Grooming could start next week for Priest Lake, Idaho’s, extensive network of snowmobile trails.
Environmental groups have asked a federal judge to halt grooming on trails through endangered caribou habitat. The emergency request is meant to protect the animals until bigger questions are decided on the appropriateness of motorized recreation in the Selkirk Mountain backcountry.
At least a foot of snow now covers hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails surrounding Priest Lake, but resort owners are terrified of having a judge end their season before it even starts, said Bob Davis, owner of Elkins Resort in Nordman, Idaho. At least 90 percent of the guests at Elkins Resort come for snowmobiling.
“It’s going to be devastating if it’s upheld,” Davis said.
“You spend almost every waking hour thinking about it.”
Caribou advocates say they also feel desperate.
Last year, only three of the animals were spotted in North Idaho. Biologists believe the decline has been driven by a complex network of factors, including increased cougar populations and decreased old-growth forest habitat.
Snowmobiling and backcountry skiing in alpine calving areas is also considered a factor.
Snowmobiles not only frighten the shy ungulates, but compacted tracks left behind by the machines are walked on by deer, which attract predatory cougars, according to a lawsuit filed this year by a coalition of environmental groups.
The suit seeks to ban snowmobiling on large portions of a 450,000-acre federally designated caribou recovery zone.
The lawsuit won’t be decided for months, but Monday a federal judge in Spokane will consider a request from the environmental groups to prevent trail grooming in much of the recovery zone.
An agreement reached late last week between snowmobilers and environmental groups calls for a temporary ban on grooming on trails including Mollie’s Loop west to Hemlock Loop and all of Hemlock Loop.
The trails are on U.S. Forest Service land, mostly in the high country on the west side of Priest Lake.
Snowmobiles would still be allowed on the trails, but grooming would be halted.
Without regular grooming, however, the trails quickly becoming washboarded and uncomfortable to ride, said Davis, owner of Elkins Resort.
The trails affected by the agreement might only be a small portion of the network, but they are critical pieces in a loop trail that circles Priest Lake.
“It’s really the heart of our system,” Davis said.
Davis said it’s unfair to single out snowmobilers.
The Selkirk herd numbered just over two dozen animals in 1980, before high-powered machines allowed riders to penetrate alpine habitat, he said.
“They’ve picked on us because we’re there and we’re visible,” Davis said.
“They’re attempting to create an emergency that doesn’t exist.”
Snowmobile clubs and Priest Lake businesses are fighting back and have recently filed a counterlawsuit, asking the Forest Service to open up all closed areas to snowmobiling – including nearly 15,000 acres on the Selkirk Crest closed since 1994 – and demanding environmental groups post a bond of “several million dollars” to offset potential business losses.
The groups claim at least $11 million in business would be lost in Priest Lake should snowmobiling be banned, according to court documents.
Snowmobile groups claim restrictions to their sport aimed at protecting caribou have not been based on “sufficient evidence or sound science,” according to court documents.
The research has focused mostly on barren-ground caribou that live in the arctic.
“The caribou at issue in this suit have coexisted with snowmobiling for decades,” according to the snowmobile groups’ response to the request for a ban.
The response went on to note that even though caribou could be killed “due to a collision with a snowmobile,” this likelihood is rare simply because of the tiny herd size.
“Some researchers have suggested potential benefits to caribou management from snowmobiling due to improved caribou mobility in deep snow facilitated by snowmobile trails,” the response stated.
Mike Petersen, executive director of the Spokane-based Lands Council, said environmentalists have ample reports and evidence to support claims that snowmobiles scare caribou.
“Bring on the science, I say. The science will support these critters need some turf without being disturbed by noise.”