Forest Service developing caribou strategy
Idaho - An effort to minimize the impacts of snowmobiling on caribou has snowmobilers worried that their winter wonderland is about to shrink in the Priest Lake area.
A rumor that the U.S. Forest Service is planning to close the Trapper Creek area north of Priest Lake to snowmobiles has prompted a new political action committee to form and call a public meeting Monday in Coolin.
"There's a high degree of concern that we not sit idly by while there's more `lock them up, lock them out' proposals coming on board," said Don Howell, a Priest Lake property owner and member of the new group, Access Alliance.
But the Forest Service said any talk of snowmobile closures is premature.
The agency is trying to develop a strategy to minimize the impact of snowmobiling on caribou, said Panhandle National Forest spokesman Dave O'Brien. That strategy was requested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with protection of endangered and threatened species.
"There are folks in the community who went directly to (believing) doing a strategy means closures, and that's not where we're at yet," O'Brien said.
The Selkirk Mountains are home to the last herd of woodland caribou in the lower 48 states. The latest annual census of caribou, conducted in March when the caribou are calving on the mountain ridgetops, counted 41 animals -- an increase of six animals during the past couple of years, according to Suzanne Audet, biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Caribou are difficult to spot in the wild, but O'Brien said he's learned of other credible glimpses in the Idaho Panhandle forests this summer.
Caribou are uniquely adapted to surviving in snow. They have large, splayed feet that allow them to walk on some snow surfaces and reach lichen hanging from the branches of high elevation spruce and sub-alpine fir trees.
In the early '90s, biologists collected several reports of snowmobiles displacing herds and harassing individual caribou. That prompted a 25-square-mile closure to snowmobiles on the east slopes of the Selkirk Crest, in the vicinity of Beehive Basin and Chimney Rock.
No other areas are closed to snowmobiles specifically to protect caribou habitat. But studies indicate that snowmobiles continue to be a problem for the threatened species, Audet said. And as snowmobiles become more sophisticated and powerful, they're becoming more common in remote areas.
"We've been trying to work with the Forest Service to get a strategy developed since 1993," Audet said.
Now, the Forest Service is getting close to releasing a draft strategy. Closures are certainly one possible measure the agency could take to protect the caribou, O'Brien said.
"We need to look at the use and what the effects might be," O'Brien said. "Where are the people snowmobiling and where is the caribou habitat? Do they overlap, and if they do, what are the effects on caribou?"
Howell is skeptical that the snowmobile terrain and caribou habitat overlap. He said that the Trapper Creek area has burned too recently to provide forage for the caribou.
"This planned recovery for caribou is truly in a hostile environment," he said.
Caribou advocates might argue that what makes the environment hostile is the growing number of snowmobiles in the Priest Lake basin and surrounding ridgetops. Yet snowmobiling is a critical part of the winter economy in Priest Lake, and recreation advocates and area businesses are unlikely to give up any ground without a fight.
Audet said it's important that the Forest Service work with both the snowmobiling community and environmentalists in drafting its strategy.
"It's not going to be an easy task," she said. "But if you don't have everybody at the table, it's not going to be very pretty."
Access Alliance has invited politicians, agency officials and the general public to its meeting at 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Inn at Priest Lake in Coolin.
•Susan Drumheller can be reached at (208) 263-6558 or by e-mail at
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