Tempers flare over winter plan

  • Bison breaks trail in Yellowstone

    Steve Fuller photo

Gardiner, Mont., is a sleepy town in the winter. Yellowstone National Park's northern gateway community virtually closes down when the park's roads do. The local fly shop rents cross-country skis, and a handful of cafés serve burgers for lunch. A few sight-seers drive into the park at dawn and dusk in search of the park's wolf packs. But Gardiner is almost a ghost town from December through March.

It's a different scene in the town of West Yellowstone, at the northwest corner of the park. The town is snowmobile central, and during a typical winter nearly 60,000 tourists buzz through, generating $12.8 million in sales.

Now, a Park Service plan released last month has West Yellowstone's business leaders fearing that their community will become another winter ghost town. The agency proposes shutting down snowmobile traffic into the park from West Yellowstone and plowing the road into the Old Faithful geyser. The park would allow only a limited number of people to haul snow machines into the park on trailers; most would have to ride in on buses.

"We know from surveys that if people can't snowmobile into the park from here, they won't come," says Bill Schaap, manager of West's Three Bear Lodge, which rents snowmobiles and snowcoaches. "They won't spend $600 to $800 on a plane ticket to fly into Bozeman (a two-hour drive north of West Yellowstone) just to take a 30-minute bus trip to Old Faithful. They'll go elsewhere."

Business leaders aren't the only ones displeased with the new winter use plan. Yellowstone's top bison biologist and conservationists are bewildered.

"I don't quite understand what the Park Service is trying to accomplish," says Andrea Lococo, Rocky Mountain coordinator for the Fund for Animals. "No one is happy with the plan, not the snowmobilers, not the business community, certainly not the conservation community. We're just aghast."

Trying to please everyone

Lococo's group jump-started the winter-use study after the winter of 1996-'97, when 1,500 bison died. About 400 starved, and the rest were killed by Montana livestock officials, who feared the state's beef industry would lose its brucellosis-free status if bison and cattle started to mingle (HCN, 12/22/97).

The Fund for Animals sued, arguing that the park was not paying attention to the effects of winter traffic on wildlife. Packed snowmobile trails and plowed roads allow bison an easy way to move, the group said, and many migrated across the park's boundary and into the gun sights of the Montana Department of Livestock.

The Park Service settled out of court, agreeing to compile the winter-use plan now on the table. The 700-page environmental impact statement attempts to please conservationists, motorists and snowmobilers. Snowmobilers who want autonomy could still use the southern entrance. The road would still be plowed from Gardiner to the isolated village of Cooke City, and those looking for a more solitary experience could drive through the Lamar Valley.

The plan for West Yellowstone, says park spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews, calls for buses to cut down on air and noise pollution, while accommodating twice as many visitors. "Mass transit from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful will provide an affordable opportunity for access to the park," she explains.

Marysue Costello disagrees. "There's obviously going to be an economic impact on this community," says Costello, who directs West Yellowstone's Chamber of Commerce. Riding solo into the park on a snowmobile is "adventurous - there's a mystique about it. Instead, you'll be getting on a bus, and I can do that in the summer."

But economic disaster is not certain, says Chris Neher, an economist with the Missoula-based firm that studied West Yellowstone's economy during the federal government shutdown of 1996-97, when the park closed for two months. "Tax receipts dipped only slightly," he says.

"There are hundreds of miles of Forest Service land with snowmobile trails nearby," Neher says. "A lot of people who go (to West Yellowstone) will spend a day in the park ' and be on Forest Service land for the rest of the time."

What about the bison?

The Park Service should be concerned about the ecological needs of Yellowstone - not the local economy, says biologist Mary Meagher. Meagher, now semi-retired from the agency, spent 35 years researching bison in the park. She concluded that plowed roads and groomed trails change the way the animals behave.

"In the winter of 1980-1981, we had an above-average winter with above-average winterkill," Meagher says. "It was a stressful situation and the bison started to learn the roads."

Before that winter, bison stayed east of the Firehole River. Roads allowed the bison to move west toward the park boundary, she says. Now, one of the best places to find bison in the winter is along the Firehole and Madison rivers on the west side of the park, where Montana sharpshooters kill those bison that cross the park's invisible boundary.

"The whole population has shifted west. That should be saying a lot to people," Meagher says. "Instead, the park has chosen not to think that I know what I'm talking about."

"This is the last of the last wild herds," she adds. "Are we going to destroy what the poachers couldn't? We are going to drive the population down. I can't tell you when, but it will happen."

Cheryl Matthews explains that the park is in the process of writing an environmental impact statement on bison management, due out in the summer of 2000. The bison plan could close roads in winter that the park wants to plow. But the lawsuit from the Fund for Animals forced the park to come up with a draft of the winter use plan by this August, before the bison research was complete.

The park is accepting public comments on its draft environmental impact statement through mid-November. Copies of the EIS are available by writing Clifford Hawkes, 12795 W. Alameda Parkway, Lakewood, CO 80228. The EIS is also available online at www.nps.gov/planning/yell/winteruse.

Andrea Barnett writes from the Paradise Valley north of Gardiner, Mont.

You can contact ...

* Andrea Lococo with the Fund for Animals, P.O. Box 11294, Jackson Hole, WY 83002 (307/859-8840);

* Park spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190 (307/344-2010).

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