Four conservation groups are joining forces to sue the U.S. Forest Service over a policy that allows hunters in the Kaibab National Forest to drive motorized vehicles cross-country to retrieve felled elk and bison.
In the lawsuit, the activist groups — including the Sierra Club, the Wild Earth Guardians, the Wildland Network, and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council — argue that trucks and ATVs crush vegetation and endanger animals.
The Kaibab National Forest is home to a number of species that are struggling to survive, including the black-footed ferret, which is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the Mexican spotted owl, which is listed as threatened, said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter.
“Animals may be struck and killed by vehicles,” she said. “If there is a lot of noise and activity, they may abandon their nests.”
Historically off-roading has not been regulated. The policy in question, enacted in various regions of the Kaibab National Forest between 2011 and 2013, was rolled out in response to a nationwide effort to limit motorists and preserve wildlife.
Now, it is illegal to off road in a motorized vehicle in Kaibab National Forest, but hunters are permitted to go up to one mile off designated routes to pick up big game.
Environmentalists argue the one-mile exception leaves less than 10 percent of the forest protected.
“We want them to reconsider this plan,” said Kim Crumbo, director of conservation for the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. “The Kaibab National Forest can do better.”
Crumbo said he would like to see all motor vehicles confined to roads — with no exceptions.
Furthermore, he said, he would like to see the Forest Service shut down some existing roads.
“A lot of areas are too steep and the soil is too fragile to support vehicular travel,” Crumbo said.
Without constant maintenance, he said, roads through such areas sometimes become boggy. One after another, vehicles drive around the muddy bits, carving new roads into the terrain. As a result, he said, in some areas, there are five or six roads running side by side.
Kaibab forest spokeswoman Jackie Banks declined to comment on the pending litigation. Instead, she referred New Times to a 142-page environmental impact report the Forest Service put together prior to issuing the exemption for big game hunters.
During the public comment period, environmentalist groups lobbied for stricter protections. However, the Forest Service also reported, "many members of the public wanted the district to allow motorized big game retrieval." In an attempt to compromise, officials proposed allowing hunters to drive into the forest to pick up bison and elk — but not mule deer.
According to the report, in 2009 in North Kaibab Ranger District, one of three major sections of the Kaibab National Forest, hunters harvested about 1,058 animals and drove off road to retrieve about 952 of them. The vast majority — 918 — of those cross-country excursions were to pick up mule deer. Only an estimated 34 hunters used a motorized vehicle to pick up a bison or elk.
Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said an exemption for big-game hunters was necessary.
“Let’s just look at the size of an elk,” he said. “An adult bull is going to weigh 700 to 800 pounds. How are you going to pack that out without a vehicle?”
Sometimes hunters can skin game on sight and carry the meat out on foot, deVos said, but “if you’re a mile from the road and it’s 100 degrees outside, there’s no way you’re going to be able to pack out 350 pounds of meat before it spoils.”
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