Of ’bilers and bears

Setting limits in Flathead National Forest


An odd thing happened in 2002: Environmentalists and snowmobile enthusiasts agreed on boundaries within the vast Flathead National Forest. Their plan placed especially sensitive wildlands off-limits to snowmobiles, but let the machines roar unimpeded through the popular playgrounds.

The Forest Service accepted the agreement in principle, and the remarkable consensus was widely hailed as a model for settling future disputes in the cultural wars over how to best use our pristine public lands. But did anyone really expect the peace to last?

Now, only months later, environmentalists are screaming over an issue they neglected to settle with snowmobilers when the two camps were still talking—when should the snowmobile season end each year?

Environmentalists want it to end on March 15, when they say grizzly bears emerging from hibernation are especially vulnerable to disturbance.

But under the plan eventually developed by the Forest Service, the season generally would end April 1 on the 787,150 acres of forest where snowmobiles would be permitted. In some key grizzly denning habitat, notably the 30,000-acre Lost Johnny Creek drainage, the season would last until June 1.

Grizzly sows need quiet when leaving their maternity dens, wildlife biologists say. Bears stay around their dens for a couple of weeks until their cubs are strong enough to travel to their spring range. Environmentalists fear that the noise of snowmobiles could cause bears to abandon their young. That could be fatal to cubs unable to fend for themselves.

“The Forest Service is making concessions to a bunch of lawless snowmobilers,” says Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition.

So much for middle ground. With the Forest Service’s plan awaiting approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, battle lines have been redrawn and both sides have come out firing in official public comments. Some 400 comments have been sent to the Forest Service so far. A sampling:

“Recognize that snowmobiles pollute the air and are horribly offensive to many of us.”

“Snowmobiles STINK.”

“The valley’s fragile economy is in the balance here. Have you seen how many people on Saturday and Sunday at the gas stations, food stores and restaurants are supported by snowmobilers?”

“The dates are too early for closures. Snow pack most years is good until at least mid-June.”

“I am afraid my children and grandchildren will be locked out of the forest completely and will never enjoy being able to go wherever they would like on public lands be it by foot, horseback or motorized vehicles. Please help stop the madness of shutting everyone out.”

Caught in the middle is the Forest Service, which for decades has recognized the accommodation of the timber industry as a clear agency mission, but which seems confused over how to deal with everyone else.

It only complicates matters that the agency has inexplicably failed to enforce a much more restrictive winter recreation plan that supposedly has been the law since the 1980s. On paper, it banned snowmobiling everywhere in the forest after March 15 each year. In practice, the season lasted as long as there was snow on the ground. In some places that supposedly were off-limits, snowmobiles ran freely—on groomed trails no less.

In a flip of logic that would make even the most brazen political spin-doctor blush, the Forest Service contends that environmentalists shouldn’t be upset that the agency is about to officially recognize late-spring snowmobiling. Instead, they should be happy that the agency is talking about enforcing any limits at all.

“What’s been going on for 30 years is that people have been snowmobiling without any ending date,” the Forest Service’s Kim Smolt explains with a straight face. “Now, late-spring snowmobiling would happen on some of the forest instead of the entire forest.”

In its review of the plan, which is expected to be complete in a few weeks, Fish and Wildlife will decide whether late-spring snowmobiling poses an unacceptable threat to grizzly bears and other wildlife protected by the Endangered Species Act.

If the agency rejects the plan, then the Forest Service must change it. If need be, environmentalists say they will sue to force changes.

Just this past week, the Swan View Coalition sued the Forest Service to force the removal of a snowmobile bridge over Lost Johnny Creek by March 15. Under a permit granted the Flathead Snowmobile Association, the Forest Service would allow the temporary bridge to remain in until July 1. That seems to indicate that the agency doesn’t intend to enforce even its new proposed June 1 end-of-season date for the Lost Johnny area.

An estimated 1,000 grizzlies remain in the Lower 48, with about 350 living in northwestern Montana. One study shows the grizzly population decreasing by 2 percent a year here.

Cubs are only 1–½ pounds when born, and there are usually only two cubs in a litter. Cubs remain with their mothers for at least two years, and females won’t breed again while in the company of their young. That lengthy breeding interval makes it all the more important to protect newborns from disturbances, environmentalists say.

“We’re not saying they can’t snowmobile out there. We just want them to knock it off by March 15,” the Swan View Coalition’s Hammer says. “We need to allow these bears some basic security to raise their families.”

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