Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. — It's been a lean winter at Yellowstone.
Heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures have taken their toll on the populations of bison, elk, and other wildlife in America's oldest - and some say its most beautiful - national park.
But rough winters and the damage they inflict are part of the natural order. The seasonal cycle brings hardship, but with the return of spring, wildlife populations will be replenished.
However, park personnel are not so certain that spring will bring replenishment to Yellowstone's depleted budget coffers. With an already substanially reduced force of rangers and other park personnel, Yellowstone is facing prospects of further budget cuts by the Reagan administration.
Park staff members, like the rest of us, have been looking for ways to live with economic hard times and still have the manpower to enforce saftey regulations and preserve wildlife programs for park-goers.
First opened to cold-weather sightseers 10 years ago, Yellowstone in winter is exquisite. Steam from the geysers billows to majestic heights. In the geyser basins, buffalo fade in and out of view like apparitions in the mist. Silence hangs in the forests of lodgepole pine; a glitter of snow drifts from the treetops.
In spite of the breathtaking cold (it can fall to 40 degrees below zero F. at night), Yellowstone has become more popular as a winter vacation spot. It has drawn some 50,000 snowmobilers and cross-county skiers in each of the past few winters.
Yet there has been talk of closing Yellowstone entirely in the winter - a move that the park staff, as well as visitors, would protest. This winter, because of inflation, no seasonal rangers were hired to help the park's permanent force patrol the park.
Members of the Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) - a federally funded program patterned after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal - are helping to fill the gap. But while rangers are authorized to levy fines or make arrests, ''about all we can do is yell, or try to explain what someone is doing wrong,'' says Jeannine Wagner, a ranger aide-turned-YACC.
Also, after June there will be no more YACCs at Yellowstone. Federal funding for the program has been abolished.
Law enforcement has not been a major problem in the park. An occasional snowmobiler will drive off the prescribed roads, but ''the great majority are respectful of our rules,'' says Joan Anzelmo, Yellowstone's public information officer. ''They're here to see the wildlife, not to have a joyride through the trees.''
Visitor safety is of somewhat greater concern. ''If we had a major accident, we'd need a lot of bodies around to help out quickly,'' says Ms. Wagner. ''So far, thank goodness, we've been lucky.''
The visitors' quality of life has been affected most by staff cuts, according to the YACC. ''In the past we gave a slide presentation and guided nature walk every night,'' she says. ''We also did experimental programs, like back-country expeditions.
''We have none of our seasonal naturalists this year,'' she explains. ''Some of them had years of familiarity with Yellowstone. It's very sad to lose a resource like that.'' Remaining staff members have kept up the slide presentations three nights a week.
Meanwhile, the park has adopted a number of cost-saving measures. The spring snowplowing was delayed five weeks last year, resulting in a major saving. In addition, the coming summer season will be shorter than usual.
Many park visitors offer to pay a higher entry fee, which for years has held steady at 50 cents for skiers, $1 for snowmobilers.
''Fifty cents for days of perfect cross-country skiing is a bit ridiculous when it costs $4.50 to get into a movie,'' says Reinhard Bohme, who came from Minneapolis to visit Yellowstone this winter.
However, park receipts do not come back directly to the park, but are deposited into the US Land & Water Conservation Fund. They are used for a variety of projects, including the purchase of new land.
''Perhaps Congress will reconsider this arrangement,'' Ms. Anzelmo says of the fee procedure. ''Rather than acquiring more, we're all having to follow the philosophy these days of making better use of what we already have.''