SPOKANE, Wash. – A judge has declared nearly 470 square miles of national forest land in northern Idaho off-limits to snowmobiles in an effort to save the last mountain caribou herd in the contiguous 48 states.
U.S. District Judge Robert H. Whaley, in a ruling Friday, banned the vehicles throughout a caribou recovery zone in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests until the U.S. Forest Service develops a winter recreation strategy taking into account the impact of the loud, exhaust-spewing devices on the herd.
Estimates of the herd in the Selkirk Mountains, which extend from Priest Lake, Idaho into British Columbia, run to about three dozen animals, a "precarious finger-hold" on survival, Whaley wrote.
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Citing aerial photographs that show snowmobile tracks crisscrossing caribou routes to vital feeding areas, the judge added, "The court chooses to be overprotective rather than under-protective."
Environmental groups have sought to ban snowmobiles to protect the endangered animals, citing evidence that the noisy vehicles scare caribou from feeding and calving grounds. They also contend the compacted snowmobile trails and tracks allow predators to hunt caribou in the deep snow which normally offers them protection.
Snowmobile interests have countered that the herd has shrunk over the decades mostly because of past logging, backcountry skiing and global warming, adding that as few as two or three caribou from the herd have been seen south of the border in recent years.
The ban does not apply to hundreds of miles of state-owned land east of Priest Lake and offers a slim chance that limited snowmobiling might still be allowed in part of the recovery zone. Whaley gave environmental groups and the forest service a week to develop a proposal for a more trail-specific approach.