WASHINGTON — Four environmental groups sued the Bush administration Tuesday, seeking to block changes that would allow more people to ride snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, asks a federal judge to block a recent Interior Department decision that would undo a Clinton administration ban on snowmobiles in the popular Western parks by next winter.
The environmental groups want the judge to keep the Clinton rule in place. That would mean snowmobile use would be sharply limited this winter and banned next year.
The Interior Department would not limit snowmobiles this winter under the proposal released last month. Starting next winter, however, it would allow no more than 1,100 snowmobiles a day in the parks and a portion of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway connecting them.
The parks have averaged 840 snowmobiles daily during the winter and up to 1,650 a day during holiday and other busy weekends for the last decade. The new rules would allow more snowmobiles in the parks on average while cutting numbers on the busiest days.
The current proposal is set to be completed next spring. That leaves open the chance the final rules will be less restrictive than what is on the table, said Howard Crystal, a lawyer for the environmental groups.
"There's nothing to prevent them from saying, 'You know what? We've decided there's going to be no limits, ever,' " Crystal said.
Although it could change, National Park Service regional spokesman Rick Frost said he expects the final rule will be "very much like" the current proposal.
The case was filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Fund for Animals, the Bluewater Network and the Ecology Center.
The groups argue that snowmobiles pollute the park, create unacceptable noise and endanger the health of workers stationed at park entrances.
"These problems have been so severe that Yellowstone now supplies fresh oxygen to employees working near snowmobiles, and this winter these workers will be fitted with special devices to protect against hearing loss," the lawsuit said.
The groups also contend that the machines harass and hurt wildlife. More than 200 bison, for example, were killed last year after they followed groomed snowmobile trails out of the park and into Montana or Wyoming, the lawsuit said.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton are in northwestern Wyoming. Yellowstone also extends into Idaho and Montana, from where most snowmobilers enter the park.
An environmental impact study of the current proposal is due in February, with the final rules to be set in March.
Frost said the plan was based on advances in snowmobile engines that make them quieter and less polluting, while taking into account environmental concerns.
Pollution and the effect on wildlife would be monitored and the caps could be adjusted to "allow us to protect the resource as well as accommodate some limited snowmobile use," he said.
"It was a balanced approach to the issue of snowmobile use in the parks," he said.