Members of the Southern Selkirk caribou herd move north through the Selkirk Mountains about three miles north of the Washington state border into Canada in November 2005.
SANDPOINT, Idaho - In the frozen Selkirk Mountains near the Canadian border, the last tiny herd of caribou in the Lower 48 states is fighting for survival.
About 34 of the animals struggle with starvation, a rising population of predators and, more recently, powerful snowmobiles that roar through their winter range.
Conservationists have sued, trying to bar snowmobiles from the caribou habitat, and tension between the two sides is rising.
"There is no prospect for negotiation," said Mark Sprengel of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, whose members have been branded domestic terrorists by some snowmobilers. "I think these people are capable of extreme acts."
Critics contend snowmobiles disturb caribou during the winter, when they are already struggling to survive on low-nutrition lichen growing on old-growth trees. Recent improvements in snowmobiles have increased their range, allowing them to go farther into the backcountry where caribou live.
The groomed snowmobile trails also provide surer footing for deer, and the cougars that prey on them, to climb into caribou habitat.
Caribou were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1984, and are considered by some the most endangered animal in the Lower 48 states, Sprengel said. Herds numbering in the hundreds of thousands still roam in parts of Alaska.
Of the estimated 34 caribou in the south Selkirk herd, only three were spotted on the U.S. side of the border last winter.
That means the animals may be a lost cause in the area, said Tom Holman, a snowmobiler active in trying to preserve trails for his sport.
Logging, wildfires and competition from other species are the main causes of caribou decline, and the economic boost provided by snowmobilers to the tourist-dependent region should not be sacrificed, Holman contended.
"We don't feel we are a threat to the caribou," said Holman, who lives in Nordman, Idaho.
Caribou once covered nearly all northern latitudes, but have been lost in most of Europe and the eastern United States. These days they exist primarily in western North America, Russia and Scandinavia.
The herd in the southern Selkirks straddles the border with Canada, and roams into the Idaho Panhandle and the northeastern corner of Washington.
While few people live near the caribou habitat recovery area, the mountains and lakes of the region are heavily used by tourists. A thriving winter economy has been built around hundreds of miles of groomed trails.
"In winter time in the past, the resorts were closed and only one gas station was open and everyone closed up and left," Holman said. "We created this economy from snowmobiling and cross-country skiing and we rely on it."
It was a big blow when a federal judge in Spokane, Wash., issued an order just before Christmas that banned snowmobile trail grooming for the rest of the season. The order did not prohibit snowmobiling, but ungroomed trails quickly become rough and impassable.
The temporary ban was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Selkirk Conservation Alliance against the U.S. Forest Service to force the agency to protect caribou. The ban covers about 77 miles of trails in the federally designated caribou recovery zone.
Caribou supporters say the ban leaves an additional 251 miles of ungroomed snowmobile trails and over 50,000 acres of snowmobile play areas within the recovery area. There are nearly 500 additional miles of groomed trails, 300 miles of ungroomed trails, and 125,000 acres of play areas in the Selkirk region outside the recovery area.
The noisy machines are not the only threat to caribou.
Logging of old-growth forests, which the caribou depend on for the lichen they eat, has increased on state lands in Idaho and in Canada. The logged land is ideal habitat for whitetailed deer, which have exploded in numbers. In turn, that has caused the population of predators, such as mountain lions, to increase.
"These predators find the caribou and they are easy prey," Sprengel said.
In late October, the government of British Columbia said it might abandon recovery efforts for some smaller herds of caribou. The Canadian proposal offered five options for dealing with declining numbers of caribou. The most aggressive plan would attempt to restore all 12 herds of mountain caribou in the area. Two of the options would abandon the five smallest herds, including the herd that ranges into the United States
A decision is expected later this year.
Caribou numbers in British Columbia have declined by 30 percent, to about 1,700 animals, in the past decade. A report issued by the Canadian government cites logging, predators, winter recreation and global warming as leading factors.
Leo DeGroot of the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment said agreements have been reached with snowmobile clubs in that province to stay out of caribou habitat.
Holman said efforts to reach a similar deal on the U.S. side have failed.
"They (environmentalists) made comments like they want to get the combustion engine completely out of the forest," Holman said. "We can't make ourselves extinct."
The emotions involved in the conflict were evident in a recent op-ed piece in the Priest River Times newspaper by Holman. He called opponents of snowmobiling domestic terrorists.
"Bonner and Boundary County have been victimized by domestic terrorism and the areas will feel the financial pains as the winter season continues," Holman wrote.
Holman does not see his article as hostile to environmentalists.
"It was honest," Holman said.
But those words had Sprengel worried about the safety of his supporters.
"If you call people terrorists, it makes it easy for a nut to take out the enemy for God and country," Sprengel said.