Winter Travel Planning in the Idaho Panhandle
Comment by April 27 on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Kaniksu Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Travel Plan.
Photo courtesy of Sam Reinsel
April 18, 2023
Winter Wildlands Summary: Comment on the winter travel plan by April 27, 2023 and ask the Forest Service to include an implementation plan as part of the final Kaniksu OSV plan.
Earlier this month the Idaho Panhandle National Forests published a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Kaniksu Over-Snow Vehicle (OSV) Travel Plan. The Forest Service has requested the public provide comments on the draft EA by April 27.
When finished, the Kaniksu OSV Plan will designate routes, areas, and season dates for OSV use on National Forest lands in the northern part of Idaho’s panhandle – on the Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, and Priest Lake Ranger Districts, as well as and a small portion of the Coeur D’Alene River Ranger District. In addition to being a popular area for winter recreation, the Kaniksu region is home to several rare or threatened wildlife species – grizzly bears, wolverine, and Canada lynx – and was once home to endangered woodland caribou.
There are 4 species of wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act (or under consideration to be protected) within the Kaniksu planning area: caribou, grizzly bear, Canada lynx, and wolverine. Whitebark pine, also a listed species, is also present. In this travel plan the Forest Service has specific legal obligations it must meet to protect species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Furthermore, in travel planning the Forest Service is required to minimize “harassment of wildlife and significant disruption of wildlife habitats”. This requirement is applicable to all wildlife species, not just those listed under the ESA, but the EA’s analysis of wildlife impacts focuses primarily on the 4 ESA species.
In 2007 a judge banned snowmobiling across much of the critical woodland caribou habitat (caribou recovery areas) in the Kaniksu plan area in order to try to save the caribou population, which at the time numbered between 35 and 45 animals. The judge’s ban is in effect until the Kaniksu OSV plan is completed. Snowmobile use is known to displace caribou, and snowmobile trails provide easy travel corridors for predators. Unfortunately, even with this protection from OSV use, the herd continued to decline. In 2019 the last remaining caribou known to be present in the lower 48 were captured in northern Idaho and transported across the border to a captive breeding facility in British Columbia in a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction. Although woodland caribou are now extinct in the lower 48, National Forest lands in northern Panhandle are designated as critical caribou habitat in hopes that this species may one day return and in this winter travel plan the Forest Service is required to manage critical caribou habitat so that it could support a future population if recovery efforts are successful. Thus, continued protections for caribou habitat are an important element of this travel plan. These projects, however, are not required to be the exact same as the current closures.
Snowmobile use can also potentially displace grizzly bears when they emerge from their dens in the spring. This is a particular concern for female bears with young cubs, as the cubs may become separated from their mother if she leaves the den area after encountering snowmobiles. In light of this concern, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is requiring the Idaho-Panhandle National Forest include considerations for post-den emergent grizzly bears in the winter travel plan. Wildlife biologists and the agencies agree that the best way to protect bears is to prohibit cross-country snowmobile use in grizzly habitat in the spring when bears emerge from their dens.
Canada lynx, whose large, furry paws are adapted for travel across deep, fluffy snow, are also impacted by snowmobile use since this use compacts the snow, making it easier for competitors like coyotes to move into lynx habitat. Lynx habitat across the forest is divided into “lynx analysis units” and management of these areas is guided by the Forest Service’s 2007 Northern Rockies Lynx Management Direction. This directs forests to not expand designated OSV routes and open areas beyond the areas of consistent snow compaction that were established between 1998 and 2000. The amount of snow compaction can be calculated within an individual lynx analysis unit or across a combination of immediately adjacent lynx analysis units.
While wolverines are not a listed species, the Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering whether the species merit ESA protections Thus, wolverine habitat is also an important consideration in this travel plan. OSV use has also been shown to have negative impacts on wolverines, who avoid areas with moderate-to-high levels of winter recreation. Wildlife biologists have found that female wolverines are particularly sensitive and will not use areas of their home ranges where there is a lot of human activity. This reduction in home range size can impact their ability to find food, and may affect a wolverine’s ability to raise young.
Finally, although whitebark pine are plants and not animals, this species merits mention as well. Recently listed as threatened under the ESA, whitebark pine are an important food source for more than 30 animal species, including grizzly bears. Whitebark pine also play an important role in preserving the winter snowpack. Protecting whitebark pine is not just important for the sake of the species itself, but because of the entire alpine ecosystem these trees support. OSV use can damage whitebarks and other trees by breaking branches. Of greatest concern is when seedlings are damaged, most commonly from being run over when not fully buried in snow. This can result in direct mortality, or damage may make a tree more susceptible to other stressors that lead to fatality. Minimum snow depths, and/or season dates that restrict off-trail travel in the early and late season when snow is less abundant, can help protect whitebark against damage. Monitoring is also important, so that the Forest Service can adapt the plan if needed to better protect trees (and other natural resources, or wildlife).
Although OSV recreation is the primary focus of this travel plan, the Kaniksu area is important for many types of winter recreation. And, in winter travel planning the Forest Service is required to minimize conflict between OSV use and other recreational uses. “Conflict” as defined by the agency does not have to rise to the level of an altercation or law enforcement response. It includes displacement or degradation of the quality of non-motorized recreation experiences due to OSVs. For this reason, it’s important that the Forest Service understand and respond to input from skiers and snowshoers.
People backcountry ski in many areas across the Selkirk and Cabinet Mountains, including in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, off of the Selkirk Crest, and on Scotchman Peak. There are also 15 miles of groomed Nordic ski trails on Forest Service lands in the Kaniksu planning area and many trails available for snowshoeing (although not always in non-motorized areas).
The Environmental Assessment considers two potential plans, or alternatives: the Proposed Action and Alternative A. The Proposed Action is based largely on recommendations developed by the North Idaho Working Group. Winter Wildlands Alliance was one of two non-motorized winter recreation representatives on this collaborative. Alternative A diverges from the Proposed Action on a few points reflective of comments received during the 2022 scoping period for this project.
- Protects high-value backcountry ski zones by not designating the Scotchman Peaks, most of the northern Selkirk Mountains (including Pyramid Pass and the land around the West Fork Cabin), and portions of the southern Selkirks (including Myrtle’s Turtle) for cross-country OSV use. All of the groomed Nordic ski trails in the project area would also be closed to OSV use (except for grooming equipment). Altogether, OSV would be prohibited on 267,275 acres of National Forest land in the project area.
- Designates, but sets seasonal use restrictions on, 624,002 acres of National Forest land in the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains. Off-trail OSV use would be prohibited after March 31 in order to protect grizzly bears as they’re emerging from their dens in the Selkirk and Cabinet Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zones. These seasonal use restrictions also provide for quiet spring skiing opportunities in the Selkirks and Cabinets. Late season (April 1-May 31) OSV use would be allowed on designated, ungroomed, routes.
- OSV areas in the Selkirks would open November 16 and OSV areas in the Cabinets would open December 1 annually. These “season start dates” are intended to protect big game, which generally migrate to lower elevations in the fall, and bears, which will enter their dens to hibernate by early winter.
- Designates 150,856 acres of National Forest land, primarily south of Lake Pend Orielle, as open for OSV use through May 31 annually.
- Designates the Roman Nose area in the Selkirk Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone for OSV use between November 16 and May 31, once motorized access standards are met for grizzly bears (standards are anticipated to be met in 2023).
- Designates the Moose Lake area in the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone for OSV use between December 1 and May 31, once motorized access standards are met (anticipated that standards will be met in 2028).
- Designates approximately 450 miles of roads and trails for groomed OSV use through March 31.
- Designates approximately 45 miles of ungroomed trails and approximately 1,129 miles of ungroomed roads for late-season OSV use in areas closed to cross-country travel after March 31. Many of the roads overlap with those designated for grooming prior to April 1. Most of the ungroomed routes available for late-season use are in the Lower Priest, West Moyie, and Purcells.
- Designates approximately 7.9 miles of ungroomed trails and 43.9 miles of ungroomed roads through areas closed to off-trail travel year-long. Use would be permitted on these routes until March 31 annually.
Differs from the Proposed Action in the following key ways:
- Does not designate the upper Pack River area for OSV use (west of the Pack River Road, including the Harrison Lake Basin south to Mt. Roothaan). This is in response to scoping comments highlighting the value of this area for backcountry skiing and to minimize impacts to Canada lynx.
- Would not allow grooming of the Cow Creek trail (upper National Forest System Road 655) in order to minimize effects to Canada lynx.
- Changes the closure dates for cross-country travel outside grizzly bear recovery zones from April 1 to April 15. This is in response to scoping comments from snowmobilers concerned about reduced spring access.
- Increases the number of areas open for OSV use until May 31 to include Jeru Ridge, Wellington Creek, and Porcupine Creek in addition to Roman Nose and Moose Lake. This is in response to scoping comments from snowmobilers concerned about reduced spring access.
Neither alternative includes a plan for how the Forest Service will implement and enforce the new designations or monitor to ensure the plan is meeting its intended goals.
Maps and other project documents are available online on the Forest Service project page (click here). The EA and maps of each Alternative can be found in the “analysis” folder.
If you ski or snowshoe in the northern panhandle, or are otherwise interested in this plan, please take a minute to submit a comment before April 27. When determining what the final Kaniksu OSV Plan will be, the Forest Supervisor will either choose one of the two alternatives or he will incorporate elements of Alternative A into the Proposed Action to create a “Modified Proposed Action”. We often see Forest Supervisor’s take this blended approach when finalizing winter travel plans, so if there are elements of Alternative A that you think would improve the Proposed Action, please share this in your comments. As always, comment letters that explain the “why” behind what you want the Forest Service to do are most impactful. We also encourage you to ask the Forest Service to include an implementation plan as part of the final Kaniksu OSV plan.