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Forest Service may close off-road area to snowmobiling

Machine tracks found in caribou herd’s habitat

Only a few rogue snowmobilers willfully ride into off-limits areas of protected Selkirk caribou habitat, organized snowmobile groups say.

But the actions of a few are jeopardizing access for the law-abiding majority.

Officials from the Colville National Forest said they’re prepared to shut down access to a popular road to curtail snowmobile use of Molybdenite Ridge and high ridges in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, which are winter caribou habitat.

For the past two years, snowmobiles have illegally used the closed Onata Creek Road to reach the north side of Molybdenite Ridge. If tracks are found on Onata Creek Road for a third winter, Forest Service officials said they’ll also close off Harvey Creek Road, which provides snowmobile access to the area.

Gating Harvey Creek would be the latest in a series of snowmobile closures to protect the last caribou herd in the lower 48 states. And, it would add more fuel to an already tense debate over motorized access to public lands.

“You have your renegade snowmobilers that you can’t control,” said John Stark, a member of the Selkirk Trailblazers, a motorized-recreation group in Ione, Wash. “There are plenty of places to ride without causing problems for the general population of snowmobilers.”

Dave Magart, president of the Chewelah Snow-Posse club, said he doesn’t always agree with the Forest Service. “But you still have to respect the law,” he said.

Mike Borysewicz, a Forest Service wildlife biologist, agreed that a few riders are causing the problems.

“I’m sure it’s three, four or five guys on hot sleds that want to go up that road system to play,” said Borysewicz. “It’s a difficult situation to police. You have to catch someone behind a gate.”

Issuing a few $100 tickets would be an effective deterrent, he said. But perpetrators are seldom caught.

Each winter, the Selkirk Conservation Alliance schedules flights over caribou habitat to look for snowmobiles in closed areas, said Mark Sprengel, the alliance’s executive director. Even when snowmobiles are spotted in off-limits areas, it’s difficult to radio enough information for law enforcement to issue tickets, he said.

Some of the violations probably occur through ignorance, said Howard Justice, secretary of the Chewelah Snow-Posse. He thinks Forest Service officials should put more focus on education beyond organized snowmobile clubs.

“They need to do a broader outreach,” Justice said. “We only represent about 5 percent of the snowmobilers in the area.”

John Bymers, a Spokane Valley resident who snowmobiles in the Selkirks, said many of the closure maps are hard to follow. Gates, signs and other landmarks can get buried under 10 feet of snow, he said.

“We’ve never seen any caribou,” Bymers added. “I’ve never met anybody or talked to anybody that’s seen a caribou.”

Borysewicz, the Forest Service biologist, said he frequently hears that comment.

The Selkirk caribou herd – believed to contain about 46 animals – spends much of its time north of the Canadian border, Borysewicz said. But the herd is slowly growing, adding one or two caribou per year. The Forest Service is required to protect the herd’s habitat for future expansion and ensure that any caribou present aren’t harmed.

During the winter, caribou head to elevations over 4,000 feet, where they feed off lichen on subalpine firs and snags. It’s a marginal existence, Borysewicz said. Snowmobiles can chase animals out of important feeding areas or cause them to use up valuable energy reserves by moving away from motorized traffic, he said.