BILLINGS – Six years of monitoring Yellowstone National Park’s wildlife during winter has shown bison and elk are fairly accustomed to snowmobile and snowcoach use, prompting managers to recommend ending the surveillance.
“Animals have gotten used to visitation and vehicles in the park, but it’s a much more controlled situation today than before,” said Ray McPadden, chief of Environmental Equality at Yellowstone.
Since 2013, the park has limited winter snowmobile and snowcoach use in the park, resulting in a considerable reduction in traffic and visitation.
The park is taking comments on its proposal through Nov. 1. If approved, the workload would be dropped from the staffs’ to-do list beginning this winter.
Yellowstone’s winter season begins on Dec. 15 with limited services.
The recommendation is based on a recently compiled summary report that found 95% of wildlife within 500 feet of groomed park roads showed “no response or a ‘look and resume’ response” to snowmobiles and snowcoaches. During the 2014 and 2019 study period, more than 1,100 groups of wildlife and 6,700 animals were observed. Park regulations require all snowmobiles and snowcoaches to remain on groomed roads.
The fact that animals are showing little response to winter use won’t be a green light for the park to allow more snowmobile and snowcoach visitation, McPadden said.
Winter is a stressful time for wildlife, which is amplified by a lack of nutritious food and cold weather.
Similar monitoring prior to the change in winter operations found roughly 91% of wildlife were observed to demonstrate no response or a “look and resume” response.
“In the future, the park may explore other methods for monitoring wildlife impacts,” the Park Service announced in its news release. McPadden explained that could be some technique that was more sensitive to measuring an animal’s response rather than simply viewing a physical reaction.
The older methods may not detect a biological response by an animal, he said.
“Yellowstone will renew the winter wildlife monitoring program if unexpected changes occur to wildlife populations or if significant adjustments are made to winter operations and use,” the Park Service said.
The report was composed from monitoring that was implemented after Yellowstone undertook a more restrictive winter use policy – a controversial limit on snowcoach and snowmobile use that also required vehicles to have cleaner technology to minimize exhaust fumes and noise, known as best available technology.
Yellowstone adopted its winter use plan in 2013, basing the change on an environmental analysis prompted by 15 years of planning and litigation. The adopted winter plan limited oversnow use to 110 daily transportation events divided between four of the park’s five entrances. The change also required snowmobilers to travel with guides or for nonguided snowmobilers to pass a test before they could lead their own group of no more than 10 into Yellowstone. All vehicles are required to have best available technology.
Prior to arriving at the current plan, Yellowstone had considered plowing the road from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and banning all snowmobiles from the park in winter.
The 2013 change had an economic impact on surrounding gateway communities, especially West Yellowstone – at the park’s West Entrance – which has long advertised itself as the snowmobiling capital of the world.
In the winter of 2003, before restrictions were enacted, the entire park saw more than 48,500 snowcoach and snowmobile visitors. By 2014 that had been cut by more than half to about 19,800 winter tourists.
West Yellowstone suffered the most, falling from about 34,400 snowmobile and snowcoach visitors in 2003 to about 11,400 by 2014.
A 2013 University of Montana estimate put average nonresident travel spending at $161.19 per day. Although winter travelers spent less than their summer counterparts, the loss of revenue to tiny West Yellowstone cost the community millions in revenue, a huge blow to a town of less than 1,000 people.
A 2016 study by Montana State University student Carl Hamming detailed some of the impacts to West Yellowstone, noting the decline in winter visitation mirroring a drop in the town’s annual revenue. This was despite increased summer visitation that began during the same period.
Yet the report also pointed to other factors that complicated the community’s woes, including “resortification,” absentee business ownership, secondary home ownership and low-quality service jobs.
Hamming defined resortification, also called the “Aspen effect” in reference to the Colorado ski town, as: “the process of a small town being converted into a resort destination with numerous vacation properties, increasing absentee business ownership, a highly seasonal economy and escalating real estate prices.
With fewer jobs in the winter, Hamming found the economy of West Yellowstone became more seasonal, accelerating the turnover in employees from year to year.
In his report, Hamming quotes historian Hal Rothman who “argued vehemently against tourism as an economic lifeline and referred to the maneuver by a community to embrace tourism as the devil’s bargain.” Rothman considered tourism, rather than the salvation for a struggling economy, to be a means to provide low-paying jobs, high real estate prices, sprawl and the erosion of a well-connected community.”
The end result is a “manufactured resort town in which the traditional residents can no longer afford to live and operate.” West Yellowstone, he noted, is different from some other resort communities because it was built “by tourism for tourism,” whereas other similar towns may have transitioned from a resource-based economy like mining or logging to tourism.
Snowmobiling in Yellowstone dates back to about 1963, when machines were relatively basic and few existed. “By the late 1980s, well over 100,000 people were visiting” Yellowstone in the winter, Hamming noted.
Prior to the advent of snowmobiling, most West Yellowstone shop owners boarded up their businesses and went elsewhere during the winter.
This year, Yellowstone National Park is on track to record visitation, possibly nearing 4.6 million tourists. Pulling staff from monitoring animal reactions to snowmobile and snowcoaches to prep for summer tourism will be helpful, McPadden said.
“Increasingly, our focus is turning to summer,” he said, including paying more attention to resource impacts when millions of people are in the park.