Conservation groups say they will fight for larger tracts of high country to be declared off-limits to snowmobiles to protect the region’s endangered caribou.
Representatives from groups on both sides of the United States-Canada border met Monday in Spokane with state, federal and provincial scientists to discuss caribou recovery efforts.
Protecting old growth forest remains the best hope, but action is needed now to safeguard the shy animals from increasingly deeper backcountry penetration by snowmobilers, said Mark Sprengel, executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, which is based at Priest Lake, Idaho.
“What we’re creating here is a nightmare scenario,” Sprengel told the group of about 25 scientists and activists. “Why aren’t we dealing with this problem?”
Gil Arnold, chairman of the International Mountain Caribou Technical Committee, said a similar closure push will take place soon in southeastern British Columbia. Arnold is also a field campaigner for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. He said years of meetings, planning and transplantation have done little to help the region’s estimated 1,700 remaining woodland, or mountain, caribou.
“Planning for caribou has been more or less a failure,” Arnold said.
Closing the backcountry to snowmobiles will be a bitter fight, Arnold predicted. Canadian conservation groups want at least 15,000 acres set aside as winter refuge in the mountains of southeast British Columbia. The same amount of land has already been declared off-limits in the Selkirk Mountains east of Priest Lake, Idaho.
“I don’t think there’s any comfortable way to have this discussion with snowmobilers,” Arnold said. “I don’t think there’s a deal to be cut there. It’s just a flat out request to keep out. It might be time to take this on.”
Some conservationists and scientists believe snowmobiles and backcountry skiing operations disturb caribou and cause them to burn scarce calories. Many snowmobile enthusiasts contend they are being blamed unfairly and that predation by cougars and clearcutting has played a larger role in the demise of the species.
Contacted after the meeting, Tom Holman, a business owner and snowmobile enthusiast from Priest Lake, said many local residents are concerned that caribou protection could kill snowmobiling. The local economy is still trying to recover from the decline of the logging industry, which many believe was prompted by tougher federal regulations aimed at protecting rare fish and wildlife, Holman said.
“Our livelihoods depend mainly on recreation and tourism, and now this comes along,” he said.
Suzanne Audet, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said protecting remaining habitat, predator control and a comprehensive winter recreation strategy is needed. Her agency is working with the U.S. Forest Service to ensure that additional caribou safeguards are included in national forest management plan updates occurring now in Idaho and Washington. Whatever happens, public input is vital, Audet said.
“It’s going to take some compromise on both sides,” she said, adding later: “We’re moving as quickly as we can to get the issue addressed.”
The most recent aerial survey counted 34 caribou in the Stagleap Herd, which spends time in Idaho and British Columbia, said Wayne Wakkinen, a biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department. The herd is one of more than a dozen mountain caribou subpopulations and the last to inhabit the lower 48 states. Wakkinen added that most snowmobilers have complied with access restrictions in the Selkirk winter range.
“They have honored that closure much better than I thought,” he said.
Sprengel, with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, disagreed. He displayed aerial photos taken last year of snowmobile tracks crossing caribou habitat, including portions of the refuge. Some of the photos showed high meadows covered by dozens of tracks.
“Nothing stops them, they can access virtually everyplace,” Sprengel said of snowmobilers. “This is more than a few miscreants. This is a widespread circus.”
The Selkirk Conservation Alliance and the Idaho Conservation League recently dropped a lawsuit against the state of Idaho that targeted the state’s plans to boost logging in the Priest Lake area. The suit was dropped after the state agreed to boost protections for caribou, bull trout and other rare species. The state also agreed to stop grooming two short sections of snowmobile trail leading to caribou habitat, though snowmobile use will not be restricted in the area.
Sprengel said his group is ready to return to court if it deems the safeguards to be inadequate.
Intensive, quick action by government agencies is needed to save the caribou before they are gone, said Bruce Fraser, chairman of British Columbia’s Forest Practices Board, which serves as a provincial watchdog agency. Fraser was keynote speaker at Monday’s meeting and suggested that a series of remedies is needed, ranging from snowmobile restrictions and habitat protection to addressing larger questions about the impact of global warming.
“We have more than enough science to tell us” what needs to be done to save caribou, Fraser said. The answers, however, are not politically easy.
“We’re in a kind of contest between the human footprint and the caribou hoofprint,” Fraser said.