Yellowstone National Park, wrapped in its usual winter coating of snow, is open. All of it. And all roads inside the park are being groomed.
And when it suits them, the buffalo are walking along the packed roads, the same ones being used by snowmobilers, skiers and snow coaches. But not, as some suggest, to escape from the park. They roam in their search for food.Buffalo on one side of the road, snowmobilers on the other - each showing the other mutual respect. Snowmobilers because the bison are bigger, stronger and have horns; the buffalo because the machines with the people in puffy outfits and funny head gear aren't worth burning calories over.
This past summer, a lawsuit filed by a group called Funds for Animals challenged that the grooming was a means of escape for buffalo from the park. The National Park Service, to settle the suit, discussed closing roads inside the park in order to see if they were right. Facing stiff opposition, however, the NPS reviewed the facts and two weeks ago found the grooming had "no significant impact."
A decision signed by John Cook, NPS regional director, and Mike Finley, park superintendent, stated that there would be no road closures inside the park for two years while long-term bison management plans are looked at and that if there were to be any closures there would be a one-year warning.
"So, for at least three years there will be no road closures," said Clyde Seely, owner of Yellowstone Tour and Travel. "That's all we wanted. We felt before they started closing roads they needed more information."
The suit was filed after the loss of about a third of the buffalo in the park last winter. A large number of animals left the park and were either shot or captured as part of a disease-control program. The rest died from starvation. Funds for Animals said the groomed roads were responsible for all the problems.
A study called for by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt found differently. It reported that the loss of animals was a result of: a high population (numbers are down from 3,500 last year to 2,100 this year); heavy snow during one of the worst winters in recorded history; and limited food source.
Last winter, heavy snow fell in early October. This was followed by a thaw, then a freeze that created a thick ice crust. In January, more heavy snow was followed by rain, which then froze.
"It was like a solid layer of concrete. All of the animals in the park suffered, not just the buffalo. The animals migrated out of the park looking for food. Many of those that stayed starved," said Cheryl Matthews, NPS spokesperson.
What angered residents and business owners at entrances outside the park was the secret meeting held between park officials and the animal-rights group and the surprise release of an agreement between the two to close a small section of road between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village. A few newspapers, without checking sources, reported that the entire park would be closed to snowmobiles.
"It's hard to say how much all this hurt business. It hurt, though. We still get people telling us that they heard the park was closed and wondered when it would open. We had to spend a lot of money on damage control. Those are dollars we'll never recover," said Seely.
"Without the services at the park entrances, the park couldn't handle all of the pressure (nearly 3 million visitors a year). You can't ask us to build up the services, then cut back without a reason. We're concerned over the carrying capacity of the park (for animals). We recognize the need to manage the buffalo. No one is against reasonable management. We're concerned about radical concerns and radical decisions."
Overall park visits in 1997 were down about 4 percent from the previous year. Winter use was also down, and some predict it will be down again this year.
When Yellowstone became the country's first national park in 1895, visitor count hit 5,438. It hit 1 million people a year in 1948, 2 million in 1965 and 3 million visitors 1992. In 1997, 2,889,513 people visited Yellowstone.
People come to the park to see the thermal activity - there are more than 10,000 thermal features - and the wildlife, mainly buffalo and elk, and an occasional coyote or wolf.
Many visitors, in fact, prefer the park in the winter.
Cold temperatures turn rising steam into massive clouds. The white snow accents the blend of earth tones created by the geysers, springs and bubbling mud. Buffalo and elk are drawn to lower areas of the park, like river bottoms and thermal areas in the search for food, and are therefore more visible.
Snowmobilers will occasionally chance onto a small group of buffalo on the road. The unwritten code of survival is they give the animals first move. If they take the right side of the road, snowmobilers go left, and vice verse. And if they stand and wait, people and their machines will go slowly around them. And if the buffalo chooses not to move, then the people wait.
It's that way throughout the park. On all the roads.