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Park’s East Entrance now open for winter

It’s the first day of winter and, fittingly enough, today (Thursday) also marks the first day that all entrances to Yellowstone National Park are open for the winter season.

Yellowstone’s East Entrance is now open to oversnow visitors and, weather permitting, will stay open through March 1.

The east gate’s sole snowmobiling concessionaire, Gary Fales Outfitting of the Rimrock Dude Ranch, is slated to lead its first visitors into the park on Friday.

Dede Fales said interest so far appears to be on a par with last season, which was the best in several years.

“I think it’s fairly comparable, which is encouraging,” said Fales, who owns the outfitting business with Gary, her husband.

She said the business seems to be getting some good calls and they’re also trying to get the word out to locals about their day-long trips around the park.

Yellowstone’s South and West Entrances opened for the winter on Dec. 15, though a lack of snow has put a crimp on some routes.

Snowmobilers traveling from the East Entrance will be able to travel to Old Faithful, but the route to Canyon from Fishing Bridge remains closed, and the route beyond Old Faithful was open only to rubber-tracked snowcoaches and snowmobiles, Yellowstone Park spokesman Al Nash said Wednesday.

A Wednesday snowstorm brought between 2 and 5 inches to Yellowstone, but “it wasn’t enough to really make any significant change in access,” Nash said.

He said low snow at the beginning of the season isn’t unusual; it’s not a question of whether the park will get enough snow to open all roads, but when, “and that’s not something we can answer.”

Under temporary Park Service rules, as many as 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches are allowed to enter Yellowstone each day this winter. That includes up to 20 daily snowmobiles from the East Entrance.

In May, the Park Service released a draft of its long-term plan, proposing limits that would vary from day-to-day on a schedule announced a year in advance. The draft would have created an average cap of 254 snowmobiles and 63 coaches a day.

The Park Service had said it would announce a final plan by December, but pushed the decision back to early 2012 based on the feedback it received on the draft.

One of the items the agency is reconsidering is whether it’s worth keeping the East Entrance open for the winter.

Not knowing what the 2012-13 winter seasons holds for the East Entrance is “very frustrating,” said Dede Fales. She noted the business’ reluctance to “put out a big bunch of money and then find out it’s closed next year.”

Her other primary complaint is with Park Service regulations that, for lower emissions, require snowmobiles to be replaced after six years of use.

“There’s a reason we’re the only ones,” she said. The Park Service tried to find a snowcoach tour operator for the East Entrance last year, but found no takers.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the East Entrance often saw more than 4,000 snowmobilers each winter. A total of 170 snowmobilers toured the park through the East Entrance with Gary Fales Outfitting last season. It was the highest snowmobile visitation for the entrance since the 2006-07 season.

“Over here, we’re taking care of business,” Dede Fales said. “I don’t think there’s people who want to go but aren’t able because we’re the only ones.”

Though they own fewer snowmobiles than they once did, the Faleses can rent more — as they did last year to accommodate a 10-sled trip of folks from Australia and across the U.S.

“We’re trying not to turn anybody away,” Fales said.

Being the least-traveled gate does bring benefits, she said, with lower traffic and pristine snow.

“The snow is the nicest,” Fales said.

The East Entrance opens and closes earlier than the other gates, primarily as a cost-saving measure. The stretch from the North to Northeast Entrance is plowed year-round.

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