CHEYENNE — A proposal advocating for the collection of a fee at Yellowstone National Park to fund wildlife conservation efforts in the states surrounding the park is advancing through the Wyoming Legislature.
The nonbinding resolution, which passed the state House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee on a 9-0 vote Wednesday. It also approved expanding the concept to Grand Teton National Park, which is just south of Yellowstone in northwest Wyoming.
It now goes to the full Wyoming House for debate.
Proponents say the idea will generate money for Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to deal with wildlife management issues, such as mitigating collisions between wildlife and vehicles and the spread of wildlife diseases.
Its primary sponsor, Rep. Albert Sommers, said about 4 million people visit Yellowstone every year.
"Sure, you want to see Old Faithful and you want to see the mudpots," said Sommers, R-Pinedale. But visitors also want to see a grizzly, wolf, bison or elk roaming around. "People want to see that, and I think they'd be willing to support it."
Since states cannot impose fees in national parks, the resolution seeks to start a conversation between the three states and the U.S. Interior Department and the National Park Service about the parks imposing a fee or sharing current fees with the states.
The Wyoming resolution does not specify the amount of the fee or how it would be assessed.
Sommers said those details would need to be worked out with the federal government.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said Wednesday that he and other park staff have not been contacted about the proposal. He noted that Yellowstone remits about $10 million a year in taxes it collects inside the park to the state of Wyoming.
"The economic impact of Yellowstone and the surrounding communities is, I think, over $600 million a year," he said.
Sommers said wildlife migrates in and out of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, creating conflicts in areas outside the parks.
He said Wyoming has spent millions building special fences and highway overpasses and underpasses to help protect wildlife near Grand Teton from collisions with vehicles.
In Montana, private ranchers outside Yellowstone are concerned about bison that leave the park during the harsh winters, spreading disease to their cattle. Bison that leave the park are caught and some are slaughtered to prevent disease from spreading.
"It's important that we find ways to fund those efforts, particularly where there's conflict or mitigation needs to occur and where human impacts are," Sommers said.
Representatives of various conservation organizations, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and The Nature Conservancy, voiced support for the idea.
"We think it's a creative way to start a conversation about new ways of funding wildlife management issues," said Siva Sundaresan, Wyoming conservation coordinator with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said.
However, some have expressed concern about added costs to enter Yellowstone.
The National Park Service has proposed imposing steep increases in entrance fees at 17 of its most popular parks, including Yellowstone to help pay for needed maintenance and infrastructure projects.