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Snowmobiling ban in North Idaho caribou habitat upheld by judge

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 25, 2021

Canadian wildlife officials pose with a sedated caribou. Canadian officials moved the sole surviving cow from the South Selkirk caribou herd, alongside two caribou from the South Purcell herd farther north, to a 20-acre maternal pen near Revelstoke, B.C.  (British Columbia Ministry of Forests/Courtesy)
Canadian wildlife officials pose with a sedated caribou. Canadian officials moved the sole surviving cow from the South Selkirk caribou herd, alongside two caribou from the South Purcell herd farther north, to a 20-acre maternal pen near Revelstoke, B.C. (British Columbia Ministry of Forests/Courtesy)

A judge upheld a longstanding ban on snowmobiling in designated mountain caribou habitat in North Idaho on Dec. 13, despite the fact that caribou no longer venture into the Lower 48.

Since 2007, snowmobiling has been banned in certain designated recovery areas in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. That ban was instituted in hopes of conserving the Southern Selkirk caribou herd, which at the time was estimated to be between 35 and 45 animals, according to court documents.

Herd numbers drastically declined and in 2019 Canadian biologist trapped and relocated the sole remaining caribou that still occasionally wandered into the United States.

For that reason, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association asked that the injunction against snowmobiling be suspended. Caribou have not been documented in the United States in annual censuses since 2012, although radio tracking data showed one collared bull entered Washington for 10 days in late 2014, according to court doccuments. Two caribou were spotted in Montana in 2018.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley ruled, however, that the closure area is still critical habitat for caribou and found that Endangered Species Act protection is still justified. In 2019, the federal government beefed up protections for caribou, nearly a year after the last member of the southern herd was relocated.

The 2007 permanent injunction order states that the ban on snowmobiling and other over-snow-vehicles will remain in effect until the Forest Service adopts a winter recreation strategy, also known as a travel plan. That plan has not been completed, although the forest service told the court it would be done by 2023.

After decades of effort – involving tribal, federal, state and Canadian officials – the southern caribou herd’s population peaked at 46 animals in 2009 and was climbing at that time. But by the spring of 2018 only three animals, all female, were left in the South Selkirk herd, according to aerial surveys.

The reasons for the decline are varied and interconnected.

Logging has destroyed their food source while development has fragmented populations.

At the same time, caribou populations suffered with the recovery of wolves and mountain lions in Canada and the U.S. Caribou’s primary defense from predation is the ability to go into areas predators can’t. But the vast network of roads in Canada and the U.S. has given wolves easier access to the caribou’s remote alpine refuges.

Climate change has also fueled reductions in snowpack, making it harder for caribou to avoid predators. Snowmobiling and other increased winter backcountry uses also stress the animals.

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