APRIL FOOLS: Compromise reached on Yellowstone winter use

Posted 4/1/11

“It’s been a long, bumpy road, but finally, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Yellowstone’s winter visitors,” said National Park Service Director Jon Picklejarvis in a news release sent this morning. “Thanks to unprecedented …

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APRIL FOOLS: Compromise reached on Yellowstone winter use


The unending legal saga appears to have ended.Joined by a coalition of environmental interests, recreation groups and Wyoming officials, the National Park Service today announced a “precedent-shattering” winter use plan that they say has the support of all interested parties.

“It’s been a long, bumpy road, but finally, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Yellowstone’s winter visitors,” said National Park Service Director Jon Picklejarvis in a news release sent this morning. “Thanks to unprecedented cooperation between diverse public interests and creative efforts to involve as many park stakeholders as possible, the park has a policy that should last for generations to come.”

This plan — which still must be finalized — differs starkly from past plans in that it sets no concrete limits on daily snowmobiles or snowcoaches in Yellowstone. Instead, use will be determined weekly by a panel of animal experts from around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The release did not specify what those limits might be, but indicated they would be “potentially higher than limits enforced under past rules.”

The winter plan was crafted behind closed doors with representatives from many of the groups involved in winter use litigation over the past decade, along with a group of what Picklejarvis called the park’s smartest animals.

“Coming up with a new, lasting plan necessitated new discussions,” Picklejarvis said.

Bill, a Yellowstone bison who winters near Pahaska Teepee Lodge, said he charged at the chance to offer his perspective on the panel.

“These groups have been going back and forth about how disruptive these snowmobiles are and how many there should be, but the fact is 90 percent of us don't give two chips,” he said.

Park service research has shown only about 10 percent of elk and bison visibly react to snowmachines.

Bill said those dissenting animals have a right to disagree, but “that small group shouldn’t stop the winter economies” of the Yellowstone’s gateway communities. He said the park's summer visitors are generally more stressful than the relatively few in the winter, who must be led by a commercial guide.

“I wish some of the idiots who try riding me had a professional guide,” said the bison, who was one of five animals in the planning group.

Other participants in the process said the animals’ perspective was key to changing the tenor of the debate over winter use.

“When you have a grizzly sitting across the table and literally telling you, ‘I can hibernate through as many of those machines as you want to send my way,’ it just changes your perspective,” said Jeff Squelch, who represented the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in the planning.

Squelch also noted the difficulty of arguing with a bear.

Park County Commissioner Tim American, who also served on the planning panel, credited the Park Service's approach with changing the tone of the proceedings from one of confrontation to one of cooperation.

“Things became a heck of a lot easier when we realized that everyone — from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to the National Parks Conservation Association — really had Park County’s best interests at heart,” said American. “I give them a lot of credit.”

The new winter use plan calls for the East Entrance to remain open for winter travelers. Snow enthusiasts will be allowed to cross Sylvan Pass at any time. In a cost-cutting move, visitors will be permitted to trigger their own avalanches when conditions become unsafe by using best available technology C-4.

To deal with sagging visitation, the park service will require at least 60 snowmobilers to enter the park through the East Entrance each day.

In a statement, the National Parks Conservation Association said the forced East Entrance visitation was a “win-win.”

“By requiring at least 60 snowmobilers to use the Sylvan Pass each day, taxpayers have a guarantee that the $325,000 annual management cost will be put to good use while Park County can be assured that a vital part of their winter economy will thrive,” the group said.

The park service release did not indicate where the 60 daily snowmobilers would come from.

All of the closely-guarded discussions were held over the past six months inside Yellowstone National Park boundaries. There had been talk of holding a meeting in Gardiner, but buffalo Bill nixed that idea; Cody was ruled out when the Lamar Valley wolf expressed concern for her safety.

However, the panel sessions were still not without tragedy; American said they were on the third elk representative after the first two were eaten by the wolf panelist.

Reached at her Lamar Valley den on Friday, the wolf said there was “a lot more to the story,” but declined further comment, citing the sensitive nature of ongoing discussions about her species’ future.

If the proposed rule survives a 30-day public comment period and final National Park Service approval, they would go into effect for the 2011-2012 season.

There was no questioning the optimism today.

“I wanted this issue to be resolved for my great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren,” said Peter, a cottontail rabbit from Madison who will serve on the advisory panel setting weekly visitor limits. “They were starting to ask me if this thing would ever end.”

It was unclear how long the optimism would last. While not directly opposing the new winter plan, Montana Gov. Brian Shyster blasted the process during a conference call with reporters for not including his state.

“It’s beyond insane that the Park Service would not involve the state (Montana) that plays home to most of Yellowstone,” Shyster said.

Responding to an email inquiry from a Tribune reporter, Yellowstone park spokesman Al Gnash dismissed a suggestion that the whole thing was an April Fool’s joke.

Gnash wrote: “Is it really so hard to believe that these groups would come together to reach a common-sense agreement?”