New Snowmobile Lottery System: Will It Alter Yellowstone’s Winter Solitude?

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 16, 2014 12

Will the new NPS regulation drastically change the winter Yellowstone experience for those who seek the park’s quiet, winter soundscape? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

While anyone who has traveled to Yellowstone National Park knows that the sights alone are enough to take your breath away, I’m always struck by how unprepared I am for what I would describe as the “timeless sounds” of Yellowstone: the howls of wolves on the wind, the yips of coyotes on the hills, the rushing of water over rocks. For me, Yellowstone represents the natural music of a world that has always been there, but we, somehow, forgot.

Those innate sounds are especially poignant and more pronounced in Yellowstone in winter, when there are fewer visitors; the air seems crisper and cleaner; and the snow itself seems to “speak” when bison sweep their massive heads back and forth through it, shoveling for better forage.

This winter, however, for the first time since 2003, the National Park Service (NPS) is granting permits for self-guided snowmobile trips in Yellowstone National Park through a lottery system. Will this drastically change the winter Yellowstone experience for those who seek the park’s most-quiet seasonal soundscape?

For the first time since 2003, self-guided snowmobilers will be allowed in Yellowstone. ©John T. Andrews

The “snowmobile wars” of the past

The new permits will allow one group of up to five private snowmobiles per day through each of the park’s four entrances: North (near Gardiner, Montana), South (near Jackson, Wyoming), East (near Cody, Wyoming), and West (near West Yellowstone, Montana). The noncommercial snowmobiling permits are valid for a maximum of three days.

Previously, the only way to snowmobile in Yellowstone National Park was by going on a commercially guided tour. That rule was put in place due to the snowmobiling excesses of the 1990s. Then, as many as 2,000 snowmobiles zoomed through the park each winter day; and the sheer numbers of so many whining, exhaust-pumping machines had almost everyone agreeing that there was a problem. According to one story on National Public Radio, entrance stations were encased in a blue haze of fumes while big lines of snowmobiles waited to get into the park. Park rangers even began to wear respirators. In 2004, the National Park Service limited the number of snowmobiles to 720 per day.

In 2013, only 300 snowmobilers entered the park daily. This winter, with the new, noncommercial permit program, more than 500 snowmobiles will be allowed in the park each day. Groups will be expected to obey the park’s 35-miles-per-hour speed limit and adhere to the strict regulations that limit snowmobile emissions and noise.

More recreational opportunities = more park stewards

Many environmentalists argue that whether or not snowmobiles are required to pass stringent tests for noise and air pollution before they’ll be admitted inside the park, they will still create a disruption of the quiet and lesson air quality. And, since few existing snowmobiles can currently pass the tests, there could be a tendency to allow borderline machines in if the daily quotas are far from being reached.

Will more private snowmobiles in the park add to the stress on bison? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Some worry that permitting private groups of snowmobilers into the park opens the door to those who, lacking supervision, may not keep their vehicles the proper distance away from wildlife. A five-member group and the collective noise from its snowmobiles will stress animals, such as bison, that require all the energy they can muster just to find enough food in the winter in order to survive.

Allowing self-guided snowmobilers into Yellowstone again could be viewed as part of a larger, national trend of expanding recreational opportunities in our national parks in an effort to convince young people that spending time in the outdoors is fun. In fact, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell believes that the best way to get the young to discover parks is by playing in them. Once they do that, they will naturally become conservation advocates and the parks’ future stewards. Among Jewell’s goals is getting 10 million urban kids into the parks by 2017.

Do you think Yellowstone’s new lottery system for allowing private groups of snowmobilers into the park will impair your ability to find the winter peace and quiet you seek?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. TP February 22, 2019 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    Not a good idea. The snowmobile industry does not police itself. The problem rests with them, not the taxpayer. I have been a snowmobiler for over 50 years and the responsibility of today’s riders is worse than previous generations. In my view, it needs to stay out of national parks. Banning them from the parks seems needed based upon the lack of responsibility by the current generations.

  2. Lorraine Dumas September 23, 2014 at 4:45 am - Reply

    Nope, can’t see where tis will be a good idea…

  3. Matthew Hirtes September 18, 2014 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Interesting article, Candice.

  4. Kathryn Papp September 18, 2014 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    First – watch Bernie Krause’s work on the effect of sound on animals:

    Then – answer the question.

  5. Sabine Prather September 18, 2014 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    I’m sorry to see that snowmobiles will be allowed again in Yellowstone; it’s been a wonderful, quiet place in the winter for years. I’m also concerned for wildlife, which needs to conserve energy in the cold.

  6. Jim Dickie September 17, 2014 at 8:42 pm - Reply

    I think that the new winter rules are very acceptable and reasonable. I have been in Yellowstone in the summer and winter. I would like the same type of winter rules implemented in the summer time so that the noise and pollution from cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses and motorhomes are reduced to 700 each day. Not to mention the stress the animals have to put up with all summer long, especially during the spring during birthing season!!

  7. Donna Dowden September 17, 2014 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    Very, very sad to read this. Isn’t there anywhere left in the US Nat’l Parks that people can just enjoy the sounds of nature? What about the effect on the wildlife? Right now you can see wildlife everywhere….terrible decision in my opinion.

  8. Tom September 17, 2014 at 4:22 pm - Reply

    I’ve lived in the park during the snowmobile days. I’ve lived in the park during the guided days. I still live just outside the park. I think all of this fighting over machines is crap. If you want solitude get off your sled, get out of your car and take to a trail. People should not be limited to use what is all of ours to use because you want to sit on the side of the road and feel isolated. It’s insanity. Roads get us there… once there, its up to you to find your way to solitude. I prefer my hiking boots in the summer and my boards in the winter. I’ve never had a problem finding a quiet spot in this vast wilderness area. What’s annoying is NOT being able to.

  9. Patricia Follweiler September 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    The only way to truly experience nature — in any of the parks — is by hiking by foot!

    My opinion is that once you put a machine under you, it is for your own entertainment. I guarantee you that the earth, plants and animals are not amused.

  10. Phillip Tureck - FRGS September 17, 2014 at 10:00 am - Reply

    I would limit the number of vehicles allowed into the park and make it a rather an exclusive opportunity. Thereby preserving the beauty and tranquility of Yellowstone.

    To preserve the park in the winter gives it that magical, mystical feel. If you let too many people in this could make it look like Daytona or some Kenyan/Indian wildlife parks when an animal is spotted.

  11. Matt Mead September 16, 2014 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    Having been to Yellowstone in both summer and winter, I can’t see where there is even the potential for a problem with the current winter use plan. I visited Yellowstone on snowmobile several winters ago, on a guided tour. I was amazed how quiet, even lonely the place was. The only sign of a crowd was at Old Faithful, and again at a nearby lodge for lunch. Then we visited in the summer. OMG! While it was still an enjoyable trip, I was amazed how busy it was. Hardly a ‘wilderness type’ experience as I’d seen in the winter. There were people and vehicles EVERYWHERE. It’s important to note snowmobiles are only allowed on a fraction of the road system open to autos in the summer. (Off road riding of snowmobiles is prohibited.) Finding solitude in winter is MUCH easier than in summer. As for legal vs. barely legal vs. not legal sleds being let in, it isn’t going to be an issue. Snowmobiles have to be certified for use in Yellowstone and very few are. The Park Service has a short list so determining if a machine is legal will only take seconds. You can bet 99% of the machines entering the park will be rentals from the local guided rental fleets. Today, snowmobiling is Yellowstone is highly controlled and not viewed as a problem by any reasonable visitor.

    • Jim Dickie September 17, 2014 at 8:43 pm - Reply

      I agree 100 %.

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