Flikr photo by Michiel van Nimwegen

Skiers, snowmobilers, conservationists and other winter recreation stakeholders come together to help protect and find ways to co-exist with the iconic mountain carnivore

Known for its ability to cover distance quicker than a Nordie with perfectly waxed skis, and to cruise up and over mountains faster than the gnarliest ski-mo racer, the wolverine is among the most iconic of winter wildlife species. Skiers, snowmobilers, and others who love spending time in snowy places feel a special affinity with and appreciation for wolverines. Like wolverines, we’re snow-dependent critters who are facing a serious threat because of climate change. Unlike wolverines, we can handle a crowd — even if we’d prefer not to.

Winter recreation stakeholders and conservationists working together to find common ground and develop recommendations for the Forest Service.

Winter Wildlands Alliance has been working with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Round River Conservation Studies to reach out to the backcountry Snowsports community with information about wolverines, how our activities impact the species, and how we might mitigate that impact.

Unfortunately for all concerned, new research shows that backcountry winter recreation — snowmobiling and backcountry skiing alike — impacts wolverines. With help from skiers and snowmobilers using GPS units to track their own movement in the backcountry, scientists discovered that wolverines strongly avoid areas with lots of human activity, whether we’re snowmobiling, skiing, or just tromping through the woods on snowshoes.

Wolverines may use areas adjacent to popular winter recreation areas, and they may pass through areas with heavy recreation pressure, but they’re not sticking around in places where there are lots of people. In short, wolverines don’t den, rest, or eat in places that get a lot of backcountry ski or snowmobile use — even if those places are part of a larger wolverine home range. This is called “functional habitat loss,” and it poses a real concern for wolverine survival.

Wolverine and ski tracks, Moose Basin, Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Forrest McCarthy

The conservation concern here is two-fold. First, wildlife biology 101 tells us that an animal’s home range is the minimum amount of space that an individual requires to live and reproduce. If backcountry skiing and snowmobiling are effectively eliminating portions of a wolverine’s home range, it’s likely we’re having a negative effect on that wolverine’s ability to make a living and reproduce. And since wolverines are pretty rare, impacts to even a few individuals could have population-level impacts.

Second, because of climate change, there are (and will continue to be) fewer and fewer places for all of us — skiers, snowmobilers, and wolverines — to find snow. Pair this loss of snow with a growing interest in backcountry snowsports and new tools and toys that help us travel deeper into the backcountry than ever before, and wolverines may have a tough time finding snowy places that aren’t overly impacted by humans.

The good news is that with some self-imposed restraint we — the backcountry snowsports community — can help reduce our impact on these tough but vulnerable animals, without greatly impacting our own opportunities for fun and exploration in winter.

We’re all familiar with the concept of suburban sprawl. Now think about your favorite backcountry area and how recreation use can sprawl across the landscape as people seek out the next untracked peak or meadow. By limiting that sprawl, we can limit the functional habitat loss that wolverines are experiencing.

As tempting as it is to explore deeper and further into the backcountry, by sticking within established and agreed-upon recreation areas when skiing and snowmobiling in wolverine habitat, you can help reduce your personal impact on the species. And, if we all limit our personal impact, together we can make a big difference in wolverine survival.

To learn more about wolverines,  check out the brochure that we recently produced in partnership with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Round River Conservation Studies:

Wolverine Final Brochure

 

To help SnowSchool educators prepare for teaching so many diverse students we annually provide on-snow field workshops and regional training opportunities. And this year we’ve broadened these efforts…

Senators Daines (R-MT) and Gardner (R-CO) champion #bipartisan effort to reauthorize LWCF, America’s favorite conversation program.

Winter Wildlands Alliance policy staff has been in Washington D.C. this past week for our annual Outdoor Alliance policy summit, as well as to check in with Federal land management agencies and meet with members of Congress. Congress is still limping through its lame-duck session, and it’s our last chance to make a case for legislation we’d like to see included in a possible last-ditch, year-end public lands package, and to get some important bills passed into law before having to start over with the new Congress next year.

With Democrats in control of the House and its committees, we expect to see House Republicans putting more pressure on the agencies as a way of achieving their policy priorities outside of the legislative process.

As many bad bills as there are in Congress these days (and there are plenty!), there are some good ones too. One of our top priorities has been to bring back the Land and Water Conservation Fund (#SaveLWCF). Congress let this program expire in September despite the fact that it’s America’s most popular conservation program, with broad bi-partisan support, and a critical source of funding for public land acquisition and recreation infrastructure. We’re still getting mixed beta from Senate offices and members of Congress about whether it’ll get re-authorized — either permanently or temporarily — and at what level, but we’re staying optimistic in these final days of the session.

Which brings me to the primary topic of this policy update – what will the midterm election results and a new Congress in 2019 mean for backcountry skiers who love public lands?

As you will have heard by now, Democrats won enough House races to take back control of the House of Representatives next year, while Republicans maintained control of the Senate. For the past two years, all three branches of government have been controlled by one party, but starting in January we’ll return to a divided government. In the House, the Democrats will control the agenda, forcing both the White House and Republican-controlled Senate to negotiate with them. Given our partisan politics, we expect there will be a lot of vilifying going on too, with each party continuing to focus on blaming the other for the nation’s woes. So, what do we think this means for public lands?

  • Legislation: We expect the scariest legislative threats – such as large-scale public lands transfers and attempts to gut environmental laws – to fade. These attacks on public lands and the public process have been driven by House Republicans and now they don’t have the votes to move these extreme proposals. At the same time, with a hyper-partisan divided Congress, we’re not sure that Congress will get much done in the legislative arena at all.
  • Investigations: With Democrats taking control of the House, we’re expecting a lot of investigations into the conduct and decision-making of Trump Administration officials. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is likely to be on the hot seat as Legislators look into his decisions to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, among other controversial actions of the past two years.
  • Confirmations:The Republicans have strengthened their majority in the Senate, which will likely make it easier for the President to get the 60 votes needed to confirm his nominees, from the Courts to the Cabinet. Many federal appointments are currently vacant and the rumor mill is churning with word that Secretary Zinke is on his way out. Although Zinke has been a huge disappointment for public lands enthusiasts, we’re not optimistic about who his replacement might be. In fact, there are some frightening nominees waiting in the wings to take positions across the federal public lands agencies. It’s no secret that the Trump Administration and Senate Republicans are highly motivated to change the federal judiciary by confirming as many conservative judges as possible. This will have a delayed, but major, effect on environmental and administrative law, with conservative judges likely giving less deference to land management agencies in how they interpret the laws that govern public lands management.
  • Pressure on the Agencies: It’s not unusual to see members of Congress putting pressure on the Forest Service or other land management agencies. Most recently, we saw members of the Congressional Western Caucus weighing in on winter travel planning in California and asking the Forest Service to re-evaluate any potential restrictions on snowmobile use and even to reconsider the planning process itself. With Democrats in control of the House and its committees, we expect to see House Republicans putting more pressure on the agencies as a way of achieving their policy priorities outside of the legislative process.

We’ll see how these predictions play out in the coming year. For the next week or so, we’ll remain focused on the lame duck session, with fingers crossed that we can get a few things across the finish line in the next couple of weeks!

 

 

 

 

Hilary Eisen, Policy Director