Lawsuits swarm around Yellowstone snowmobiles

  As predicted, after seven years of lawsuits, contradictory plans and court rulings, the National Park Service announced on Nov. 4 that it will continue to allow hundreds of snowmobiles per day into Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks for the next three winters (HCN, 11/8/04: Judge vaporizes Yellowstone snowmobile ban).

The new rules will allow 720 snowmobiles into Yellowstone and 140 into Grand Teton each day — only slightly fewer than the number permitted in the late 1990s, when the Park Service originally decided to ban the polluting machines. The snowmobiles must be newer models that are quieter and cleaner-running than those in the past, and they must travel in guided caravans.

Just days after the announcement, the lawsuits began flying. On Nov. 10, the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association filed one in federal court in Wyoming, saying its members want more traffic in the parks. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition filed a motion Nov. 12 in federal court in Washington, D.C., asking the Park Service to monitor the snowmobiles’ impacts and reduce the numbers allowed if they exceed pollution thresholds. The Fund for Animals and the Bluewater Network filed a separate lawsuit in the same court, charging the Park Service still fails to address the impacts of trail grooming.

"Trail grooming is changing the dynamics of the entire ecosystem," by affecting the travel patterns of bison and other wildlife, says Sean Smith, Bluewater Network public lands director and a former Yellowstone ranger. Meanwhile, to ensure that the parks stay open to snowmobiles this winter, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, R, tacked a rider onto the omnibus spending bill, signed by the president Dec. 8: It prevents the Park Service from changing the rules until next year.