To strengthen their case, snowmobilers asked Mike Schlegel, a retired wildlife research biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, to review the land closure proposal. Schlegel believes the Forest Service is being too conservative in its management plan and that there is no direct evidence that winter recreationists directly harm wolverines. Instead, he recommends mapping out female denning sites and educating snowmobilers to avoid those critical areas.
Mitchell and Heinemeyer, the lead author on the wolverine study, are also working with backcountry groups to create land-management recommendations that can be used by both the Forest Service and recreationists. The process, still in its early stages, aims to publish a proposal that mitigates any harm to wolverines. “I don’t want the wolverine to be the cause of lawsuits and a bunch of fights over land use,” said Heinemeyer.
But Mitchell fears there may be more disputes ahead. “I’m worried that other national forests will close to snowmobilers,” she said. “We’ll have to take it one forest at a time.” And given the changing winter landscape, such conflicts may become more frequent. With warmer winters, later snowfall, and earlier spring rain, snowy areas for winter recreationists are shrinking, and there’s a higher chance of disturbing wildlife.
With this in mind, conservationists worry about future protections for the wolverine, which is currently in the midst of another legal battle as to whether it will be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Last November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to meet its deadline for a listing decision. Subsequently, a group of nine conservation groups has threatened to sue the Trump administration.
Yet even scientists who have spent their careers studying the animal say that the wolverine remains an enigma. This is echoed by backcountry enthusiasts like Mitchell, who has never seen a wolverine, and likely never will. “I would be thrilled to death to see one,” Mitchell said. “What an amazing little critter.”
When I asked if the new research on wolverines has changed how she interacts with the landscape while snowmobiling, she responded immediately, “It does. I definitely am more conscious of animals.” Now, Mitchell says that she tries to stay away from areas where they may reside. “In the snowmobiling community, there is a great respect for wildlife,” she said.
So far, though, that respect has not translated to action in the broader community of snowmobilers, and it is unlikely to be enough to protect the wolverine. Snowmobilers like Mitchell still plan to spend their winters trekking out to desolate places far away from marked trails, and according to the science, this means riding through wolverine habitat.
For a species already under threat, this may be the breaking point. “The stakes are higher,” Eisen said. “We can’t just sit back and let it be a free-for-all.”
This post appears courtesy of High Country News.