So far this winter three snowmobile riders have been cited for entering areas northwest of Priest Lake that are closed to protect woodland caribou habitat.
A 2007 federal court order restricts motorized winter travel within caribou country in corridors between the Canadian border to the Priest Lake area.
“By these people being cited it’s a way to let other folks know there is a closure in place and that we intend to keep that in place to protect the caribou,” said Gail West, spokeswoman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.
The three riders, whose identities were being withheld by the U.S. Forest Service, were issued violation notices that carry a $125 fine. But violators could face a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 and six months in jail.
With recent spring snowstorms, West said the snowmobile season likely will stretch into April and that riders need to heed the closures.
West thinks several snowmobile riders also were cited last year for violating the closure but she didn’t have specific numbers available Monday.
Environmentalists believe snowmobiles not only scare caribou out of their alpine sanctuaries, but provide packed trails for predators. Snowmobile enthusiasts say there’s little evidence their sport is to blame for the species’ demise.
Three caribou were sighted during flyovers within the recovery area during the last month.
About 40 caribou live in a herd in the area. Most of the herd is believed to be just north of the Canadian 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-size hooves to stand atop deep snow. This allows them to escape predators as well as graze on lichen high in the trees.
The debate over snowmobiles and caribou in the Priest Lake area is fierce. But the Forest Service hopes a new management plan will help put the issue to rest and find a solution outside the courts.
The agency is in the process of developing a plan to manage winter recreation on the roughly 400,000 acres surrounding Priest Lake.
Mark Sprengel, director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, didn’t return phone calls Monday. In previous interviews he 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 has said it will continue to push for more backcountry restrictions, including on state land.
For the past three 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.