Access to a large Colville National Forest area popular with snowmobilers could be closed this winter if rogue sledders continue to ignore a federal closure that aims to protect endangered mountain caribou.
Despite a well-publicized and signed closure of the caribou recovery zone that extends across Molybdenite Ridge, snowmobile tracks penetrated the area south of Sullivan Lake several times last season and the season before, said Mike Borysewicz, Forest Service wildlife biologist.
If snowmobile tracks are documented on the closed Onata Creek Road system this winter, the Forest Service will close Forest Road 1935 (Harvey Creek Road), which provides access to the area, for the remainder of the winter, he said.
A third year of violations could trigger permanent snowmobiling closure on Harvey Creek Road, Colville officials said.
Caribou currently may not be using the Molybdenite area, Borysewicz said, but winter motorized use must be kept out of this prime habitat area to allow the struggling animals a chance to extend their range.
“If snowmobilers stay on the open routes in the area, there is no reason why Harvey Creek Road, which is presently not groomed, couldn’t become a groomed route,” Borysewicz said in a news release.
“The future of snowmobile use on the road ultimately rests with the snowmobiling community.”
Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife officers will be checking for tracks of illegal snowmobile access this winter and Forest Service officials are asking snowmobilers to help them patrol and control illegal access.
The Caribou Recovery Zone includes Molybdenie Ridge and high ridge systems in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness.
The southernmost extent of the caribou recovery area is about three miles south of Bunchgrass Meadows.
The 45-50 caribou in the Selkirk Mountains are the last of their species remaining in the lower 48 states.
The population is small but slowly building in recent years, Borysewicz said.
In early January, woodland caribou use their large, snowshoe-like feet to walk up to sparsely timbered high ridges. For the rest of the winter they live entirely on tree lichens – the “old man’s beard” that hangs from the branches of subalpine firs and snags.
Over the last two years, Forest Service officials met with local snowmobile clubs, sent releases to newspapers and posted signs to inform snowmobilers about the need to curtail riding on Molybdenite Ridge.
But the illegal entry persisted.
The Colville National Forest has more than 600 miles of groomed routes and many additional miles of ungroomed routes, officials said.
Off-trail snowmobiling in the Caribou Recovery Zone’s high-elevation habitats could put snowmobiles in contact with caribou or prevent them from occupying an area, Borysewicz said.
The animals may become stressed if they are approached too closely, he said. They may run and deplete energy reserves they will need to survive the winter.
Consistent snowmobile use may cause caribou to abandon portions of a ridge or an entire ridge system, he said.