December 17, 2006 in Idaho

Tense trail mix in the Selkirks

Snowmobiling resumes in caribou country
Staff writer
Jesse Tinsley photo

Snowmobilers Kathy, left, and John Bymers, of Spokane, leave the Nordman area Dec. 9 en route to the popular trail system north of Priest Lake.
(Full-size photo)

All about caribou

Range: Caribou are uniquely adapted to survive in the temperate rain forests of the Inland Northwest.

Diet: Like their cousins, the reindeer, caribou feed on lichens. Unlike in the Arctic, North Idaho’s caribou find their meals hanging from the branches of ancient trees. In winter, they move out of lush, lower-elevation forests into the mountains, where their large hooves allow them to walk atop deep snow and munch on lichen in the high branches.

Size: Bulls average 350-400 pounds, with females weighing about half that. Caribou are the only members of the deer family in which both sexes grow antlers.

Numbers: Caribou are considered the most endangered mammal in the lower 48 states. They once ranged across the region’s rain forest but are now only found in the Selkirk Mountains.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

NORDMAN, Idaho – The whine of snowmobile engines again echoes through the national forest here.

The sound infuriates those seeking to protect the Lower 48 states’ last herd of caribou but thrills local business owners and riders from across the region who claim their sport has little to do with the plight of the endangered animal.

The forests on the west side of Priest Lake were largely silent last season after U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley banned grooming in response to a lawsuit from environmental groups. The federal judge then went one step further and banned all snowmobiling on about 300,000 acres.

Shortly before the first snow fell this season, however, Whaley surprised both snowmobilers and environmentalists by reopening most of the national forest to motorized sports and trail grooming.

Last week, grooming machines again took to the trails around Priest Lake. Even before the trails were groomed, though, snowmobilers began showing up to get reacquainted with what many consider some of the finest riding in the Northwest.

Ed Porter, owner of Priest Lake Power Sports, couldn’t be happier. Business at his snowmobile sales and rental shop was down 40 percent last season after the grooming ban was instituted. The overall economic impact of the ban has been estimated at $10 million, according to court documents.

“We’re hoping we’re on the mend,” Porter said Dec. 9. In the forest behind his shop, the snow was already knee-deep. “The winter season is critical. If we only had summer, it’d be really tough.”

Snowmobilers appear to have won the latest round in the high-stakes legal ping-pong match with caribou advocates, but the issue is far from settled. In early January, Whaley will consider a request by conservation groups to re-evaluate his decision to lift the snowmobiling ban.

Mark Sprengel, director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, said time is running out for the rarest mammal in the lower 48 states. Only 37 caribou remain in the herd that wanders the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho and southeastern British Columbia. Sprengel said caribou advocates will continue to seek a ban on snowmobiling in prime winter caribou habitat. He said groups are also considering suing the state of Idaho to stop snowmobiling and logging in the old-growth forests east of Priest Lake.

The U.S. Forest Service is scrambling to develop a comprehensive plan to manage winter recreation in the area while still protecting caribou. The plan is expected to be unveiled next month. Priest Lake resorts and businesses hope the plan might quell the lawsuits and add a degree of certainty to their winter seasons.

Sprengel said the agency has a track record of putting business interests before science, and he doubts the legal battles will end anytime soon.

Conservationists are willing to work with snowmobilers to find a solution, Sprengel said, but there’s little room for compromise in the Selkirks, the last mountain range in the contiguous United States with the same mix of wildlife and fish species as when Lewis and Clark explored the West.

“Even Glacier or Yellowstone (national parks) can’t make that claim,” he said.

In Sprengel’s view, protecting caribou would also help save the few remaining wolverines, lynx, fisher and grizzly bears that live in the mountain’s virgin forests. He also believes the federal government will soon extend Endangered Species Act protections for wolverines, fiercely reclusive carnivores that roam the same alpine bowls and avalanche chutes favored by caribou and powder-hungry snowmobilers.

“If they think caribou are a problem, wolverine are really going to throw a monkey wrench into their plans,” he said.

Evidence of conflict

At the heart of the issue is the question of blame. Has backcountry snowmobiling played a role in caribou’s slide toward extinction?

A growing body of research suggests backcountry winter recreation, including snowmobiling and skiing, forces caribou to flee to the few places left where humans don’t yet go to play. Environmentalists also point out that few places remain inaccessible to today’s lighter, more powerful machines.

Dale Seip, a scientist with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, tracked caribou over four recent winters on five separate tracts of prime alpine caribou habitat in central British Columbia. The animals were common on all five blocks of land, except the single tract where snowmobiling was allowed. There, the radio-collared animals showed up during only one of the four winters of the study period and at far fewer numbers than the habitat would have been expected to support, according to Seip’s research, which was shared this month in Spokane at the semi-annual meeting of the International Mountain Caribou Technical Committee.

The research suggests that “snowmobiling actually should be restricted from all or most high-quality caribou habitat,” said Leo DeGroot, mountain caribou recovery coordinator for the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

But scientists also stress that caribou have been hurt by the loss of old-growth forest and increased predation by wolves, cougars and bears.

Motorized sports groups and some scientists believe silent sports – namely snowshoeing and backcountry skiing – are more terrifying to caribou than machines. According to this line of thought, a person gliding through the forest on skis is more likely to surprise a caribou and be perceived as a predator than a loud, fast machine.

John Finney, a Sandpoint attorney and member of the Sandpoint Winter Riders Snowmobile Club, saw a caribou while riding in the backcountry about 10 years ago. Finney said he didn’t try to approach the animal but simply watched from a distance. “They didn’t have any problems with us,” he said. “They just stood there.”

Many snowmobile enthusiasts, including Spokane resident John Bymers, believe the lawsuit to ban snowmobiling in caribou country was simply a smoke screen for what they say is a crusade by environmentalists to push motorized sports off public lands. The caribou lawsuit angered Bymers enough to join a snowmobile advocacy group that fights the creation of wilderness areas.

“We need to get involved and speak up,” Bymers said, as he unloaded his Ski-Doo from a trailer last weekend for a day of riding near Priest Lake. “These people who want it closed have a lot of money.”

Bymers said he and his wife, Kathy, started snowmobiling several years ago after bad knees made skiing difficult.

“It’s nice to get out of the house,” Kathy Bymers said. “You’ve got to have a winter activity; you’ve got to have something to do here.”

The couple even rode the trails last year when grooming was banned. Without grooming, the trails were bumpy as a washboarded road, but John Bymers said the forest and mountain scenery made the kidney-bruising ride worth it. Plus, there were few other riders on the trail.

“That’s the one thing I’m concerned about with them grooming again,” he said, before slipping on his helmet and zooming off into the snow-frocked forest.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email