WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - West Yellowstone is sometimes called the snowmobile capital of the world. Now, tensions are rising between guides and the company operating most of the area's tours. A group of guides has scheduled a third protest for this Saturday.
The guides Montana Right Now spoke to listed off many concerns, from what they describe as over-staffing and poor management, to false promises and a non-livable wage.
"I did get a $65 paycheck one week - I'm sorry, $65.80 one week," says Sophie Krautmann, a winter snowcoach guide at Yellowstone Vacation Tours. "And we get paid $12 an hour. I have worked just over 20 hours at least [nearly every week]."
Some guides even brought up a handful of tourist safety concerns. Krautmann is still working for Delaware North. She says before her training was finished she was asked to guide alone in a part of the park she'd never been to, one known for dangerous conditions.
"I did have to demand that I get a third shadow tour and that it be to Canyon with an experienced guide before they send me out."
On the other side of the debate you have the tourism company, Delaware North. They're based in Buffalo, New York and tell us they've invested about $3.5 million into Yellowstone Vacation Tours, one of the oversnow travel businesses they own in the town, since 2016.
Still, guides say they're worried this out-of-state company is monopolizing snowmobile travel in the park at the expense of local business owners.
"It's kind of like a toll bridge," says former snowmobile guide Ty Wheeler. "People have to pay these corporations in order to get into the park. So that's not what Teddy Roosevelt created these parks for."
Some guides have recently been let go. The company tells us that's thanks to a decrease in international tourism, but Wheeler claims he was let go just 30 minutes after attending a union protest two weeks ago.
A veteran tour guide who has guided in 10 different countries and even served in the Air Force, Wheeler says he was confused about why his job was the one that was cut when there are other guides more experienced. He says the timing of the union protest and being let go is eyebrow-raising.
"You should be able to advocate," he says. "For me, I served my country for a reason. Coming back to this place and Yellowstone, I'm passionate about this, you know. This is something that everybody should be able to experience to the highest degree that they can, and we shouldn't allow corporations to own that experience in my opinion. We should bring it back to Montana, bring it back to local communities, and have that experience as it has been for many years."
The guides say they hope speaking out will put pressure on Yellowstone National Park to not renew Delaware North's license to operate in the park when it expires in a few years.
Delaware North's communications team points out the company has invested millions of dollars to purchase and renovate hotels in West Yellowstone and Gardiner. They tell us they also donated about $60,000 to charitable causes in West Yellowstone last year. They add that there is a return rate of about 66% for seasonal guides at Yellowstone Vacation Tours in West Yellowstone.
The protest is set to take place on Saturday, February 29th from 7:30-10:30 AM in West Yellowstone. The protesters will meet at the Book Peddler Coffee & Cafe before heading to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park for a peaceful protest.