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Snowmobile battle marks Yellowstone winter season

December 17, 1997

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) _ Bison and business face off as Yellowstone’s winter season opens this month, triggering two migrations that mean life or death for hungry animals and dollar-dependent park communities.

Each winter, more than 110,000 people pour into the park, most of them on almost 60,000 snowmobiles that belch blue smoke as they slice through white powder and bound over hills. The whine of their two-cycle engines echoes through the lodgepole pine.

The groomed trails that they follow twist like veins through 200 miles of trees and meadows in the world’s first national park. Bison trudge those trails, too, avoiding the deep snow that saps their strength as they search for scarce winter forage.

Last year, a record 1,100 bison _ about one-third of Yellowstone’s herd _ were shot or shipped to slaughter because they managed to migrate beyond Yellowstone’s boundaries in Montana. Environmentalists say the groomed snowmobile trails contribute to the migration of the massive animals out of the park and into trouble.

Ranchers fear the bison will spread brucellosis to their cattle. Even worse, they fear that Wyoming and Montana cattle will be shunned by other states because of their possible exposure to the disease.

Environmentalists worry about the impact snowmobiles have on Yellowstone’s environment and wildlife. Two groups filed a lawsuit against the Park Service earlier this year to force a study on winter recreation.

``(Bison) share the road with snowmobiles. It may be a great thing to see, but it’s precisely the problem,″ said D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist in Washington. ``What most people don’t realize is there are consequences to bison using trails.″

Last week, a federal judge in Montana refused to stop the killing of bison that wander out of Yellowstone but said no more than 100 bison can be killed without another court hearing.

Snowmobilers and the businesses they support wonder whether the bison will be used as an excuse to keep them out.

``The bison are simply smoke and mirrors,″ said Vikki Eggers, executive director for the West Yellowstone, Mont., Chamber of Commerce. ``That’s the vehicle they’re using to drive their agenda, which is to stop snowmobiling in the park.″

In response to the lawsuit by the Fund for Animals and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, the Park Service agreed to conduct an environmental impact statement on Yellowstone’s winter use. Yellowstone opened for the winter on Wednesday.

Environmentalists believe the effects of snowmobiles are obvious: The trails make it easier for the bison to move from one area of the park to another.

``The trails inside the park are having a domino effect in that (the bison) are saving energy, fewer die of winter kill, more survive than would or should survive if the parks used the natural management mandate,″ Schubert said.

To those who depend on the park for their livelihoods, however, the battle is over how accessible the park should be to the public.

``This is a small, elite group of individuals trying to carve out a piece of Yellowstone so only they can visit it,″ said Bob Coe, the owner of Pahaska Teepee, a hunting lodge near Yellowstone’s eastern entrance where Western showman Buffalo Bill Cody once entertained dignitaries.

In addition to conducting the impact statement, the Park Service has agreed to study whether to close 14 miles of groomed snowmobile trails next month. The segment is the Hayden Valley Road between Fishing Bridge, near the park’s east entrance, and Canyon.

Authorities said they selected the segment _ used by more than 10,000 snowmobiles each winter _ because it would have the least economic impact on gateway communities. They projected losses of up to $1.3 million for the communities.

Those who depend on the snowmobile industry set the figure much higher.

``Just because we have a diverse economy does not mean we can stand a (trail) closure,″ said Paul Hoffman, the executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. He estimates the losses from closing the trail at closer to $4 million.

West Yellowstone, the takeoff point for about 70 percent of the snowmobiles that enter the park each year, would be hard-hit by a ban.

``We have built our town in good faith in our relationship with the Park Service,″ said Eggers, who grew up in West Yellowstone. ``We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars invested in this community. It feels like the partnership is strained.″

Now, some are trying to address the environmental concerns raised by snowmobiles and avoid possible environmental sanctions limiting their use. Service stations in and around the park are selling gasohol, a mixture of gasoline and ethanol, and synthetic oil to eliminate the blue smoke.

Snowmobile supporters say if the Park Service would cooperate with them, they would forge a solution to concerns about bison while protecting businesses.

``We believe there are good, scientific solutions to any problems that exist,″ Hoffman said. ``(The Park Service) says `We are making decisions based on science. The (National Environmental Policy Act) says they are supposed to consider economics.″

But environmentalists say economic concerns should be secondary to the plight of the bison and other wildlife.

``I’ve lived in the Yellowstone ecosystem for 20 years,″ said Steve Thomas, a spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Cody. ``I never felt like the park owed me a living. The gateway communities exist because the park is over there. It’s not the other way around.″

Unlike Fund for Animals, the coalition says some snowmobile traffic can coexist with bison in Yellowstone, although it also believes some action is needed to protect the animals.

The Fund for Animals believes the cost of snowmobiles to the environment and wildlife is too high.

``There’s a cost in terms of impact to air quality, the impact to the health of employees who are subjected to carbon monoxide,″ Schubert said. ``When a bison walks out of the park and is shot, that bison is priceless. That kind of cost has to be figured into the equation as well.″

Merchants who depend on snowmobiling are willing to fight in court to defend their businesses.

``When it comes down to destroying my business,″ Coe said, ``it’s time to do something.″

End Adv for weekend editions, Dec. 20-21

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