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Lack of snow limits use in Yellowstone National Park

Not for Kayaking, but Yellowstone National Park will open for the winter season on Thursday, although a lack of snow will limit where snowmobiles can go for now.

Commercially-guided snowmobiles or snowcoaches will only be allowed to travel between the park’s South Entrance and Old Faithful.

Park officials say roads in the rest of the park have too much snow and ice for regular vehicles but not enough for snowmobiles or snowcoaches.

Commercial snowmobile and snowcoach operators will be able to use snowcoaches or regular vehicles to transport visitors from West Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful. Snowcoaches can also travel between Norris and Canyon.



More wolves in Yellowstone park

The wolf population is up. That’s what a yearly study shows in Yellowstone National Park.

This year’s wolf population is estimated to be around 120, up from last year’s 97.

Officials were in the park Monday, monitoring the wolves. They are monitored multiple ways, including aerial and collar monitoring. One of the primary objectives of this study is the wolves’ impact on the elk population.

“We used to have roughly 20,000 elk 15 years ago and now we have roughly 5,000 to 6,000 elk. Wolves have played a role in the decline, but they’re not the only factor in the decline. We’ve been working on that and we’re close to an answer, but we don’t think it’s over 50 percent, in fact it’s well below 50 percent,” said Douglas Smith with the study.

This comprehensive 30-day study will end Thursday. The next one will take place in the early spring.


governor says bison can go to reservations

Montana’s governor said Monday he will not block the relocation of 68 bison to two American Indian reservations.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer last week declared that no Yellowstone National Park bison could be moved within Montana. He cited mixed messages from the federal government on whether some quarantined bison could harbor the disease brucellosis.

But Schweitzer said Monday the relocations can move forward because an Interior Department researcher said he believes the animals do not have the disease.

The animals have been held in quarantine for the past several years with the aim of relocating them to establish new, genetically pure bison herds on public and tribal lands.

Tribal leaders had criticized the Democratic governor’s earlier stance, saying he was using the tribes as pawns in his dispute with federal officials. They worried that could jeopardize their efforts to establish new herds of genetically pure animals from Yellowstone.

Schweitzer said he will continue to block shipments of any bison other than the quarantined animals. He wants Yellowstone to consider hunting inside the park to keep the animal’s population in check.

“The park has been unrealistic in how they deal with this issue,” he said.

State officials last week had announced a plan to relocate the 68 bison to Montana’s Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations sometime this winter. The animals have been tested repeatedly for brucellosis and are being held in a fenced compound in Corwin Springs, under a joint state-federal program to determine if Yellowstone bison are suitable for relocation.

Another 143 Yellowstone bison that already have been through the quarantine are being held on a ranch near Bozeman owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner. Schweitzer wanted some of those animals relocated onto the 18,500-acre National Bison Range run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — an idea the government rejected.


Park to open to snowmobiles on Dec. 15

Yellowstone National Park officials are preparing to open the park to motorized snow vehicles on Dec. 15 to start the winter season.

The park plans to set a daily limit of up to 318 commercially guided snowmobiles and up to 78 commercially guided snowcoaches this season. The park plans to allow the machines to travel on groomed, snow-packed roads.


Court restores federal protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears

A federal appeals court, citing the effect of climate change on the Yellowstone grizzly bears’ white-bark food source, finds that the Fish and Wildlife Service erred when it delisted the bears.

The ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2007 decision to remove the bears from the endangered species list. The court cited climate change as having accelerated a beetle infestation that destroys the bears’ vital white-bark pine food source, making the grizzly only the second wildlife species, after the polar bear, to earn protection in recognition of harm caused by global warming.

A grizzly bear sow and three cubs in Yellowstone National Park. The appellate court opinion described Yellowstone grizzlies as “one of the American West’s most iconic wild animals.” (National Park Service / March 27, 2006)


Yellowstone oil spill to cost Exxon $135M

Exxon Mobil said Friday it expects to incur costs of about $135 million from an oil pipeline break beneath Montana’s Yellowstone River that triggered a massive effort to limit damage to the scenic waterway.

The cost figure was released to The Associated Press and is more than triple an earlier estimate. It includes for the first time the expense of replacing the section of broken pipeline with a new one buried more deeply beneath the river.

The company’s 12-inch Silvertip crude oil pipeline broke July 1 during severe flooding.

In the 56 minutes it took Exxon Mobil to seal off the line, an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil, or 42,000 gallons, poured into the river near Laurel. That fouled dozens of miles of riverbank, numerous islands and swaths of low-lying cropland with crude.

More than 1,000 workers were involved in the cleanup effort at its peak.

Work to remove the damaged pipeline began Monday and is expected to take several weeks.

An Exxon Mobil spokeswoman declined to release a breakdown of the company’s costs, providing only a broad overview of expenses.

“This estimate includes costs for overall emergency response and cleanup efforts including personnel, equipment, landowner claims and projects associated with the restart of the pipeline such as the horizontal directional drill,” company spokeswoman Claire Hassett said.

“Horizontal directional drill” refers to the process the company used to bore a new route for the pipeline dozens of feet beneath the riverbed. That move was mandated by federal pipeline regulators.

The original pipeline was buried only a few feet beneath the riverbed. State and federal officials have speculated that summer flooding scoured the riverbed and left the pipe exposed to damaging debris and the sheer force of the rushing river.

An investigation into the cause remains pending.


dispute over motorized use in wilderness study area near Yellowstone

Attempts to reach a settlement failed in a long-running dispute over the use of snowmobiles, dirt bikes and other vehicles in a wilderness study area north of Yellowstone National Park, leaving a federal appeals court to resolve the conflict.

The issue centers on the U.S. Forest Service’s 2006 Travel Management Plan that would restrict the recreational use of motorized and mechanized vehicles within the Hyalite/Porcupine/Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, also known as Gallatin Crest.

Congress created the 155,000-acre wilderness study area in 1977, ordering that its existing wilderness character as of that time be maintained for possible inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Three conservation groups sued the Forest Service over the plan meant to manage travel and recreation within the study area. The groups — the Montana Wilderness Association, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Wilderness Society — said the plan would allow too much motorized vehicle use in the wilderness study area, which is part of the 1.8 million acre Gallatin National Forest.

“It’s a very small part of the Gallatin forest and it’s an extremely special place,” said Patti Steinmuller, a Montana Wilderness Association member and Gallatin Gateway resident who hikes and cross-country skis in the study area. “There are plenty of other areas for snowmobile use.”

A group called Citizens for Balanced Use also sued, saying the Forest Service plan should expand motorized use beyond the 18,000 acres allotted and that the designated land was inadequate.

“It’s heavily timbered and not satisfactory for snowmobile use,” said Kerry White, a Citizens for Balanced Use board member.

A district judge ruled in favor of the conservation groups, and the Forest Service appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A 9th circuit panel of judges earlier this year ordered lawyers for the conservation groups, the Forest Service and Citizens for Balanced Use to hold talks with a court-appointed mediator in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

But the parties say the settlement talks broke down and the matter must be decided by the judicial panel. The court confirmed the mediation’s failure in a Nov. 8 order.


Bison plan could remove 360 animals

As many as 360 migrating wild bison would be shot by hunters in Montana, captured for slaughter or shipped elsewhere this winter under a proposal from Yellowstone National Park officials seeking an alternative to the indiscriminate slaughters of years past.

The proposal comes amid rising pressure from Montana officials including Gov. Brian Schweitzer to rein in the size of Yellowstone’s iconic bison herds. Others say the animals should roam freely — although cattle ranchers worry that could bring unwanted competition for grazing space and spread the animal disease brucellosis.

Park biologists wrote in the proposal that reducing the population could avoid the need for the large-scale slaughters — more than 1,700 were killed or removed in 2008 — seen during past migrations. In harsh winters, bison leave the park in large numbers seeking food at lower elevations in Montana.

State officials said hunting was their top choice for population control. However, Schweitzer said in an interview that for the strategy to work, the park must open its borders to hunting inside portions of Yellowstone where bison often congregate in winter. Past hunts yielded few bison during mild winters when the animals did not cross out of the park.

“These things have to have some give and take. The buffalo doesn’t know there the line is when it leaves the park,” said the Democratic governor. “We end up taking care of the oversupply of bison because they aren’t managing their population within the park.”
More than 3,600 Yellowstone bison were removed over the last decade to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis. That included the 2008 number, when Yellowstone’s temporary bison capture pens were overwhelmed and many animals went to slaughter without being tested for brucellosis. The disease can cause pregnant animals to miscarry and has been eradicated nationwide except in the Yellowstone region.

Tens of millions of bison once roamed North America. Only about 20,000 wild bison remain and Yellowstone’s are considered among the most genetically pure.

A representative of northeast Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation said slaughtering those prized bison does not make sense when tribes have been trying for several years to get Yellowstone bison to start new herds outside the park. “If they want to give them to the tribes they wouldn’t have this problem,” said Fort Peck Fish and Game Warden Robert Magnum.

Park officials predict this winter’s migration will top 1,000 bison from the park’s two herds — potentially offering an early test of the culling proposal if it garners approval from other state and federal agencies.


Yellowstone Grizzly Bears Safer For Now

By the federal government’s last report, there are an estimated 540–660 grizzly bears living in Yellowstone National Park and the national forests that surround it. About 40 percent of the area in this ecosystem now inhabited by the great bears is unprotected from logging, roading, and oil and gas development. Human development is hemming the bears in and they’re having a harder time making a living. Historically, in years when whitebark pine failed to produce large crops of seed-bearing cones, Yellowstone grizzly bears produced fewer cub litters and fewer cubs per litter. Now, with the thousands and thousands of acres of dead whitebark pine trees, every year will be a bad cone year for bears. It’s clear grizzly bears will need help over the long term to survive. The court’s recent ruling keeping ESA protections in place is the right solution at this time.

Yellowstone grizzly bears warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. So says the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which recently upheld a lower-court ruling that rejected a federal government effort to strip the bears of their protections.

When the government “delisted” the bears in 2007, which stripped them of protections under the Endangered Species Act, Earthjustice attorneys went to court to get the protections reinstated. The federal government failed to explain how grizzlies are supposed to make a living now that one of their key foods, whitebark pine seeds, are disappearing. The seeds are disappearing because the trees that produce them are being killed by beetles which are ravaging the high alpine habitat where the trees grow. The beetles are surviving what used to be harsh winters due to global warming.


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