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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

North Idaho National Forest begins snowmobiling rule making process

Justin Hall, left, watches as a snowmobiler passes him on a trail in Idaho on Jan. 5, 2019.  (Eli Francovich)

The Panhandle National Forest is beginning a process to manage snowmobile travel in the northern zone of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

The “Kaniksu Over-snow Vehicle Travel Plan,” is intended to create a system of designated routes and riding areas for motor vehicles that are designed for use over snow and that run on tracks or skis, according to an agency news release.

The project area includes the Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and Priest Lake ranger districts. Once completed, the agency will publish a motor vehicle use map that will be free to the public and describe the legal riding systems.

As part of that process the group of interested users is meeting under the facilitation of the National Forest Foundation.

“What this group is doing is trying to come up with some recommendation for the Forest Service,” said Patrick Lair, a spokesman for the Forest Service. “Once they do that, the Forest Service will start our typical planning process.”

The group includes representatives from the conservation, tribal and motorized and nonmotorized recreation communities. The group has met a handful of times to establish ground rules.

“Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and go to work,” said Brad Smith, the North Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League and a member of the working group. “I think what is important here is we all like to use the forest, but we can’t forget about wildlife. Winter is a particularly hard time for them, and they don’t have a voice in this process.”

In particular, the ICL is concerned about potential damage to caribou habitat. 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.

The final herd that still regularly crossed into the U.S. was relocated in 2019. Caribou remain on the Endangered Species List in the U.S.

“At some point the goal is to reintroduce caribou to the Selkirks to Canada,” Smith said. “Then we also have wolverine. There have been some studies in central Idaho that show that both motorized and nonmotorized rec can impact the use of habitat by wolverines.”

Once the group has come up with some recommendations, it will present them to the Forest Service. The agency plans to seek public feedback on a draft proposal this year.

“This is an important project for the national forest and for many people in the surrounding communities,” Sandpoint District Ranger Jessie Berner said in a news release.

“We will work hard to incorporate feedback throughout this process with the goal of balancing both motorized and nonmotorized recreation along with natural resource concerns.”

“The southern mountain woodland caribou Distinct Population Segment is still in place and has critical habit at designated (areas) in the United States (including in the area covered by the injunction), and a binational recovery effort – designed to promote species population growth – continues,” said Allyson Turner, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Widlife Office in Boise. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not want to preclude future conservation options which could include reintroduction or relocation of caribou into North Idaho.

For more information, visit the Idaho Panhandle National Forests website for Kaniksu Over-snow Vehicle Travel Planning: