The National Park Service has approved a plan to restrict snowmobile numbers in Yellowstone National Park to less than half of last winter's limit.
The park on Thursday announced daily limits that will allow up to 318 snowmobiles and up to 78 snowcoaches per day in the park for the next two winter seasons.
The park has allowed up to 720 snowmobiles a day into the park over the past five winters, but actual use has been far less.
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said the park saw an average of 205 snowmobiles and 29 snowcoaches a day last winter. The park's highest recorded day was 557 snowmobiles in late December 2007.
Nash said the Park Service will keep the 318-snowmobile limit in place for Yellowstone over the next two winter seasons as it crafts a permanent winter-use management plan for the park.
Disagreement over how many snowmobiles to allow into the park for years has pitted the state of Wyoming and some tourist communities near the park against the National Park Service and environmental groups determined to reduce traffic they say can disturb wildlife and the area's tranquility.
Those against, for limits
Wyoming's congressional delegation issued a joint press release blasting the federal agency's decision.
"The snowmobile and snowcoach numbers weren't sufficient when the proposed rule came out in July and they aren't sufficient now," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the state's senior U.S. senator. "More people should be allowed in the park, not less."
But Patricia Dowd, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, called the Park Service decision a step in the right direction.
Dowd said scientific studies have found that snow coaches — vans fitted with special treads to move over the snow — are more environmentally friendly than individual snowmobiles.
"For the past 10 years, both the Park Service and the EPA have looked at noise and air quality and impacts to wildlife and impacts to other park visitors," Dowd said. "So we want the best experience for both park visitors and natural resources of the park."
Past winter use plans have prompted federal lawsuits in both Wyoming and Washington.
Wyoming is pressing one federal lawsuit in a Denver appeals court. The state is trying to get the court's permission to allow a federal judge in Wyoming to consider whether to block the new Park Service plan.
Wyoming House Speaker Colin Simpson, R-Cody, has worked to keep snowmobile traffic flowing into the park's east entrance. The Park Service had proposed closing Sylvan Pass, which leads to that entrance, but relented recently under intense state and federal political pressure.
Simpson said Wednesday he believes limiting snowmobile traffic to 318 machines a day will be a hardship for businesses on the east side of the park.
"It's been a hardship every time it's been decreased," Simpson said. "And it seems as though we never get it back up unless it's a court ruling."