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Dud artillery shells left in mountains after failing in road-clearing work

Jun 13, 2013 - The Associated Press

Yellowstone's proposed winter use plan would continue the practice of using artillery shells to keep the pass open over the winter to allow no more than an average of 29 snowmobiles and snow coaches a day traveling from Cody.

JACKSON -- An unknown number of dud artillery rounds litters the slopes above a remote pass inside Yellowstone National Park, but there are no plans to find and safely detonate them or stop the avalanche control program that uses artillery shells to keep the pass open during the winter.

Yellowstone officials don't know how many of the duds, capable of propelling deadly shrapnel hundreds of yards, lie on the slopes of 10,000-foot Hoyt and Avalanche peaks on the east side of the world's first national park although one National Park Service environmental study puts the number around 300.

At least one artillery shell was found on the highway that goes through Sylvan Pass, an examination of park records obtained by the Jackson Hole News & Guide through the Freedom of Information Act shows.

Despite the danger, Yellowstone's proposed winter use plan would continue the practice of using artillery shells to keep the pass open over the winter to allow no more than an average of 29 snowmobiles and snow coaches a day traveling from Cody.

Officials at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an organization that's long grappled with Yellowstone over wintertime use, acknowledge they have not made Sylvan Pass artillery operations a central part of their campaign. Nonetheless, the group has opposed the practice.

"Nothing says 'Yellowstone' like a howitzer and unexploded ordnance," coalition spokesman Jeff Welsch said. "In all seriousness, most Americans surely would be stunned if they knew about this dangerous and costly winter rite in the world's first national park, and that they are paying for it."

But Jack Welch, a leader of the snowmobile advocacy groups called the Yellowstone Task Force and the Blue Ribbon Coalition, said the artillery is necessary to maintain safe access during the winter for people entering the park from the east entrance.

"It's been going on for a long time a long time, as long as I can remember, probably 40 years or so at least, and there have been no issues as far the shells that have not gone off," Welch said. "The few that have been found have been dealt with and haven't presented a problem."

The military-grade explosives, a mix of 105-millimeter howitzer and 75-millimeter recoilless rifle rounds, are mostly unknown to the 400,000 or 500,000 visitors that pass by the area each year.

Areas where duds are likely are closed to the public and marked by signs.

But there has been at least one report over the years of a park visitor finding a dud shell and taking it to a park visitor center. The shell did not detonate.

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