BILLINGS - With temperatures regularly climbing into the 90s, it may be hard to believe that Yellowstone National Park officials are already planning for the upcoming winter season.
On Monday at a meeting in West Yellowstone, park outdoor recreation planner Christina Mills will be talking to a group of snowmobilers, snowcoach operators and cross country skiers about what worked well last winter and what could be done better this season.
“The whole point is to recognize that we are learning new things and that we can incorporate them into the park and get the public involved,” Mills said.
The process is known as adaptive management. It’s part of Yellowstone’s new winter use adaptive management plan, which was first fully implemented last season.
It was also the first season for the park’s new non-commercially guided snowmobiling system — one of the topics to be discussed at next week’s meeting.
One of the problems identified with the new unguided snowmobiling system was that some people were applying for permits for three days but decided, for whatever reason, not to ride in the park all of those days. That meant days were booked but not used.
“We’re looking at ways to structure pricing to encourage them to use all of the days,” said Alicia Murphy, coordinator of the program.
Under the new system, those snowmobilers who don’t want to travel with a guide must take an online safety course. Last season, 539 people took the two-hour course.
After passing the session, the snowmobilers can enter a lottery to apply for days they would like to ride in Yellowstone. The new rules allow only one group of up to five snowmobilers into the park each day from each of Yellowstone’s four winter entrances. The riders can ask for permission to ride in the park from one to three days.
Although the lottery system allows these snowmobilers to pick up to eight separate dates that they would like to enter the park, Murphy said most applicants only chose one. They also tended to choose one gate in particular.
“The west gate was the most popular by a pretty large margin,” she said.
The west gate is located on the edge of West Yellowstone, a town touted as the snowmobile capital of the world. The majority of summer and winter tourists enter the park via the West Entrance.
Yellowstone issued 89 non-commercially guided snowmobile permits that used 154 days out of the 279-day winter season. But there were actually 185 permits reserved after the lottery weeded through 379 applications.
“So there were a lot of no-shows or they were not used because of our late opening or early closing dates,” Murphy said.
The West Entrance closed a month-and-a-half early because of poor snow conditions this year.
Murphy will also ask the working group about tweaks to the online test to make certain parts clearer so there’s no ambiguity. But overall, she said the public and park staff were pleased with the new snowmobile program.
“This is probably one of the best-educated groups of anyone who enters any park,” Murphy said. “Obviously, all of these things serve to protect the resource.”
Another new item that may protect the resource while aiding travel into Yellowstone in winter is snowcoaches equipped with low-pressure rubber tires that can travel atop the snow. Unsure about what the impacts would be, the park conducted a pilot study last season with eight coaches and plans to expand the program this season.
“Next winter we’re experimenting with some bigger, wider tires and a broader variety of tire sizes,” Mills wrote in an email. “We expect to have approximately 20 snowcoaches experimenting with low-pressure tires next winter.”
In the park’s limited study, it was determined that the low-pressure tires were about two to three times more fuel-efficient than tracked coaches on the same day, were also quieter and passengers felt the ride was more comfortable.
Mills said the park staff is still evaluating a number of criteria that the fat-tired vehicles must meet before being permitted for continual use, but that the early tests seem promising.
In addition to these topics, Mills said the working group will discuss what winter management topic deserves the highest priority.
Time to talk
Monday’s meeting is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Visitor Information Center in West Yellowstone. The morning session of the public meeting will include updates on the development of the draft plan. To assist with logistics and preparation, those planning to attend the meeting are asked to email an RSVP to Christina_Mills@nps.gov by Thursday.
The draft plan is available for public review and comment on the Park Service website at www.parkplanning.nps.gov/wuamp.
Comments may also be made in person at the public meeting, hand-delivered, or mailed to Mills at: Office of the Superintendent, Adaptive Management Plan, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190. The deadline to submit comments is Aug. 21.
At the conclusion of the public comment period, the NPS will analyze and consider all feedback received for inclusion in the final adaptive management plan, scheduled for release in 2016. For more information about winter use in Yellowstone, as well as the plan, visit www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/winteruse.htm.