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Agencies increase caribou protections

Patrols aim to keep snowmobiles away from herd

Federal and state agencies will step up patrols in the Selkirk Mountains this winter to keep snowmobiles out of protected woodland caribou habitat.

While most snowmobilers obey the rules, a few renegade riders continue to tear down signs and venture into off-limits areas, said Joan Jewett, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland.

“The caribou herd in the Selkirk Mountains is highly endangered,” she said, “so it’s really imperative not to disturb these animals during a time of year when they’re challenged anyway.”

During the winter, woodland caribou feed on lichens hanging from subalpine firs or snags above the snowline. It’s a marginal existence. Snowmobiles can chase caribou out of important feeding areas or cause them to use up valuable energy reserves by moving away from motorized traffic, wildlife biologists said.

Less than 50 caribou are believed to remain in the Selkirk herd, which is the last in the lower 48 states. The herd uses high-elevation habitat in northeast Washington, the Idaho Panhandle and southeastern British Columbia.

This winter, law enforcement officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and state wildlife agencies will coordinate patrols. Jewett said getting caught in closed areas can result in hefty fines up to $500 for snowmobilers for federal Endangered Species Act violations.

Extreme violations could be referred to the U.S. Attorney’s office for prosecution, with convictions resulting in fines up to $100,000 or jail time, she said.

Restrictions for snowmobile access within the federally designated caribou recovery area have been in place since 2007. Free maps of legal snowmobile trails and open areas are available at the Colville and Idaho Panhandle National Forests offices.

“For the most part, we’ve had really good compliance,” Jewett said.

Snowmobiler groups have spread the word to their members through educational efforts, and have helped with self-policing.

“Our organized groups are our best allies,” said Franklin Pemberton, a spokesman for the Colville National Forest.

But each winter, snowmobile tracks are spotted in closed areas, indicating that a few riders are flouting the rules, Jewett said. Snowmobiles have also been detected in off-limits areas during aerial surveys.

In 2008, three snowmobile riders were cited by the Forest Service for entering an area closed for caribou habitat northwest of Priest Lake.

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