And the loser is …

Answer: Yellowstone bison.

Question: Longest-running unsettled Yellowstone National Park issue.

Well, not officially. But in the battles of Yellowstone issues that would never end, it appears at long last that one finally is.

Winter use.

For two decades it’s seemed as if two contentious topics would linger like a bad cough: Yellowstone bison and winter use.

Both have been the conservation equivalent of a five-overtime basketball game, with the lead changing as often as the seasons. Snowmobiles … snowmobiles not. Bison … bison not. Snowmobiles … snowmobiles not. Bison … bison not.

Now, after Friday’s announcement establishing a flawed-but-workable winter-use plan for Yellowstone, we are at long last the cusp of putting this issue to bed.

The Park Service’s new plan, which calls for a limited number of “transportation events” during the winter season, isn’t perfect. For example, it allows for the continued use of howitzers at avalanche-prone Sylvan Pass above the East Entrance, a dangerous and expensive undertaking that runs counter to the park’s mission and serves only to preserve a precious few special interests.

Nevertheless, the plan shows just how far we’ve come from the days when the whine of snowmobiles speeding willy-nilly across the park, pinballing with Yellowstone bison and leaving noxious fumes in their wake, echoed off the mountains. Images of park employees wearing gas masks at the West Entrance heightened awareness of a challenge that even the most ardent snowmobiles in West Yellowstone acknowledged as a problem.

It was so bad that the Clinton administration banned snowmobiles altogether in the 1990s — only to be overturned by the Bush administration.

Today, thanks to tighter regulations pushed by GYC and other conservation groups, snowmobiles are cleaner, quieter and restricted to roadways. The popularity of snowcoaches has further reduced impacts of motorized transportation.

All in all, it’s a credible plan. We will work with the Park Service during the upcoming 60-day comment period to iron out its flaws, and soon will need your voice in the process.

On this almost all who have waged this war will agree: it’ll be good to have this issue off the books. Gateway communities can enter each winter season knowing the only unknown will be the weather. Conservation groups can focus energies and resources on such pressing topics as climate change and landscape protections.

And Yellowstone bison.

For awhile, as we opened more lands for Yellowstone bison outside the park, it appeared that winter use would be the last Yellowstone issue standing.

Thanks to Montana’s Legislature, which is intent on rolling back the clock 150 years on management of this symbol of the American West, Yellowstone bison appear destined to linger as the longest-running unsettled issue.

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