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Forest Service decries off-trail snowmobiling in Chequamegon

The sensitive habitat and rare sharp-tailed grouse may be impacted by cross-country snowmobiling.

snowmobile tracks
Officials at the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest report a big increase this winter in illegal off-trail snowmobiling, including in sensitive places like the Moquah Barrens shown here.
Contributed / Brian Heeringa / U.S. Forest Service
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RHINELANDER, Wis. — Officials are reminding snowmobile enthusiasts that it’s illegal to ride off designated trails or roads in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Forest officials say they've seen a big increase in illegal off-trail riding, including in the sensitive Moquah Barrens area of Bayfield County.

The barrens are managed as open-terrain habitat for animals like sharp-tailed grouse. The grouse, which have become very rare in Wisconsin due to habitat loss, are holdouts of the species that need wide-open areas created by fires.

“When snowmobiles operate off-trail in places like the Moquah Barrens, on the surface it may seem fine, but on closer inspection, we find that the noise and disturbance caused by these machines can be detrimental to the many wildlife species that are using these areas to survive harsh winter weather,” said Brian Heeringa, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest wildlife biologist.

Riding snowmobiles cross-country in the barrens could damage habitat, disturb the birds or hurt them outright. Sharptails often roost in deep snowbanks. When a snowmobile drives through these otherwise undisturbed areas, it not only impacts the wildlife that may be there, but it also compacts snow, and creates trails for predators like coyotes and fishers to access the difficult-to-reach areas more readily. Disrupted wildlife will flee the area, expending vital energy reserves and increasing their exposure to predation and harsh winter conditions, Heeringa added.

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sharp-tailed grouse
Officials at the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest says sharptail grouse are being threatened by an increase in off-trail snowmobiling in the Moquah Barrens area.
Contributed / Alexandra Lehner / U.S. Forest Service

The off-trail prohibition applies only to federal lands within the national forest.

There are more than 800 miles of groomed snowmobile trails across the 1.5 million-acre national forest. Snowmobiles are allowed on routes and trails posted open and designated for their use. Snowmobiles may also travel on normally unplowed, open roads in the National Forest when snow accumulations exceed 4 inches, such as logging roads.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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