We have to work harder, sometimes, to live comfortably."

Though Les Inafuku called Old Faithful "isolated from the problems of the exterior world," he did say that it has a few problems of its own.

"We never feel comfortable leaving (the children) outside," he said, explaining that wildlife can be a problem.

The comforts that make life easy elsewhere aren't readily available in a place where all the food must be snowmobiled in, where the back-up energy source is more dependable than the primary source.

"It's too quiet, too isolated, not enough social interaction (for some people). The people who do best are those that have interests that can go along with being alone," Les Inafuku said.