Yellowstone Biologists: Politics, Not Science, Likely Will Decide Snowmobile Issue
"...Science cannot resolve issues where policy is advocated due to values judgments and perceptions about what is appropriate in national parks."
If you've been following the Yellowstone snowmobile debate these past six years, you know how very true that statement is. The fact that it's contained in the park's latest study on how wildlife respond to over-the-snow vehicles (OSV) is telling, even if it is buried on page 20 of the 36-page report that you can find here.
The inclusion of that statement makes it obvious to me that the park's wildlife biologists realize politics, not science, more than likely will swing this issue to its final conclusion.
And, of course, with the Bush administration still in power, with Mary having already voiced her support for snowmobiles in Yellowstone, and with the park's very own draft Environmental Impact Statement voicing a preference for up to 720 snowmobiles in the park on a daily basis, science very likely will be ignored once again.
And that's disappointing and sad on so many points and, I suppose, arguably constitutes negligence on the park of the Park Service. After all, the agency so very clearly is mandated by the National Park Service Organic Act and its very own, newly minted Management Policies, to protect parks from impacts that could lead to impairment.
And the snowmobile studies -- those on noise pollution, air quality, and now wildlife -- all point to substantial impacts. Of course, the fine point that will no doubt be haggled over is whether those impacts constitute impairment of park resources or can satisfactorily be mitigated.
Whether advocacy groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association or The Wilderness Society push that issue if the current preferred alternative becomes the final preferred alternative and then the law of the land in Yellowstone every winter remains to be seen.
In the meantime we get to watch the twisting in the wind of Yellowstone officials as they explain their current preferred alternative in light of the latest study on how OSV vehicles -- both snowmobiles and snowcoaches -- affect the park's bison, elk, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, foxes, coyotes and other wildlife and in light of their biologists' recommendation.
Right up front, on the very first page, the biologists "recommend park managers consider maintaining OSV traffic levels at or below those observed during our study." (My emphasis) That recommendation is reiterated at the end of the document.
Just so you know what those levels are, according to the report, OSV numbers through the West Entrance during the study years were 320 plus/minus 114 during the winter of 2002-03; 178 plus/minus 59 in 2003-04; 156 plus/minus 70 in 2004-05, and; 181 plus/minus 56 last winter, according to the report.
In their analysis of OSV--wildlife interactions, the biologists noted that bison, bald eagles, coyotes, elk and trumpeter swans all responded in varying manners to the traffic, with bison seemingly the least affected, at least through outward actions.
Too, they also noted that "while OSVs often elicited no observable movement responses by wildlife, recreational activities can also cause physiological responses such as elevated heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and release of adrenaline."
In other words, animals can be affected by winter-time traffic, whether it be on snowmobiles, snowcoaches, skis or snowshoes, without outwardly showing that discomfort.
"The wildlife species we studied are acutely aware of their surroundings and any human activity in close proximity will likely elicit some response, even if it is not detectable by an observer," the biologists wrote. "Thus, it is unrealistic to expect winter recreation or administrative travel by park staff to be totally benign, regardless of whether the activity is skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or driving an automobile. As a result, park managers must seek ways to minimize, to the greatest degree practicable, adverse effects to park resources and values."
I don't think anyone expects winter recreation, and certainly not summer recreation, to be totally benign in Yellowstone. But what those concerned about the park's many resources hope for, and what Yellowstone officials are required to provide, are management plans and decisions that limit as greatly as possible impacts on those resources.
The challenge for Yellowstone officials, and for Mary and Dirk above her, is to make their decision on snowmobiling in the park based on science, not on politics. And with the present administration in charge, that will be a tough decision, although it shouldn't be.
The Wilderness Society's Kristen Brengel has long followed this debate. Snowmobiles in Yellowstone, she told me, have been batted around politically so much and for so long that the issue more than likely will be decided politically with this administration, not on the science.
Time after time, she added, whether the issue involves snowmobiles in Yellowstone or ATVs on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands in southern Utah or personal watercraft at Cape Hatteras, the land-management agencies under President Bush have tossed aside the science.
Over at the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade agreed.
"To me, it's very disappointing that, given the whole context of things right now, they're still persisting in this approach that 720 snowmobiles is the preferred alternative when the evidence" from the sound, wildlife, and air-quality studies, as well as public attitude, goes against that decision, he said.
"In my judgment, they haven't adequately explained why they are persisting in that."
Hopefully in the coming months we'll get that explanation. By the time the draft EIS is released for public comment in March, the park's preferred alternative could change. Let's hope so.