Snowmobile and snowcoach visits to Yellowstone were down more than 10 percent this year, but visitation stayed steady thanks to an increase in automobile visits through the park’s North Entrance.
For the East Entrance, the 487 recorded visits reflected a nearly 4 percent increase from last year’s 469 visits. That’s because more skiers and snowshoers traipsed through the park’s east gate this year (377 versus 301), the second-best total in 15 years. However, snowmobile visits sunk by a third, to 110 visitors. That’s among the worst totals on record.
Unsafe snow conditions led to more East Entrance closures than last year, though the owner of the lone snowmobiling concessionaire for the gate also attributes part of the down year to “all of the indecision” on the future of winter use in Yellowstone.
“People are just losing interest, that’s how it felt to us,” said Dede Fales, who co-owns Gary Fales Outfitting at Rimrock Ranch with her husband. They’re the only business offering snowmobile tours of the park through the East Entrance.
“We remain in that difficult position of, ‘How do you market a business that you don’t really know the future of?’” Fales said.
The Park Service is currently developing a plan to guide winter use in Yellowstone and has not yet announced what rules will be in place for the 2012-2013 winter season. Over the past three seasons, the Park Service has allowed up to 318 snowmobiles and 78 snowcoaches a day.
Winter use in Yellowstone has been mired in controversy for over a decade between environmentalists who contend snowmobiling is not appropriate in Yellowstone and want a transition to only snowcoaches, and snowmobile advocates who say the Park Service has already put too many restrictions on snowmobiling.
Snowmobiles in Yellowstone must meet low-noise and low-emission requirements, be replaced every six years, stay on groomed roads and snowmobilers must be led by a commercial guide, among other requirements.
The Park Service is considering an idea pushed by Wyoming and Park County officials to allow non-commercial guiding.
Other options under consideration include allowing more snowmobiles, banning them or completely closing the East Entrance during the winter.
“Right now, there’s no future. We’re just year-to-year,” said Fales. “I think until some decision’s made, it (visitation) is just going to continue to fall off.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the East Entrance typically saw several thousand snowmobilers each year, but those numbers have plummeted.
Snowcoach service into Yellowstone was provided from the East Entrance for five seasons between December 2003 and March 2008, but that company quit operating and no one replaced it.
With 487 visits this winter season, the East Entrance was Yellowstone’s the least-visited gate, with the next-closest being the 11,158 visits through the South Entrance.
The Park Service has said keeping the east gate open — including avalanche mitigation operations at Sylvan Pass — costs around $325,000 a year.
Environmental groups advocate for the closure of the East Entrance to save money and say the Park Service’s practice of triggering avalanches with explosives is unsafe. East Entrance advocates say the Park Service has more than enough safety measures in place and that other parts of the park have high maintenance costs.
In 2007, the Park Service planned to close the entrance in the winter, but later reached a compromise with local elected officials and reversed course. Under a cost-saving aspect of that agreement, the East Entrance opens about a week later and closes two weeks earlier than the other gates.
“That’s a lot, and especially in the spring, when it’s so nice, they just cut us right off,” said Fales of the season shortening.
She said media coverage of winter use’s uncertainty and closures of the east gate also depress demand.
“I’ve had people in Cody even say, ‘I didn’t know you could even snowmobile in Yellowstone National Park,’” Fales said.
A full 10 days and three partial days of the 71-day winter season were closed due to avalanche danger on Sylvan Pass.
That came primarily from three storms in December, January and February. The longest closure was a five-day stint between Feb. 22 and Feb. 26; travel over the pass was shut down during part of the day on Feb. 21 and Feb. 27, too.
Overall, the pass saw the most closures since the 2007-08 winter season. Fales said three or four snowmobile trips had to be cancelled.
Last season, there was only one full day closed and six partial days due to unsafe conditions.
Despite the difficulty of doing business and uncertainty, “We’re going to hang with it,” Fales said. “Until they tell us we can’t do it anymore.”
The overwhelming majority of Yellowstone visits come during the summer season. For example, last July, the average day brought more than 3,900 visitors through the East Entrance — eight times the number of east gate visitors this entire 71-day winter season.
The East Entrance is scheduled to open for the summer on May 4.