Caribou advocates will work with the U.S. Forest Service in coming weeks in an attempt to determine which trails could be reopened in caribou habitat, following a recent ruling by a federal judge that banned snowmobiling across 300,000 acres near Priest Lake, Idaho.
U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley is expected to reconsider the issue in early November.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” said Tim Piver, a snowmobile enthusiast from Deer Park, Wash. “Nobody wants to see an animal go extinct or go unprotected, but there has to be equal compromise.”
Piver organized a rally Friday in Spokane’s Franklin Park that attracted snowmobilers from across the region to discuss and protest the ruling.
Members of motorized sports clubs attended the rally. Piver said he was hoping to organize riders to respond to the closure, which bars snowmobiling from a place he calls the region’s “crown jewel” for winter sports.
Mark Sprengel, of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, said he’s optimistic a more trail-specific agreement will be reached. “We should be able to accommodate some of what (snowmobilers) want without putting the caribou in jeopardy,” he said.
But Sprengel added that opening a previously popular loop trail around Upper Priest Lake was “definitely off the table” because the trail passes through critical winter habitat for the shy creatures.
The closure order came last month after conservation groups, including the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, sued the Forest Service, saying the agency failed to consider the impact of snowmobiling on the last caribou herd in the lower 48 states.
The herd is estimated at 35 to 40 animals. The ruling applies to federal land near the north and west shores of Priest and Upper Priest lakes. Hundreds of miles of trails crossing state land on the east side of the lakes are not affected by the ban.
Piver said snowmobile groups are trying to come up with a compromise similar to one near Revelstoke, British Columbia, where snowmobilers are allowed to use carefully marked trails in caribou habitat. Such a system depends on the complete cooperation of all riders, he said.
Idaho state Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said businesses in his district are starting to feel the impact of the ruling. One local snowmobile shop already has had $20,000 worth of orders canceled because of the ban, he said.
“This will be a huge cost if this remains closed,” Anderson said, adding that the winter economies in Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry will also suffer as word of the closure spreads nationwide.
Other winter sports, including snowshoeing and skiing, are not covered under the ban.