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Yellowstone National Park Winter Numbers Down

There are some definite trends when we look at the numbers. First, as mentioned, the number of snowmobilers entering the Park was down for the second straight year. Some of that is due to the poor snowpack at the beginning and end of the winter season, but it also is a harbinger of another larger trend: there simply are fewer people snowmobiling these days. Polaris, one of the leasing sled manufacturers, reported a 32 percent slide in snowmobile sales in its most recent financial results; despite the drop, Polaris had a very good quarter, reporting a 16 percent overall rise in revenues. Polaris, of course, also makes all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles, and the company’s growth is tied to growth in these segments. So people are still buying recreational vehicles: they’re just not buying snowmobiles. And as National Park Service officials debate the future of winter recreation in Yellowstone, this decline should be taken into account.

So if they’re not snowmobiling into the Park, how are visitors arriving? Mostly by car. Over half of the visitors to Yellowstone National Park arrived to the North Entrance via car — some 54,437 people. That’s up significantly over 2008-2009, and it’s a case where the light snowpack actually helped visitors: bad weather didn’t occur the casual visitors coming down from Bozeman, Livingston or Billings.

Snowcoach numbers were also up: 20,388 people took a snowcoach into the Park, mostly (we’re guessing) via the West Entrance. That’s up over 2008-2009 as well.

Will numbers to Yellowstone National Park be up in future years? Undoubtedly. But if these numbers trends — and we strongly suspect they will — the next Winter Use Plan should reflect how people actually want to use to Park. Traditionally the assumption has been that most visitors to the interior of the Park (as opposed to the daytrippers, who enter via the North) want to snowmobile in. But snowcoaching is at parity with snowmobiling, and if snowcoaching were any cheaper and more accessible the number, we think, would rise and considerably outpace the snowmobile numbers.

Of course, there’s one thing to do in the next Winter Use Plan that would truly be a gamechanger: allow cars access to Old Faithful. We can’t think of a way where both snowmobiles and cars could occupy the road between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful, however; that dramatic a decision would have some serious ripple effects in the West Yellowstone economy, though we’re guessing there would be a dramatic overall hike in the visitor numbers, you’re telling some existing companies they’re out of luck. (Of course, you’re also telling Xanterra and other snowcoach operators that their most lucrative line is on the endangered list; visitors would be the winners, and vendors would be the losers.) And there are plenty of environmental considerations at play here.

Winter Visitation: Dec/March 2009-2010
2008-2009
2007-2008
Total Recreation Visitors 93,838 86,784 99,975
Auto, Bus & RV (North Entrance) 54,437 47,259 50,175
Snowmobile/Snowcoach 42,616 42,380 53,764
Snowmobile Visitors 22,228 23,417 31,420
Snowcoach Visitors 20,388 18,963 22,344

To show how dramatically off snowmobile usage is in the Park, check out these daily numbers:

Snowmobile/Snowcoach Activity
2009-2010
2008-2009
2007-2008
Snowmobiles – Daily Average 187 205 294
Snowmobiles – Peak Day 293 426 557
Snowcoaches – Daily Activity 32 29 35
Snowcoaches – Peak Day 59 54 60

The trending down of the snowmobile numbers is dramatic. Part of the decline can be attributed to the uncertainty surrounding the 2009-2010 season and the poor economy; what cannot be ignored is the general trend away from snowmobile ownership and the changes in that industry. But the fact that the snowmobile traffic did not reach the limit set in the current interim Winter Use Plan — 319 — is telling.

Trends in Yellowstone National Park, of course, are usually measured in centuries, not three-year increments. But when it comes to winter in Yellowstone, there are some definite trends at play here — and the issue is whether the Park Service will adjust.

RELATED STORIES: Winter Use Plan Debate Continues; Park County Pushes for Guide-Free Sledding; Shaping the Future Winter-Use Plan for Yellowstone; Group Pitches Plowing of Road Between West Yellowstone, Old Faithful; Want to Comment on Yellowstone Winter Plan? Here’s Your Chance; Planning a Winter Trip to Yellowstone? Here’s What to Expect; Snow Makes for a Wonderful Winter Opening; Yellowstone Winter Use Plan Stays in Place After Appeal; Wyoming Seeks to Overturn Obama Administration Winter Rules; Obama Administration Sets 318-Sled Limit for 2009-2010 Winter Season

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