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Endangered caribou continue to curtail snowmobiling

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By Rich Landers
Billings Gazette

The Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced a dramatic scaling back from its original recommendation for designating critical caribou habitat in the Selkirks. The Service chose to designate only the habitat caribou occupied before they were listed (as endangered), said Brad Smith, ICL spokesman. But the primary threats to the species are habitat loss and fragmentation, so it's hard to justify protecting less habitat.

Snowmobilers have been champing at the bit to make tracks across the crest of Idaho's Selkirk Mountains, where they've been banned since 2005.

On Nov. 27, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was designating 30,010 acres of the Selkirks, mostly in Washington, as critical habitat for woodland caribou, which were listed as endangered species in 1984.

Most of the designated critical habitat is in Pend Oreille County and the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, which already is closed to motorized and mechanized use. Only 6,029 acres are in Idaho.

Snowmobilers were pleased to see the critical habitat area was scaled back from 375,552 acres the feds had proposed for protection along the spine of the Idaho Selkirks.

But hold your horses. No increases in snowmobiler access will occur this winter.

Over-snow motorized travel will continue to be restricted on nearly 300,000 acres high above Priest Lake for the 2012-2013 winter season based on a 2005 injunction and a 2007 court ruling. The judge sided with conservation groups and said the Idaho Panhandle National Forests must research and enact a winter recreational travel plan that governs snowmobiling while protecting wildlife - including critters such as wolverines and lynx as well as caribou.

The Forest Service has been putting off winter travel planning until the Fish and Wildlife Service finished its caribou critical habitat analysis.

Hold your horses, again.

The Forest Service may continue to delay because of more possible changes related to caribou.

Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobiling Association have filed a petition seeking to delist woodland caribou as an endangered species. The groups say the caribou's range is mostly in Canada and only a handful of the critters venture south into the U.S. nowadays.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines the petition has merit, more study will be required. If not, work on a winter travel plan could continue - unless Bonner County decided to press the issue with a lawsuit.

The feds seem to be leaning in favor of the petition.

"For the most part, woodland caribou habitat has moved north into Canada," said Bryon Holt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Spokane. "We're saying our areas can contribute to caribou survival, but the conservation of the species is probably going to occur in Canada."

The most recent federal recovery plan for woodland caribou was filed in 1994. An update seems in order, and that would take even more time.

Adding to all the ifs and maybes is the possibility that conservation groups could counterpunch by challenging the recently announced critical habitat decision.

Groups such as the Idaho Conservation League were disappointed when the feds reduced the original critical habitat proposal by 90 percent.

The Fish and Wildlife Service chose to designate only the habitat caribou occupied before they were listed (as endangered), said Brad Smith, ICL spokesman. But the primary threats to the species are habitat loss and fragmentation, so it's hard to justify protecting less habitat.

"The 30,000 acres of critical habitat isn't much when you consider the Sundance Fire burned up 55,000 acres in a day," Smith pointed out. "Caribou live in areas subject to those major disturbances."

Meantime, snowmobilers are waiting on another vital element: a good pile of snow. When it finally settles in from the high mountains to the valleys, the Priest Lake area will be offering about 400 miles of snowmobile trails.

A small portion of the groomed trail system was affected by the court injunction. Those trails were prized by sledders who favor going off trail to higher elevations.

Indeed, it was rebel riders from those ranks who prompted the 2005 injunction on riding the crest by thumbing their noses at what was then a smaller caribou protection area.

Sundance Mountain and other areas at the south end of the Selkirks are still open and popular for high-elevation off-trail riding.

More terrain could be opened if the Forest Service, despite this year's seriously lean budget, would take the reins and jump-start winter travel planning. Panhandle officials say they have a goal of getting it done by the end of 2013.

Whoa. Don't forget, the Panhandle forests also are in the throes of revising the overall forest management plan.

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