House Protects Yellowstone Snowmobiling, Continues Bison Slaughter
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to protect snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and turned down a one-year moratorium on the killing of Yellowstone bison. The votes represent a dual blow to environmentalists, who have lobbied long and hard for the ban on snowmobiles and for a halt to the bison killing policy.
The amendment to prohibit snowmobiles within the two parks was defeated by a vote of 224 to 198 - it failed last year by a single vote.
"Common sense and balance between preservation and access won the day," said California Republican Richard Pombo. "This was an arbitrary, extreme, and unnecessary proposal that would have locked the public out of these parks and devastated local economies."
The vote upholds a decision by the Bush administration to reject conclusions reached by Park Service - and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - during the Clinton administration that determined snowmobiles were negatively impacting the parks and should be phased out and replaced by snowcoaches.
The agency received a record number of more than 360,000 comments during the comment period for the original rule and more than 80 percent of respondents favored the ban on snowmobiles.
But it was derailed by a legal battle and reversed by the Bush administration, which advocates reducing the number of snowmobiles allowed into the two parks, limiting access points and mandating that the machines be new, less polluting and quieter models.
The issue is now at play in two federal courts, which have handed down conflicting opinions, and it looks likely to be stuck in legal limbo for some time.
Proponents of a ban say the noise and pollution from snowmobiles is destroying the air, undermining the sanctity of the park, and threatening the health of the parks' wildlife and rangers.
They note that during the past decade the National Park Service has studied the impacts of snowmobile use on park wildlife, air quality, human health and visitor experience.
The agency's research, which included 375 scientific studies and 22 public hearings, revealed that snowmobile use was negatively affecting each of these factors.
"The original decision was not an arbitrary decision," said New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt, a cosponsor of the amendment to ban the snowmobiles. "This is about protecting our national treasures, it is not primarily about snowmobiles. It is that snowmobiles have been found to be incompatible with the preservation of the park."
The ban would only affect some 250 miles of trails within the parks, Holt said. It would do nothing to change access to some 400 miles of snowmobile trails adjacent to the park, according to Holt, who said "this is not going to hurt the industry."
Opponents of the ban accused supporters of aiming to block access to the national parks and failing to understand the economic impact of a ban on the local communities around Yellowstone.
Wyoming Republican Barbara Cubin, the state's lone member of the House, said the ban would cost her state some $11.8 million annually.
"No damage has ever been done to the parks by snowmobiling," Cubin said.
During heated debate, Idaho Republican Butch Otter told colleagues "if you want to erase all traces of mankind in a national park, you are just a couple of thousand years late."
Supporters of the ban cited federal studies that have shown the economies of the five counties surrounding the parks would be impacted by less than one percent. And they challenged the idea that the ban centered on access to parks.
"It is a fallacy to say that if you cannot get in and enjoy every square inch that your access is denied," said Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer. "This ban was the result of extensive study and there was a massive involvement of public input."
Cubin responded "when it comes time to taking care of Yellowstone, nobody does that but me."
"Because we live and work there, we do know the issue and our knowledge needs to be respected," the Wyoming Congresswoman said.
Regional emotions also surfaced during the debate over the killing of Yellowstone bison.
The amendment to enact a one year moratorium on the management plan that permits the slaughter was defeated by a vote of 215 to 202.
"I find it ironic that these Easterners offer amendments about a very serious issue of which they have very little knowledge," Cubin said. "The population of the bison in the park is truly degrading the environment because there are too many."
The bison frequently roam out of the park in the winter to forage for food at lower elevations - some 277 bison were killed this winter season because of the policy.
Buffalo advocates say the killing the Yellowstone bison is not about science, but rather about land use and politics, and note there has never been a documented brucellosis transmission from wild buffalo to livestock.
"To use the false fears of cattle ranchers as a reason to kill these buffalo is absurd," said Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican and cosponsor of the amendment. "If the cattle ranchers fear for their buffalo, they can go elsewhere. The bison cannot."
The herd, which numbers under 4,000 animals, is the last free ranging, genetically pure wild bison herd in the United States and is descended from 23 wild bison that survived the mass eradication of the 19th century.
"This is a shameful, disgraceful policy," said Virginia Democrat Jim Moran, who called the bison an "American icon."
In the past 10 years the Montana Department of Livestock and National Park Service have slaughtered 2,786 buffalo in and around Yellowstone National Park at a cost of nearly $3 million a year.
"I do not know what is driving this policy but it has got to change," Moran said.
Supporters of the slaughter say a moratorium would result in increased killing of bison by state agencies and would handcuff the entire management of the herd.
"I just do not understand how anyone who truly loves their park could support an amendment like this," said Montana Republican Dennis Rehberg.
Montana has proposed offering up to 225 bison hunting permits this winter - holders would be allowed to shoot Yellowstone bison that wander out of the park and into the state.
Both amendments were part of debate over the 2005 spending bill for the Interior Department and other land and cultural programs.
The $19.5 billion bill passed late Thursday by a vote of 334 to 86 - the Senate has not finished work on its version of the spending plan.