Good News, Bad News on Groomed Trails in Yellowstone National Park

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by Jack Welch,
BRC President

On August 13th the headline of the Jackson Hole Guide newspaper read "USGS biologist appalled by herd size in air survey". The herd referred to is, of course, the Yellowstone National Park Bison (buffalo) herd. What Mary Meagher, U.S.Geological Survey biologist, was referring to in the headline was the most recent effort to measure the size of the Park's bison herd.

I am sure you are aware of the plight of the bison herd in Yellowstone this last winter. The issue was covered extensively in the national media. The original published accounts from the Park Service sources estimated a loss of nearly 1900 animals out of a herd of 3500. The blame for this high loss of bison was continually linked to groomed snowmobile trails within the park. Mary Meagher, U.S.Geological Survey biologist who has studied the Yellowstone bison herd for the past 20 years, has provided us with some GOOD NEWS and some BAD NEWS about the effect of groomed trails on the Yellowstone bison herd.

First, the GOOD NEWS. The new revised count of the bison herd in Yellowstone Park shows that out of the 800 that had been estimated to have died during the last winter in the park 600 to 700 have been found to be alive. The 600 to 700 bison that were missed in the Park's earlier counts had used the groomed snowmobile trails to move to thermal areas and found food and survived this very hard winter. Additional GOOD NEWS: Biologist Meagher stated in the Jackson news article that contrary to reports in the national news media the bison do not use the groomed snowmobile trails to leave the Yellowstone Park boundaries in the winter. The bison use natural migration routes near the west and northern road entrances, and the bison do not and never have used the roads in those areas. So the connection between the approximately 1100 bison moving into Montana because of groomed snowmobile trails and being captured or shot is not valid.

My conclusion based on Mary's information is that grooming of snowmobile trails in Yellowstone actually helped the bison to survive last year's hard winter! Now for the BAD NEWS. Biologist Mary Meagher also stated that even though the groomed snowmobile trails allowed hundreds of bison who might otherwise have starved to death during this last winter to find food, these missing bison that have now been found are congregated heavily in fragile areas like the Firehole River Basin on the east side of the Park and the bison are damaging these fragile areas. If there were no groomed trails, she said, the energy expenditure of the bison would be too great and the bison would stay more evenly distributed throughout the Park as they have in the past. So, my conclusion is that grooming snowmobile trails in Yellowstone Park can be both a positive or negative force depending whether you are a bison or a biologist. HA!

However, it appears that the bison have more to lose than the biologist in this matter! A related issue centers on the Yellowstone fragile thermal areas. The Diversa Corporation of California just signed an agreement with Yellowstone National Park to share any profits from its research on microscopic organisms. DiversaCorp. believes that microbes which live in the extreme temperatures of the hot pools could provide a wealth of information for pharmaceutical companies and other business. I wonder if groomed snowmobile trails will be a plus or a minus as this relationship between private industry and Yellowstone National Park develops? One thing for sure, the bison who survived the last cold hard winter will not be alone as researchers begin to do their bio prospecting this coming winter!

By now you may be asking yourself why the big interest in bison in Yellowstone National Park? The answer is that the issue of groomed snowmobile trails and the bison in the Park is center stage to the lawsuit filed to stop all grooming of snowmobile trails in the Park this winter. The BlueRibbon Coalition (BRC) and the American Council of Snowmobile Associations (ACSA) Task Force continue their effort to intervene in this law suit. Remember that the effort to maintain your ability to visit Yellowstone in the winter will continue to be a major effort of the BlueRibbon Coalition. Watch the BRC magazine for updates on this effort of the BRC/ACSA Legal Action Task Force.

November 25, 2014 11:00 AM
(BRC Western Representative)
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