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Plan to halve Yellowstone snowmobiles gets OK

A judge in Wyoming says he has no authority to block a federal plan to reduce snowmobile traffic in Yellowstone National Park this winter.
Snowmobilers have long had access to Yellowstone in winter, with the 1990s seeing 1,400 machines on peak days. The National Park Service wants to reduce that to 318 for each of the next two winters.Craig Moore / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A judge in Wyoming says he has no authority to block a National Park Service plan to reduce snowmobile traffic in Yellowstone National Park.

Wednesday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer may mean no more than 318 snowmobiles will be allowed in the park each day this winter and next winter. Last year, the park allowed 720 snowmobiles a day.

The question of how many snowmobiles are appropriate for the nation's first national park has sparked political and legal skirmishing since the Clinton administration, when an outright ban was proposed.

Power shifts in Washington and federal lawsuits from environmentalists and snowmobile advocates have led to constantly changing rules for the machines — a factor that advocates contend has dampened snowmobiler interest in Yellowstone.

The prior cap of 720 machines was never reached. An average of 205 snowmobiles daily entered the park in 2008-09, when the busiest day of the season saw only 426 of the machines.

Yellowstone straddles the borders of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. During winter months, the park interior is largely inaccessible except to snowmachines and ambitious skiers and snowshoers.

During the two years the rule would be in effect, the Interior Department will conduct an environmental analysis and try again to craft a permanent snowmobile cap.

1,400 machines at peak
During the 1990s, the average annual peak for snowmobiles in the park was 1,400 machines. That's more than four times the administration's proposal.

Some snowmobile advocates view the new cap as the first step toward pushing them out of the park altogether.

"There's a strong push out there from a radical few that won't stop until there's no winter use" by snowmobiles, Jeff Moberg, president of the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association, said when the 318 cap was first proposed.

Moberg added that restrictions on the machines fail to take account of technological advances that have sharply cut snowmobile pollution.

Those technologies have been required for snowmobiles entering the park for the last several years, said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.

The head of a group of retired park employees that has pushed for tighter snowmobile restrictions called the cap "a step in the right direction."

"It's reasonable to expect they could phase them out from 318 over a two or three year period to zero," said Bill Wade with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.