Outdoors

Snowmobilers face denied access

Strike two has been called against snowmobilers in northern Pend Oreille County.

For the second consecutive year, a few renegades have forced a season closure of Harvey Creek Road 1935, Colville National Forest officials announced this week.

In 2007, the Forest Service met with Ione-area snowmobilers and made a “three strikes, you’re out” agreement to comply with Endangered Species rules for grizzly bears, lynx and woodland caribou recovery.

About 15 miles of Harvey Creek Road – in the Sullivan Lake area leading into scenic areas toward LeClerc Creek – would remain open to snowmobiling as long as sledders observed the closure of roads leading higher to the Molybdenite Ridge area, which is off limits.

“We agreed on a three-year trial,” said Mike Borysewicz, Forest Service wildlife biologist based at Sullivan Lake.

“Most of the snowmobilers were OK with this, but a small number of individuals violated the agreement last year and went into the area. We’ve found tracks in there again this year.

“I think it’s just a few outlaws who don’t care. They probably don’t belong to the organized groups. They just want to go out and high-mark to test their machines and their abilities without regard to the impacts on everybody else.”

The situation resembles the way a few North Idaho snowmobilers were thumbing their noses a few years ago at federal rules protecting endangered-species habitat on the Selkirk Crest.

The repercussions have been costly.

Since 2005, snowmobiling on roughly 400,000 acres surrounding Priest Lake has been managed essentially by a court order. Environmentalists were successful in contending the Forest Service had failed to protect caribou habitat from a growing number of backcountry snowmobilers.

Although many miles of great snowmobiling terrain remain open, access to some areas previously open to snowmobilers has been restricted while the Idaho Panhandle National Forests comply with the court ruling by preparing an environmental impact statement.

The draft proposal and list of alternatives was originally expected to be out by fall of 2008. “Now we’re hoping to have the document out for public review this spring so we can get the travel plan in place by next winter,” said Kent Wellner, IPNF recreation manager in Coeur d’Alene.

Back in Pend Oreille County, law-abiding snowmobilers also are paying a price for the rebellion of a few.

Did the renegades who left tracks on Molybdenite Ridge do any harm to wildlife that can be documented?

Probably not, since grizzlies are still in their dens and caribou are not currently occupying the area, Borysewicz said.

“The purpose of the closure is to prevent use from being established in the Molybdenite area,” he said.

“We’re obliged to manage the recovery area even though portions of that zone don’t have any caribou at this time and haven’t been used by caribou for years.

“That’s the law.”

Twenty years ago, a closure wasn’t necessary, since neither the machines nor the riders were sophisticated enough to navigate into the high country in most conditions.

Nowadays, however, top snowmobilers can go darned near everywhere – and they like to prove it.

“We’re pleased to see that riders have not been going into the (Salmo-Priest) Wilderness this winter,” Borysewicz said. “But we need to nip the incursions to Molybdenite Ridge in the bud.

“If recovery efforts succeed, caribou will occupy the entire recovery zone.”

Depending on conditions, he said, “Grizzly bears will be coming out of their dens starting in March, when there’s still snow in the high country.”

Here’s the deal, he said:

Harvey Creek Road is closed for the rest of this season. Next winter, it will be reopened to snowmobilers. But if violations recur for the third consecutive year, the Colville National Forest will meet with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider a permanent closure.

“We’ve had snowmobilers appeal to us for more enforcement to crack down on the outlaws who violate the closures,” he said. “But with budgets the way they are, that’s not likely.

“Our only option is to lock gates so violators have to park along the main roads, making it easier for us to get their vehicle descriptions and license numbers and give them a ticket.”

The good news is that snowmobilers are still at bat in the Colville National Forest.

But the courts could be on deck.

Contact Rich Landers by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5508, or e-mail to richl@spokesman.com.

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Rich Landers

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