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Yellowstone.com, Three Bears Lodge
A snowcoach travels through the park.

This winter, within Yellowstone National Park, there will be the usual sights, like bubbling geysers, buffalo roaming and quite possibly a few wolves in pursuit of a good meal.

There will also be snowmobiles and snowcoaches on the groomed trails within the park.

And under the recently released record of decision issued by the park last month, there will be snowmobiles and snowcoaches in the park in the winters to come.

The park is scheduled to open for the winter on Dec. 19.

This winter the allowable limit for on-snow travel, which was set under an appropriations bill issued by Congress in 2005, is 720 snowmobiles per day and 87 snowcoaches, with no limits on the number of cross country skiers.

Next winter, however, the final numbers allowed under the record of decision — derived at after the park's three-year study on sound and emissions — will be reduced to 540 snowmobiles and 83 snowcoaches allowed into the park each day during the winter schedule.

Also, all snowmobiles going into the park this year and in the future must fall under the best available technology classification and must go into the park with a professional guide.

The numbers, said Al Nash, spokesman for the park, fall within acceptable limits and tolerances for both sound and emissions.

"There's no question, (park staff) have done the job set down before us, which was to deal with the unacceptable impacts we had under historic conditions," said Nash.

"We have a great deal of confidence on the data we've been able to collect under conditions of limited (snowmobile) use and with the new (best available technology) machines."

Within hours of the decision, two lawsuits challenging the inclusion of snowmobiles were filed, one under a group lead by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the second by the National Park and Conservation Association. Those lawsuits are not expected to be addressed until after the winter season.

The groups are asking for the complete elimination of snowmobiles in the park in favor of snowcoaches.

Nash admitted, however, that there were still some areas in the environmental impact statement, which was conducted over the three years, "that still need to be addressed to better ensure our protection of resources."

This would include enforcing sound and emission standards for snowcoaches by the winter of 2010-11.

Several years ago, all snowmobiles that were being allowed into the park had to fall under best available technology classification.

This would include snowmobiles with four-stroke engines that meet or fall below sound and emission levels set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Jack Welch, president of the BlueRibbon Coalition, said the park's study found the carbon monoxide level of new machines at the west entrance was 2.1 parts per million and at Old Faithful 2 parts per million. OSHA standards allow for 35 parts per million. In the area of particulate matter, the new machines gave off 7.2 micrograms per cubic meter at the west entrance and 8.9 at Old Faithful. The acceptable standard is 65 micrograms.

"So you can see the new snowmobiles fall well within what has been set as acceptable levels of emission," he noted.

"As we looked at specifics of the ongoing challenge with sound, what our data showed was that manufacturers of BAT snowmobiles have done a good job, but the biggest challenge now involves older technology still in use, which involves the older snowcoaches," said Nash.

"They were built for standards that were appropriate when they were designed and built, but not now."

According to Nash, all roads will be open, with the exception of the leg between Canyon and Tower, which has been closed in the winter for many years.

"All other roads will be open and groomed this winter," confirmed Nash.

Clyde Seely, owner of the Three Bears Lodge in West Yellowstone, suggested that those planning a winter trip into the park call ahead and make reservations, "just to make sure they have one of the available openings for a specific day."

Snowmobiles remain the most popular method of transportation into the park in the winter.

A report from the winter of 2006-07 showed snowmobile visitors totaled 31,805 compared with 28,833 in the 2005-06 season for a 10.31 percent increase.

Snowcoach visitorship increased to 20,350 for the 2006-07 season from 19,856 in the 2005-06 season for an increase of 2.49 percent increase.

Those opting for snowcoaches will find significant changes have been made in their design and comfort in recent years. Seely said vans used for summer tours are, in fact, converted to winter use.

Newer coaches are much larger. In some cases they allow passengers to stand and move about and have wrap-around windows.

Those going into the park this winter can expect to see the usual array of wildlife.

The buffalo herd is currently at near-record levels. The latest count puts the herd at 4,700 animals. The high was 4,900 counted in 2005.

Elk, deer, moose and even wolf numbers are at stable numbers.

"Going into winter we have no wildlife issues outside of those we typically expect," Nash noted.

Which means wildlife remains abundant.

And, for now, and very likely in the future, this will be a part of the winter experience in Yellowstone for those on the seat of a snowmobile or inside a snowcoach.

For more information on winter visits to Yellowstone National Park visit www.yellowstone.com or www.nsp.gov/yell.

E-mail: [email protected]