Cap on Yellowstone snowmobiles proposed

Snowmobilers have long had access to Yellowstone in winter, with the 1990s seeing 1,400 machines on peak days. Craig Moore / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A proposal released Thursday by the National Park Service would allow no more than 330 snowmobiles a day into Yellowstone National Park during the winter — a significant reduction from recent years.

The agency had been studying several options, ranging from 720 snowmobiles a day to an outright ban as it wrestles with the long-running dispute between environmentalists and snowmobile enthusiasts.

During the past two winters, officials have allowed 318 snowmobiles and 78 multi-passenger snow coaches a day under temporary rules. In previous years, as many as 720 snowmobiles were permitted.

The new proposal would allow the 318 snowmobiles and 78 snow coaches for one more winter, with the proposed changes taking effect in the 2012-13 winter season. In addition, all snowmobilers would still be required to arrange for guides, and snow coaches for the first time would be required to install engines that emit less pollution.

The recommendation will be followed by more study and public comment. A final decision is expected later this year and, given the history of the contested issue, likely will end up in a federal court.

Yellowstone straddles the borders of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. During winter months, the interior of the nation's first national park is largely inaccessible except by snow machines, skiers and snowshoers.

The dispute over snowmobiles has been going on for years and resulted in multiple court challenges and rulings.

Environmentalists want snowmobiles banned from the park because they contend the noise and pollution from the machines disturb the wildlife and serenity in the park.

But snowmobile manufacturers, users and businesses around the park that rent the machines to tourists say snowmobiles are key to the economies of surrounding communities during the winter season.

Since 2000, the Park Service has come out with five different winter use plans and proposals for Yellowstone. Federal courts have overturned three of the decisions on snowmobile use.

For the past two years, the Park Service has allowed 318 commercially guided snowmobiles and 78 multi-passenger snow coaches daily. A new plan must be adopted by next winter or all motorized access will be barred.

Under its latest proposal, the Park Service wants to allow between 110 and 330 snowmobiles a day. Between 30 and 80 snow coaches would be allowed. Based on Yellowstone's 90-day winter season, the park could average 254 snowmobiles a day. It averaged 194 this past winter.

Snowmobiles have been used in Yellowstone since 1963. During the winter that began in 1992, about 90,000 visitors to the park used snowmobiles. This past winter, 22,691 people rode in the park on the machines.