COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — A revised plan for the Panhandle, Kootenai and Lolo national forests of Idaho, Montana and Washington state would restrict motorized vehicle travel in prime grizzly habitat.
The Spokesman-Review reported Tuesday that the restrictions could eventually close up to 102 miles of backcountry roads to public travel across a 4,560-square-mile swath of the three national forests. No decisions on specific road closures have been made at this time.
The shutdowns are bound to disappoint some off-road vehicle enthusiasts. The Blue Ribbon Coalition, which advocates for motorized backcountry access, says it will review the plans.
But forest managers say grizzlies in two bear recovery zones in the Selkirk and Cabinet-Yaak mountains have been the losers in many encounters with humans. Since 1982 people have killed at least 97 grizzlies in these zones, making their recovery more difficult.
Roads bring more people into contact with grizzlies, resulting in higher rates of human-caused mortality for the federally protected bears, said Shanda Dekome, the Idaho Panhandle National Forests’ ecosystem staff officer.
By reducing road densities, she said, the Forest Service expects to reduce poaching, incidents of hunters mistaking grizzlies for black bears and the number of bears that become habituated to human food sources.
The Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bear recovery zone has approximately 50 of the animals, though that number is declining slowly, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific region.
The Selkirk recovery zone spans 2,200 square miles and includes a portion of British Columbia, which has an estimated 45 to 50 grizzly bears, while the U.S. portion has about 35 to 40.
Over the past decade, environmental groups have brought a series of lawsuits against the Forest Service, arguing that the agency needed to do more to keep people and bears apart by restricting motor vehicle traffic into core grizzly habitat.
But forest officials say they kept in mind the multiple uses of the region when winnowing down the road system, in a bid to not adversely affect recreationalists.
It “takes into consideration the social side of things,” said Mary Farnsworth, supervisor for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. “People use campgrounds, and they like to drive around looking for huckleberries.”
Brian Hawthorne, the public lands policy director at the Pocatello, Idaho-based Blue Ribbon Coalition, said he has yet to review the changes.
He said a contractor with his group familiar with grizzly issues will review the closures to make sure they have been crafted responsibly.
“We want to make sure the proposed rules match the need,” Hawthorne told The Associated Press. “If the grizzly bears are doing well now, and their numbers are improving, and habitat is improving, the public is going to question any kind of significant change in motorized access. On the other hand, if the grizzlies are doing badly, there’s going to be more public support” for road restrictions.