Snowmobiler Bill Karas responds to caribou article

“I thought, overall, it was a pretty good article, but I’m not surprised there was a reaction,” said Bill Karas of Blue River Powder Packers

A snowmobiler from Alberta stands besides his sled during a trip to Groundhog Mountain.

A snowmobiler from Alberta stands besides his sled during a trip to Groundhog Mountain.

An article in our Mar. 19 issue about helicopter skiing and mountain caribou created a good deal of comment on the Internet from snowmobilers.

“I thought, overall, it was a pretty good article, but I’m not surprised there was a reaction,” said Bill Karas, president of Blue River Powder Packers snowmobile club. “There’s a bit of history there and sensitive feelings.”

The article told about efforts at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing to monitor and control heli-skiing’s negative effects on mountain caribou. It reported an alleged incident in which a group of eight to 10 snowmobilers went past a sign into area closed to snowmobiling. It quoted Mike Wiegele as saying the situation with snowmobilers was getting worse, not better.

Karas did not question that the incident likely happened as described, but pointed out that such a group would only be a tiny percentage of the hundreds of snowmobilers that use the mountains around Valemount and Blue River every winter.

“It’s like driving on the highway,” he said. “You are always going to get those who have to drive at 140 km/hr.”

In fact, the reports he gets from staff with the Ministry of Environment are that they are pleased with the overall level of compliance by snowmobilers, and that level is constantly improving, said the Powder Packer president.

“We have wonderful relations with all the ministries, and we’d like to feel we have good relations with Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing and Canadian Mountain Holidays,” he said.

“Our relations with the heli-ski companies have never been better. Conflicts over the past few years have been next to zero.”

Education is the key, Karas felt. Most snowmobilers make an effort to learn about an area before going in there, if only for their own safety. All the snowmobile clubs in the province make a strong effort to teach safe sledding and respect for wildlife.

Members of Blue River Powder Packers have spent hundreds of hours posting signs at various locations, including the alpine, to let sledders know where to go and where to avoid.

Karas noted they are all volunteers, although they do get some government assistance for certain projects.

Enforcement is a job for conservation officers and the RCMP, he said.

“It is difficult to enforce,” Karas admitted. “It’s a vast area and resources are tight.”

Club members monitor compliance by looking at tracks when they are out in the backcountry. They report any blatant violations but they have no power to ask people their names and it is difficult to identify individual snowmobiles.

Working with government to develop wildlife management plans has been a great mechanism to pull the various stakeholder groups together, the Powder Packer president said.

While relations might have been difficult several years ago, the situation is much better today.

Working collaboratively has opened up snowmobiling as a big economic driver for the community, he said.

Karas, who also owns the Glacier Mountain Lodge in Blue River, said nearly all the tourist-based businesses there would be in much more difficult circumstances if it weren’t for snowmobiling.

“The economic impact in Blue River is huge,” he said. “You can’t survive on a three-month season in the summer.”

Maintaining a diversified winter tourism industry means more secure jobs, which in turn helps maintain vital community services, such as Blue River School.

 

“It’s a work in progress,” he said of the snowmobiling industry. “It’s ever-evolving, but I think it’s well managed and works very well.”