A judge upheld a long-standing ban on snowmobiling in designated mountain caribou habitat in northern Idaho on December 13, despite the caribou no longer venturing into the Lower 48.
As of 2007, snowmobiling has been banned in certain designated salvage areas in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. The ban was instituted in hopes of conserving the southern Selkirk caribou herd, which at the time was estimated at between 35 and 45 animals, according to court documents.
Herds numbers have declined dramatically, and in 2019 Canadian biologists trapped and relocated the only remaining caribou that still occasionally roamed the United States.
For this reason, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association has requested that the injunction against the snowmobile be stayed. Caribou have not been documented in the United States in annual censuses since 2012, although radio tracking data showed a collared bull entered Washington for 10 days in late 2014, documents show judicial. Two caribou were seen in Montana in 2018.
United States District Court Judge Robert Whaley, however, ruled that the closed area was still critical habitat for caribou and concluded that the protection of the Endangered Species Act was still warranted. In 2019, the federal government tightened protections for caribou, nearly a year after the last member of the southern herd was relocated.
The 2007 Permanent Injunction Order states that the ban on snowmobiling and other vehicles on snow will remain in effect until the Forest Service adopts a winter recreation strategy, also known as travel plan. That plan has not been completed, although the forest service told the court it would be by 2023.
After decades of efforts – involving tribal, federal, state and Canadian officials – the southern caribou herd population peaked at 46 animals in 2009 and was increasing by that time. But as of the spring of 2018, there were only three animals left, all females, in South Selkirk’s herd, according to aerial surveys.
The reasons for the decline are varied and interconnected.
Logging has destroyed their food source while development has fragmented populations.
At the same time, caribou populations have suffered from the recovery of wolves and pumas in Canada and the United States. The caribou’s main defense against predation is its ability to enter areas inaccessible to predators. But the extensive network of roads in Canada and the United States has made it easier for wolves to access remote alpine refuges for caribou.
Climate change has also resulted in a reduction in the snowpack, making it more difficult for caribou to avoid predators. Snowmobiling and other increased winter backcountry uses also stress animals.