Bison, 'Bilers and Big Bucks 

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, but it's all meager fare compared to the busy summer months.

It's not that you can't get into the park during this season of short days; the road is plowed up to Mammoth Hot Springs, and also through the Lamar Valley where sight-seers cruise at dawn and dusk in hopes glimpsing one of the park's wolf packs. But few people do, so aside from business brought in by late-season elk hunters, Gardiner's a ghost town from December through March. And that is the specter feared by the business community in West Yellowstone, whose leaders say the park's proposed "winter use plan" will put them under.

"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 out snowmobiles and snowcoaches to winter visitors. "They won't spend $600 to $800 on a plane ticket to fly into Bozeman just to take a 30-minute bus trip to Old Faithful. They'll go elsewhere."

During February, the busiest winter month, West Yellowstone draws twice as many tourists as Gardiner. The town caters to the snowmobile crowd, and while park officials may disagree with Schaap's analysis of the situation, they are nonetheless proposing to shut down snowmobiler traffic from the Montana border town by plowing the road to Madison Junction and on to Old Faithful, and limiting car travel in between. The park will allow people to make parking reservations and haul their snow machines in on trailers, but most tourists will be bussed.

"Mass transit from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful will provide an affordable opportunity for access to the park," explains spokesperson Cheryl Matthews. Officials also hope to cut back on air and noise pollution with the plan.

Those in West call the plan "radical," but they're not the only ones displeased with the idea. In a voluminous, 700-page environmental impact statement (EIS), park officials appear to be trying to please everyone: conservationists, auto-tourists and of course, the snowmobilers. But in fact, they have only managed to anger those on all sides.

Conservationists jump-started the whole process after the winter of 1996-97, when nearly 1,500 bison died, about 400 winter-killed, the rest gunned down or shipped to the slaughterhouse by Montana livestock officials who feared the state would lose its brucellosis-free status if bison and cattle started mingling. Environmentalists, led by the Fund for Animals, sued, pointing out that the park was not paying attention to the effects of motorized vehicles on animals in the winter, the most stressful time of year. The park responded by drafting the EIS, the document now on the table. But when officials decided that plowing the road would be the best option, conservationists were shocked.

"I don't quite understand what the park service is trying to accomplish. They certainly did not address the concerns we raised in the lawsuit," says Andrea Lococo, Rocky Mountain coordinator for the Fund. "No one is happy with the plan, not the snowmobilers, not the business community, certainly not the conservation community. We're just aghast. Hopefully the park service will listen, otherwise we're likely to end up in litigation."

Matthews is a bit confused by Lococo's criticism. She says that the park has followed through on all elements of the lawsuit's settlement agreement, and that if the Fund or anyone else is unhappy with the results, they merely need to participate in the public comment period.

In support of their position, environmentalists often draw upon reports by semi-retired park biologist Mary Meagher, who after 35 years of researching bison, has concluded that the winter road system has had an undeniable effect on the park's herd.

"In the winter of 1980-81, there were roughly 2,000 bison fully occupying their habitat. We had an above-average winter [snow-wise] with above average winter-kill; it was a stressful situation and the bison started to learn the roads," Meagher says. "At that time, there was no bison use west of the Firehole. We now have essentially the same population level and you know what happens west of the Firehole."

These days, aside from some winter foraging and use of geothermal areas in the park's interior, 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. The first orange calves of the year inevitably appear along the rivers' banks. Nearby, not coincidentally, is where Montana sharpshooters have set up residence each year, killing those bison that cross the park's invisible boundary.

"Much of the interior 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."

Indeed, the winter use plan uses terms like "short term," "negligible" and "minor" to describe the impacts of road-plowing and trail-grooming on bison and other animals. The only concession the plan makes for animals is to limit cross-country skiers to the trails in some areas of the park. Matthews says bison research is ongoing, but since the park was mandated by law to come up with a draft EIS by August 1999, officials had to name a preferred alternative based on available data.

Both Meagher and Lococo insist the park has erred by separating the winter use planning process and the bison management EIS, due out in the summer of 2000, which could end up closing roads the park is now considering plowing. But the winter use EIS states that considering the bison controversy was just beyond the plan's scope.

"They've put the cart before the horse," Lococo says, adding that a complete ban on snowmobiles is not politically impossible. "The sheer number of people in the park has a tremendous impact on the park's resources. That's why some parks have chosen to ban snowmobiles during the winter entirely," she says. "Glacier is a good example. They prepared an environmental assessment and concluded that the negative impacts were too many."

Glacier has banned snowmobiles from the northern Montana park since 1974. According to spokesperson David Eaker, it was a decision confirmed in the mid-'90s when the park updated its general management plan. "It was more or less based on the idea of keeping solitude in line," Eaker says. "And in some ways to not turn Glacier into another Yellowstone."

Yellowstone in the winter can be magical; before the snowmobilers descend each year, Hayden Valley is characterized by blinding whiteness, nightly storms, and unrivaled silence. But by mid-December, the snow-packed roads open and the loop connecting Hayden with Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin and Madison Junction takes on all the characteristics of a highway: smog, noise pollution, treacherous traffic conditions.

Bill Schaap and others say these problems can be dealt with without cutting off the loop. "Now the EPA is working on setting standards for emissions, and that's something the community and snowmobile industry is waiting for," he says. "We're asking the park to let us obey those standards the EPA will set."

Economic disaster is not a certain outcome for West, according to Chris Neher, an economist with the Missoula-based firm that has contracted with the park to do a socio-economic analysis for the EIS. Neher's company conducted a study during the federal government shutdown of 1996-97, which included a look at the impacts of the park's closure on West Yellowstone. "Tax receipts dipped only slightly, but that was within the normal range of variation for the park," he says.

"It's difficult to say whether people, if they knew now that Yellowstone would be closed [to snowmobiles] in Decem-ber and January, would still make travel arrangements. But the results were striking. What it did tell us is that there are hundreds of miles of Forest Service land with snowmobile trails nearby. A lot of people who go there will spend a day in the park, but will be in West for four or five days and be on Forest Service land for the rest of the time."

Neher agrees that the study's results have limited application, and says it will be a while before his company comes up with any definitive answers. But West's Chamber of Commerce director has already made up her mind. "If you happen to have an industry that's based on people going into the park on their own, on rental snowmobiles or snowmobiles they own, there's obviously going to be an economic impact on this community," says Marysue Costello.

Further, she says, the park will have to attract a different sort of winter tourist to make the plan work. "They'll have to find that market, be able to present their case to that market, because the experience will change," Costello says. "Right now it's adventurous, there's a mystique about it. Instead, you'll be getting on a bus and I can do that in the summer."

And for West's businesses, she adds, "that transition time is going to be wrenching, I believe."

Meanwhile, Montana congressman Rick Hill has jumped in the fray, urging local governments to sue if they don't like the plan. In an article in the Bozeman Chronicle, Hill was quoted as telling Gallatin County Commissioners that "It's my view that the Park Service isn't empathetic to the concerns of the gateway communities."

While Meagher acknowledges the situation is a complex one, politically speaking, she says it's the hard data to which the park isn't paying sufficient attention. "Biologically, there is no precedent world-wide. Bison are not big cattle, they're not big elk. And it's a constantly changing situation that's taken me a long time to comprehend. But the data is real.

"This is the last of the last wild herd. 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."

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