Forest Service crafting caribou plan
Though the debate over snowmobiles and caribou in the Priest Lake area sometimes seems intractable, the U.S. Forest Service believes a new management plan will help put the issue to rest.
The agency is asking the public for help as it develops the plan to manage winter recreation on roughly 400,000 acres surrounding Priest Lake.
For the past two seasons, the popular snowmobiling area has essentially been managed by court order – a result of successful lawsuits by environmentalists who contend the agency has failed to protect caribou from a growing number of backcountry snowmobile enthusiasts.
The Selkirk Winter Travel Plan is not expected to be ready until fall 2008, but Idaho Panhandle National Forests Spokesman Dave O’Brien said the plan is the best and last chance to find a solution outside of a courtroom.
“We can definitely have snowmobile use and protect caribou,” O’Brien said.
About 40 caribou live in a herd in the area. Most of the herd is believed to be just north of the border, but the animals wander back-and-forth. Deer and elk typically head to lower elevations in deep snow, but caribou head uphill, using their dinner-plate-sized hooves to stand atop deep snow. This allows them to escape predators as well as graze on lichen high in the trees.
Environmentalists believe snowmobiles not only scare caribou out of their alpine sanctuaries, but provide packed trails for predators. Snowmobile enthusiasts, including Sandpoint attorney John Finney, say there’s little evidence their sport is to blame for the species’ demise.
Nearly 15,000 acres along the Selkirk Crest have been closed to snowmobiling since the early 1990s, Finney said, yet there’s no evidence the closure has made a difference. “It’s not that they’re being chased out,” Finney said. “There just aren’t any caribou in there.”
Snowmobilers worry environmentalists are simply trying to find a reason to ban their sport on public land, Finney said. He said snowmobilers would support a closure if it were based on “actual, on-the-ground caribou use.”
After months of legal wrangling, a federal judge last month banned snowmobiling on a 4-kilometer-wide caribou migration corridor centered on the ridgeline through the Trapper Burn area near Priest Lake. Environmentalists long have been pushing for such a corridor.
But Mark Sprengel, director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, said the closure isn’t big enough to give caribou the space they need to travel freely between Idaho and British Columbia. The group has led the charge to protect caribou and Sprengel said it will continue to push for more backcountry restrictions, including on state land.
“Protecting the most endangered mammal in North America takes precedent over motorized thrills,” Sprengel said, adding that the vast majority of the far northern Panhandle remains open to snowmobiles.
Sprengel said he has recent aerial photos showing that snowmobilers have ventured into closed areas – evidence, he said, of the Forest Service’s lack of enforcement of existing laws.
Forest Service Spokesman O’Brien said he has not viewed the photos, but said the U.S. Border Patrol regularly uses snowmobiles to patrol the area in question.
O’Brien said he does not expect the forthcoming recreation plan to offer any large changes to how snowmobiles are managed. Public comments will play a role in the answering this question, but the foundation of the plan will be based on science, he said.