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West Yellowstone businesses to stay the course this winter

BOZEMAN, Mont. — The majority of West Yellowstone businesses are expected to open this winter, despite a disastrous snowmobile season in neighboring Yellowstone National Park last year.

Confusion over conflicting court rulings and politics caused a large drop-off in visitors last winter and cost surrounding businesses thousands of dollars. Some scaled down operations. Others shut down.

Marysue Costello, director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, predicts 10 to 15 percent of local businesses will close this winter but stressed a lot more will be open.

"Will everything be open? No, it will not," she said. "But will all of the services be open and available? You bet they will."

The biggest difference over last winter is a temporary plan proposed by the National Park Service. The plan — slated to last three years until a permanent one is crafted — would allow 720 guided snowmobiles a day into the park, including 400 through the gate at West Yellowstone.

News of any kind of snowmobile plan has brought smiles to the faces of many West Yellowstone business owners.

But some, like Randy Roberson, are still scaling back. Roberson is closing two of his three hotels this winter and he ordered a fraction of the rental snowmobiles he normally does because of low reservations.

"I'm looking at our advanced reservations and they're horrible," he said. "They're about on par to put us at or below where we were last year."

Other businesses are still on the fence about opening. Some with multiple interests are closing several down, cutting back on staff or scaling back hours to keep their costs down.

"I'm hearing caution in terms of hiring," Costello said. "There's still a number of people out there who are making up their minds."

Eric Tips, owner of the Beartooth Barbecue restaurant, stayed open during the winter for the first time last year and nearly went into bankruptcy. He's still willing to give it one more try.

"I'm kind of a fighter . . . you shouldn't quit after one bad season," Tips said.

To combat confusion over the park's snowmobile status, West Yellowstone's chamber launched an ad campaign this summer stressing that the town is open for business all year.

But it also sought to separate the community from the park, mentioning the 20,000 acres of public land outside Yellowstone open to snowmobiles, cross country skiing and other winter sports.

"People can obviously come here and have a good time, and that's what we wanted to get across," Costello said.

The northern gateway town of Cooke City has taken that route for years, aggressively promoting its own trails and attractions. So far, it's worked. The community has avoided recent dips in snowmobile numbers and has managed to maintain a healthy winter economy, said Scherry Dodd, manager of the High Country Motel in Cooke City.

"The controversy in the park didn't affect us at all," she said.