Miles and miles of Inland Northwest forest roads that are supposed to be closed to protect wildlife and watersheds are wide open to pickups and poachers.
That claim - made recently by a Montana group called the Predator Project - isn’t entirely denied by the U.S. Forest Service. The group also claims there are several miles of Forest Service roads in North Idaho, Eastern Washington and Western Montana that the agency doesn’t know exist or doesn’t acknowledge.
During the past two years, the Predator Project has gone through Forest Service files and examined aerial photos. Then the non-profit group plodded through bear recovery areas in several forests to find out whether roads actually were closed when the agency said they were and whether the Forest Service’s inventory matched reality, said Tom Skeele, Predator Project executive director.
The findings are important because they suggest the Forest Service is not protecting habitat for endangered species like grizzlies, and important game species like elk, not to mention watersheds and fish, Skeele said. Even when gates or dirt berms were used, they only kept traffic out half of the time, he said.
The Predator Project is an advocate for endangered species and other wildlife.
In the study in North Idaho and Eastern Washington, the Predator Project found 76 miles of road the Forest Service hadn’t tallied and 36 roads that weren’t even posted with a closure sign, although the agency called them closed.
The Forest Service says it will have to finishing checking the Predator Project’s data before it knows if real life on the roads is as alarming as the group claims.
In some cases, the Forest Service is aware that it has roads it hasn’t counted, said Marcia Hughey, operations and maintenance engineer for Region One of the Forest Service. And, in general, road problems are “an issue we know we need to deal with and we are,” Hughey said.
Region One is responsible for 51,000 miles of roads on national forests in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and North Idaho. Last year the agency obliterated 500 miles of those roads - the solution road critics like best.
Beyond ripping out the road bed, it’s difficult to close a road to the point that it keeps determined people away. “People who want to get behind gates have good ideas of how to do so,” said John Neirinckx, operations engineer for Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
That includes pulling out gate posts anchored in concrete and using a cutting torch to get through a steel gate, Neirinckx said.
Closing roads takes money and the Forest Service says it has never had sufficient money to take care of roads or put gates at every byway no longer in use.
Semantics also plays a role in what’s a road and what’s not, Neirinckx cautioned. A faint track created by people driving off through an opening to reach a fishing hole may not be considered a road on a Forest Service inventory.
However, the Forest Service sometimes declares roads closed, without putting up a gate, because of a lack of money or because the closure is temporary, said Elaine Zieroth, Bonners Ferry District Ranger. “Without a physical barrier, the closure is not as effective,” she said.
Skeele is more blunt. People will drive down every open road, he said.
And if gate vandalism is a problem, tear up the first quarter mile of road, Skeele suggested. It’s a one-time expense that may be less expensive over the long run.
The solution is not so simple, the Forest Service replied. Often, the agency needs to use a road to fight fires, plant trees and clean out culverts, Zieroth said. So a gate works better.
Money and semantics aside, roads are a problem for grizzly bears and other critters, wildlife experts said.
“The bottom line: the higher the road density the higher the grizzly bear mortality,” said Wayne Wakkinen of Idaho Fish and Game. “It allows people to hunt a lot more and to access a lot more country.”
For example, a study in the Coeur d’Alene River system showed that there were many more bull elk killed where there were many roads, Wakkinen said. Most of the grizzly and elk poachings take place close to roads.
That goes for all three grizzlies killed in the North Idaho-Eastern Washington bear recovery area in the past year. Three deaths in one year is a high mortality rate for a population that may not exceed two dozen bears.
Wakkinen has studied the Predator Project data. “Overall I think it’s a reasonably good attempt,” he said.
Some of the conclusions could be erroneous, Wakkinen said. The Predator Project said roads closed by gates, but still sometimes used by the Forest Service, were open.
If Forest Service use doesn’t exceed about 15 days a year, it’s not detrimental to grizzlies, Wakkinen said.