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Court Reopens North Idaho Snowmobiling Trails, Terrain

Published online: Dec 16, 2006 Feature
Finally, some good news on the public land use front.
You might remember a year ago that a judge stopped grooming on a section of trails in north Idaho near Priest Lake. That had some disastrous results for businesses and sledders who like to ride this popular area in northern Idaho.
This was all done in the name of protecting caribou.
Then, earlier this year, a judge declared nearly 470 square miles of national forest land in the same area off limits to snowmobiles "in an effort to save the last mountain caribou herd in the contiguous 48 states," said a report from Associated Press.
In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert H. Whaley banned snowmobiles throughout a caribou recovery zone in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests until the U.S. Forest Service developed a winter recreation strategy for snowmobiles. In his ruling, Judge Whaley said, "The court chooses to be overprotective rather than under protective."
Well, the forest service came up with a plan and it bodes well for snowmobilers.
Here is a release from the BlueRibbon Coalition about the decision, which was handed down in early November.
"Snowmobile enthusiasts are cheering a new court ruling and are?optimistically awaiting the onset of another winter in North Idaho.?Earlier today (Nov. 7) Chief U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley issued an Order modifying the Court's prior snowmobiling restrictions, which effectively reopens popular snowmobile trails and backcountry riding areas.?? 
The Court's review occurs within an ongoing lawsuit filed by environmental groups challenging federal agency analysis of snowmobile impacts on an endangered population of woodland caribou.?That population, numbering approximately 35 animals, is located primarily in Canada with individuals occasionally wandering southward into extreme North Idaho and northeast Washington.?On Sept. 22, 2006 the Court issued an order interpreting the Endangered Species Act which prohibited snowmobiling in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest Caribou Recovery Area.
The Order called for further proceedings to refine the scope of snowmobile restrictions, and directed the parties to work towards an agreement.?The snowmobile and environmental groups presented a joint proposal for relief, while the U.S. Forest Service proposal called for the opening of additional areas and trails for snowmobile access.? Today's order acknowledged the joint proposal "appears to be the product of difficult negotiation" but found the Forest Service's proposal "best encompasses the goals and protections of the Endangered Species Act and is the most narrowly tailored in scope to achieve them."
"We are thrilled with this outcome, which provides for significant and unique riding opportunities for the upcoming winter season," Craig Hill, a Priest Lake representative for some of the snowmobile groups, said.?"While we entered our joint proposal in good faith and in the best interests of the snowmobiling public, we obviously prefer the Forest Service's proposal and are encouraged by the Court's latest analysis."
The Court's order reauthorizes snowmobile trail grooming on numerous popular routes, including the trail linking the east and west sides of Priest Lake, in the Pack River-Snow Creek area and riding along the Smith Creek-Cow Creek Trails near Bonners Ferry.?The Order further allows off-trail riding in the Roman Nose-McCormick Ridge area and in the popular Trapper Burn area adjacent to State of Idaho lands north of Priest Lake.? 
The latest Order will likely remain in place until the Idaho Panhandle National Forest develops a winter recreation plan, a process that could take a year or more.
"Our work is far from complete and we will continue to argue for even greater snowmobiling opportunities in the planning process," John Finney, a representative for Sandpoint area riders, said.
The snowmobile groups who are parties in the case are the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, Priest Lake Trails/Outdoor Recreation Association, Sandpoint Winter Riders, Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce, American Council of Snowmobile Associations and the BlueRibbon Coalition.?They are represented by Boise attorney Paul A. Turcke."

Good News
That, indeed, is good news for snowmobilers and businesses in the area. The cessation of grooming a year ago sent out the impression that most all snowmobiling was done for in the area, Craig Hill pointed out to SnoWest. Hill is a business owner in the Priest Lake area and represents the Priest Lake Trails/Outdoor Recreation Association.
"From the economic standpoint, having this change, in the areas we can ride, opens the public perception back to having Priest Lake as a world class destination snowmobiling mecca," he said. "Priest Lake has 400 plus miles of groomed trails in the system and these trails access miles and miles or acres and acres of off trail, backcountry riding."
Hill pointed to the devastating effects of last year's ruling. "Some of the area businesses saw a 50 percent drop in business while this injunction was in place last season," he said. "Priest Lake looks forward to getting our winter economy back on track."
He continued, "We applaud the USFS for their well thought out plan to protect the Caribou. This time around the forest service used best available science and expert biologists to come up with a strategy that will allow snowmobiling in areas that will not impact the caribou. This gives Priest Lake back all the areas we have historically ridden and the areas we used to building our reputation." 

Letter To
The Editor
While we're at it, and during the midst of the ruling that took place in early October, we got a note from Mark Linscott, who lives in north Idaho. He sent us a copy of a letter he sent to the editor of Field and Stream.
Here goes:

October 18, 2006
Field and Stream
P.O. Box 62441
Tampa, Florida
33662-4418
Gentlemen,

My name is Mark Linscott and I'm a Sandpoint, Idaho, native, an avid snowmobiler and regular Field and Stream reader.
I just opened the November issue of your magazine and was appalled by the article titled "Heroes of Conservation," in particular the article about Mark Sprengel, "Crusading for Caribou." The way the article reads is that snowmobiles are chasing off the last tiny herd of caribou in the lower 48.?Nothing could be farther from the truth. I don't know if your magazine does any research prior to publishing, but I want to set the record straight.
The caribou at one time (circa 1800s) roamed the lower 48 to around central Idaho (an estimated 200-400 head), however by the 1980s approximately 25 head remained in the southern Selkirk area and these were centered around the Stagleap Provincial Park in British Columbia . not the United States. That's right, 25 head and nearly all in British Columbia.?The decrease in population was not due to snowmobiles, as in the 1980s we didn't have snowmobiles capable of accessing the upper elevations where the caribou winter.
In an attempt to augment the caribou herds in the U.S., British Columbia and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife captured and released approximately 103 head of caribou, (60 in Idaho, 43 in Washington and 11 in British Columbia at Stagleap Provincial Park).?Between 1967 and 1999 a total of 80 caribou mortalities were documented, 51 of those 80 were radio-collared. Eleven were killed by predation, 25 by poachers, 8 natural causes/falls, 4 by vehicles and 29 by unknown causes.?Nearly one-half of the radio-collared didn't make it through the first summer. There's no way these numbers can be blamed on snowmobiles if they can't make it through their first summer now can they??The attempts to augment the caribou herds failed so miserably that the British Columbia wildlife ministry suspended the program of trying to transplant caribou into the United States and the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia.
I have attended every meeting possible regarding the caribou and have been following the caribou issue since the listing as an endangered species, the attempts to augment the herds and the closure area in the Selkirk Crest to snowmobiling in North Idaho.
Despite environmental groups claiming hundreds of snowmobiles were photographed out of bounds, in aerial surveys conducted by the Idaho Fish and Game and the USFS of "nearly the entire ecosystem," there was no mention of riders being in the closure area.? In fact Wayne Wakkinen with the Idaho Fish and Game stated, "snowmobilers have been respecting the boundary closures." At this same meeting I attended, a research biologist with the USFS stated in all the United States, only a single caribou track was found. However, during the aerial survey no animal was spotted.
Guy Wood, (a British Columbia biologist) feels the "declining number of caribou is a displacement issue not just snowmobiles, but humans in general" and actually thinks the caribou have "more reaction from skiers than snowmobiles."
In your article praising Mark Sprengel you state the snowmobile tracks become avenues for the mountain lion to climb to higher elevations.?When, in fact, a four year study conducted by?Washington State University, a researcher by the name of Don Katnik found "no evidence of mountain lions stalking caribou at high elevations, but only kill caribou incidentally, as the animals cross paths." He actually refers to there being no "Yeti- cats" stalking caribou at high elevations.?But his study did confirm that cougars have multiplied in the Selkirks.?Clear cuts have made the forest more attractive to white-tailed deer, which feed on emerging vegetation and the cats have followed the deer to higher-than-usual elevations, right into caribou country.?This tells me the mountain lions aren't following snowmobile tracks to access higher elevations as many would like us to believe.?The mountain lion has no reason to go higher in the winter, all the deer they can eat are down low in the Purcell Trench.
Caribou feed on arboreal lichen in the winter. Science tells us it takes 50 years for a tree to support lichen and another 50 years for enough to support caribou.?So 100 years minimum is needed in an old growth forest to produce arboreal lichen.?After the 1910 and Sundance fires, old growth forests are difficult to find in the Selkirks, especially above 4,000 ft.
More studies are not needed; it's very obvious the caribou can't survive here.?The caribou have naturally gravitated to Canada, not due to man but naturally evolved to adapt to their surroundings and go north where the food is.?You can regularly see caribou on the highways in Canada and many get hit my automobiles.?I don't see the crusade trying to shut down the highways, do you??In fact you can still order a caribou burger just across the border, but here in the states it takes approximately 300,000 acres shut down to try and bring back a lone caribou??The estimated 34 remaining caribou in the Selkirk herd are not even in the states but north of Stagleap Provincial Park, British Columbia.
Lawsuits filed against the USFS claim the government has failed to protect the caribou and is ignoring the science.?I argue the science tells us the caribou can't survive here.
The Greater Bonners Ferry Chamber of Commerce in 1992 and again in 1998 petitioned the service to de-list the caribou from the endangered species list as the listing of the caribou was solely on conjecture and inadequate research on the part of the service, with no biological reason or need for the listing. The petition was denied, however, I feel in the near future another petition will follow, along with the support of Idaho Senator Larry Craig.
The closure of the area leaves the doors wide open for drug smugglers to bring in "B.C. Bud," (drug smugglers preferred travel method is on snowmobiles while carrying hockey bags full of the drugs and then rendezvousing on the U.S. side by snowmobile), and going unchecked as law enforcement can no longer patrol the area on snowmobiles, also national security is threatened by a strip approx. 30 miles along the Canada/U.S. border to go un-patrolled on the ground due to the closure area. Forget the idea of a fence with Mexico. We'll need one with Canada.
Please don't take my word regarding the science I mention in this letter. Contact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the USFS and the Idaho Fish & Game or just "Google" caribou and see for yourself.
I foresee the Selkirk Conservation Alliance isn't going to stop at closures from snowmobiles, but from motorcycles and ATVs as well.?Snowmobile manufacturers have helped financially with the lawsuit fighting the closures, as have BlueRibbon Coalition, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and several others.
There are ATV ads on 12 different pages in the same November issue.?You shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you. I'm going to make sure they all are aware of your magazine's support of considering Mark Sprengel/Selkirk Conservation Alliance a crusader and a hero for conservation.?Then when areas are closed to ATVs and sales drop, who will advertise with you?
Tell you what, if you think for a minute there is credence to your article regarding the? caribou issue, come out to North Idaho and I will personally pay for the flights over the U.S. in search of a caribou. (I prefer a weeks notice in advance as I snowmobile every chance I can get.)

Respectfully, 
Mark C. Linscott