Snowmobiles remain an issue

  • Yellowstone bison follow snowmobile trails out of the park

    Deirdre Eitel

Yellowstone is one of the few national parks in the world where snowmobiling is allowed, and about 100,000 people a year take advantage of that fact. But there has never been a formal study of how the noisy, smelly machines affect the park and its wildlife.

That could change next year.

The Fund for Animals, the Biodiversity Legal Foundation and a handful of other groups sued the Park Service in May, claiming that running a big winter recreation program like Yellowstone's without knowing the impacts violates several laws. The groups wanted an environmental impact statement.

Late in September, the Park Service thought it had settled the suit. The agency announced it would start work on the environmental impact study, pay the legal bills of the groups that sued it, and possibly close different trails within the park to see what effect that has on the park's wandering bison.

The announcement soon had the multimillion-dollar snowmobiling and tourism industry, along with its political supporters, in a howling frenzy.

"I'm beyond upset," said Viki Eggers, director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce. "I'm purple with rage."

"By caving in to a radical group, such as the Fund for Animals, the Park Service has unnecessarily placed a lot of small businesses and the families that rely on them in jeopardy," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone has been growing steadily since the 1970s. Rental operations and motels employ hundreds of people in West Yellowstone, a place that used to shut down tight in the winter. If you don't mind the noise and a little greasy exhaust blowing up your pant leg, a snowmobile can take you to some wondrous things in Yellowstone: Watching Old Faithful go off when the weather is 20 below zero, for instance, is a sight you won't forget.

But you also share the road with bison - lots of them. And that feeds the crux of the debate over snowmobiling. The rules say all snowmobiles must stay on the park's paved roads, which are groomed nightly in the winter to provide a smooth surface for the machines. The hard-packed surface also gives bison easy pathways through the deep snows.

Mary Meagher, a federal biologist who has studied the shaggy giants for 30 years, maintains that the groomed trails throw a monkey wrench in the biological mechanisms that govern how bison use their habitat. Because the roads make winter travel so easy, more bison survive to produce calves in the spring. That leads to higher numbers, which means winter forage is often eaten long before the snow hits the ground. Then, in a tough winter like the last one, hundreds of hungry bison leave the park, where shooters employed by the state of Montana wait for them on the border.

Last winter nearly 1,100 bison were killed in Montana because of fears they might spread brucellosis to cattle (HCN, 2/17/97).

Before the Park Service "settlement" announcement, snowmobile and tourism groups had sought to become "interveners' in the federal lawsuit, which is before a District of Columbia judge. They had the blessing of the governors of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, who also considered intervening but decided to leave it up to the private groups.

Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer said he feared a "less than vigorous" legal defense by the Park Service and a long-term agenda by the Fund for Animals to shut down all snowmobiling in the park.

He's right - at least about the Fund's agenda.

"Ultimately, we believe that to protect America's bison, trail grooming and snowmobile use in Yellowstone must cease," said D.J. Schubert of the Fund for Animals.

The would-be interveners blasted the Park Service and the litigants for announcing a settlement "prematurely." The judge has not yet approved, nor has he ruled on whether the snowmobile and tourism groups can intervene, thereby becoming parties in the suit; that ruling would have a big impact on any settlement. A hearing was set for Oct. 27.

Chamber of Commerce representatives in West Yellowstone, Mont., said the announcement of the settlement gave tourists a false impression that Yellowstone would be closed for the winter. Eggers said some people have cancelled reservations, even though the park remains open.

One trail may be closed this winter: the 14-mile stretch of road that passes through the Hayden Valley, a prime habitat for bison. Closing the road is not as simple as letting the snow pile up, however. An environmental assessment must be written and any decision to close a trail likely will be appealed.

The writer works for the Bozeman Chronicle.

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