Red fox findings muddy the decision regarding snowmobiles on the Pacific Crest Trail

Eager snowmobilers and wary wilderness watchers are going to have to wait a bit longer for a final decision on a long-awaited snowmobile crossing of the Sonora Pass area Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – but just a little longer.

“I’m can confidently say that we will approve the option with the two crossings, (by the end of the year)” said Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest’s Bridgeport District Ranger Mike Crawley Tuesday.

“I know that will be unpopular with some but we are trying to meet Congress’ requirements for public safety (and the two crossings are deemed to be the safest),” he said.

If this occurs, the outcome will be to allow two, already vetted snowmobile crossings across the PCT to remain as part of the forest service’s comprehensive Bridgeport Winter Recreation area plan.

Arriving at the two crossings (and the plan itself) took years, as residents and political advocates for more economic diversity in northern Mono County and wilderness advocates worked out their differences on the winter recreation area.

Compromises were made on both the part of wilderness advocates worried about incursions by snowmobiles up the PCT and into the wilderness (something Crawley acknowledged has been a real problem) and snowmobilers seeking a way from the unplowed Sonora Pass road to the newly created Bridgeport Winter Recreation Area.

The California Wild Heritage Act of 2009 included the winter recreation area, but a few details, including the crossing, were still incomplete.
Then, just as Crawley was set to issue a decision on the crossing issue earlier this year, a small red fox tripped a biologist’s camera set up near the proposed crossing area.

“And then we heard about a little critter called the red fox,” Crawley said with a laugh, as he updated the Mono County Board of Supervisors about the issue Tuesday.

A few weeks later, two more foxes were photographed.
The fox turned out to be the extremely rare Sierra Nevada red fox, last seen in the High Sierra decades ago.

The discovery made an already complicated and controversial decision more of both, and for the past several months, the forest service has been consulting with biologists and researchers from across the country, trying to get a better feel for the foxes needs.

The discovery comes with consequence. The fox is protected under state law and, if someone petitions on its behalf and wins, it could fall under the Endangered Species Act protection.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an endangered species advocacy group, has already said it is considering petitioning the federal government for protection for the fox, and the group has been quite successful at previous attempts to protect other animals.

Once and animal is protected under the ESA, it triggers an enormous amount of federal review, something most local land agencies and private landowners are eager to avoid.

So Crawley is walking a tight rope with the fox, and he knows it.

“We are ready to respond with an “adaptive management” strategy, should more foxes be found,” he said.
That could mean anything from moving a crossing to simply educating people, depending on what information about the fox surfaces, he said.

Of particular concern is finding a den, which means the fox is in the area to stay, not just passing through, he said.

Mono County’s supervisors appeared to support Crawley’s tentative notice that a decision to allow two crossings was imminent, especially North County supervisors Vikki Bauer and Tim Hansen. South County’s Hap Hazard also threw in some supportive comments.

But the issue could be far from closed, even if Crawley signs such a decision. The forest service is mandated to allow for a 45-day appeal process, before implementing any decision.

Then, if someone does appeal the decision, the agency must exhaust the appeals, before moving to implement the crossings.

So, no matter what, the final outcome of the story is still up in the air for at least another few months, which, weather pending, could leave snowmobilers only a short window of time to use the route.