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Snowmobilers lose access

In an effort to save the last remaining mountain caribou herd in the Lower 48 states, a federal judge has banned snowmobiling on nearly 300,000 acres of national forest near Priest Lake, Idaho.

Hundreds of miles of trails crossing state-owned land on the east side of Priest Lake are unaffected by the ban, but Friday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley includes vast reaches of the Selkirk Mountains – areas many snowmobilers consider powder paradise.

Snowmobiling will be banned in the entire federally designated caribou recovery zone of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests until the U.S. Forest Service develops a winter recreation strategy that adequately considers the impact of snowmobiling on the herd, which is estimated at 35 to 40 animals.

The ruling does, however, provide a narrow chance that some snowmobiling could take place this season in the recovery zone. The judge has given environmental groups and the Forest Service another week to develop a proposal for a more trail-specific approach. Many experts believe that not all snowmobile trails within the recovery area – especially those in lower-elevations – cross key caribou habitat.

But in his 31-page ruling, Whaley noted the herd’s “precarious finger-hold” on survival. “The court chooses to be over-protective rather than under-protective,” wrote Whaley, chief judge of the U.S. District Court’s Eastern Washington district.

Last December, as the case was progressing, Whaley issued a temporary ban on snowmobile trail grooming. Snowmobiles were still permitted, but few riders were willing to endure the bumpy trails. Businesses on the west side of Priest Lake blame the grooming ban for pulling the plug on the region’s winter economy.

Environmentalists say the permanent ban is needed as a last-ditch effort to save the endangered animals, which once roamed vast reaches of temperate rain forest in the Inland Northwest. Despite mounting scientific evidence that snowmobiles scare caribou from feeding and calving grounds, the federal government has done little to reign in snowmobile use, according to the environmental groups that sought the ban.

“We’re down to the last few animals. We need to do everything we can to protect them,” said Mark Sprengel, director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, of Priest River.

Caribou weigh upward of 400 pounds, but their dinner-plate-sized hoofs allow them to walk atop deep snow and graze on lichen hanging high in the branches of subalpine fir trees. The lichen offers little nutrition, but the deep mountain snows provide caribou with a safe winter refuge from predators. And with lighter, more powerful designs, snowmobiles are increasingly able to traverse these same backcountry stretches.

Studies and experts cited by the environmental groups say these machines not only force caribou to expend precious calories to escape the machines, but the snowmobile tracks create compacted trails for predators.

Snowmobile users and local business owners say they are being unfairly singled out. They say past logging practices, backcountry skiing and even global warming also contribute to the decades-long decline in caribou numbers.

In recent years, as few as two or three caribou from the herd have been found south of the border. This fact has infuriated some snowmobile riders, who say the widespread trail bans protect a species only slightly less scarce than unicorns.

Mike Sudnikovich, a lifelong Priest Lake resident and member of the Priest Lake Trails and Snowmobile Association, said the ban could cause local business to go extinct during the winter. “It will probably be pretty devastating,” Sudnikovich said.

Environmental groups say caribou could rebound if only given the chance to exist without harassment. Included in the evidence submitted by the groups was a 2001 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warning the Forest Service that “winter recreation, particularly snowmobiling, is quickly becoming a significant threat to caribou.” The groups also submitted aerial photos that show snowmobile tracks crisscrossing important feeding areas.

The judge noted the photographs in his ruling. “The fact that snowmobile interaction with and harassment of these animals has been observed even once indicates to the court that snowmobiling within the caribou recovery area presents a definitive threat of future harm to the caribou,” Whaley wrote.

The judge also cited a 2004 e-mail message from a federal biologist who reported two caribou had been “bumped” out of the Abandon Creek area by snowmobiles.

In spring, the Forest Service restarted formal consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a caribou-friendly winter recreation plan. It’s not known when this plan will be ready. Officials with the Forest Service could not be reached late Monday afternoon, when environmental groups announced the ruling. Sprengel, with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, estimated it could take another two years to craft the recreation plan.

During that time, Sprengel hopes the caribou have a chance to return to their traditional habitat areas. “We’ve never really given these animals an opportunity to be safe within the recovery zone,” he said.

Along with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, plaintiffs in the case include The Lands Council, the Idaho Conservation League, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.