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Refuge Notebook: Snowmobiles on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge: A historical perspective

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2010

With the Christmas holidays here accompanied by a handful of early season snowfalls, Kenai Peninsula snowmobile users will be able to use the Kenai Refuge for various winter activities. Trappers, ice fisherman, hunters, and those using snowmobiles for general winter travel were thankful to have the refuge open on Dec. 1 this year. It has been 14 years since the refuge has been open to snowmobile use on Dec. 1, the first potentially available opening date. Ironically, snow conditions are more favorable in several portions of the refuge lowlands than at several higher elevations including portions of the Caribou Hills.

U.s. Fish And Wildlife Service Photo
U.s. Fish And Wildlife Service Photo
This photo shows the Kenai refuge's first snowmobile and homemade trailer.

Most lowland lakes are also safe with ice thickness approaching 10 inches. The recent colder temperatures should add to the lake ice. However, the recent clear skies do little but preserve existing snow depths.

The refuge manager, by published regulation, must wait until Dec. 1 to make a determination of adequate snow cover to open the refuge. This date has been adopted as the earliest possible opening date for several reasons including historically mild and intermittent weather conditions in November, generally unsafe ice on lakes and streams prior to December, and concern about the health of rutting moose in late fall. In many recent winters, such as last winter, the opening was delayed due to minimal snow cover and concern about damage to exposed and underlying vegetation and soil.

The amount and character of snowmobile use has been an evolving activity within the refuge since it was first authorized following the invention of these unique "snow travelers." A Google search of the national archives historical photo images provides a humorous and enlightening collage of the numerous designs of individual's and manufacturer's attempts to provide a useful and practical vehicle capable of travel over snow. Early Chickaloon Bay resident and trapper Robert Mathison's early snow traveler (half cabin and half snowmobile) was as unique as any of the numerous contraptions seen in national archive photos gallery.

In the earliest years of the Kenai National Moose Range (predecessor of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge), commercially manufactured snow travelers/ snow-goes/snowmobiles/snowmachines were generally unavailable and the range was off -limits to motorized travel off established roads. Manufactured snowmobiles became available to the public in the early 1960s and public interest increased to allow at least limited use in the range. Only a handful of National Wildlife Refuges including those in Alaska, and Seney Refuge in Michigan, were affected by the new interest in snow travelers. An initially skeptical Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife finally made a determination that use of snow-goes traveling over snow was not all together unlike a motorboat traveling over water. The Bureau made a determination that the "motorized snow vehicles" use could occur with accompanied regulations to protect various refuge wildlife and land.

A Federal Register notice (65-13680) on Dec. 22, 1965 determined that the new use was acceptable on the Moose Range specifically. Although only a minimal analysis was made of the potential impacts to wildlife or habitat, some basic guidelines were adopted regarding the size of authorized machines, time of use, and the type of use such as no racing. Over the years, refuge files document both the growing use of snowmobiles and some uncertainty over potential impacts to wildlife and the management of snowmobile use. Although there has been a growing body of research in North America that can now be generally applied to the local situations and discussions, at that time Moose Range staff had only general observations to guide local decisions and evaluate any long-term changes in use patterns and potential impacts.

As early as 1971, regulations were applied to manage snowmobile use within the range for areas important to wintering wildlife and to avoid conflict with other recreational uses. Many of the alpine areas as well as the area within the new Swanson River and Swan Lake canoe routes were closed to snowmobiles. In cooperation with the State of Alaska's concerns, snowmobiles were mostly prohibited as an aid to big game hunting. In 1972, an area with popular ski and dog mushing trails near Soldotna was also restricted. Currently, about 1.25 million acres (64 percent) of the refuge are open to snowmobile use each winter after the refuge manager determines adequate snow cover exists.

Due to variable weather conditions (and perhaps changing climate), suitable snow cover to allow snowmobile use at any given date each winter is uncertain. Only a hand full of times in 30 years has the refuge been open to snowmobile use for the entire period potentially available by regulation, and in three winters snow accumulation was so poor that the refuge did not open for snowmachine use! Since 1976, opening dates have been as early as Dec. 1 and as late as March 6. Similarly, the season has closed as early as March 19 and as late as April 30. Because of the enthusiasm from many members of the public to use snowmobiles for winter recreational pursuits, the refuge manager's annual decisions on this matter can be subject to lively discussions.

Snowmobiling use can be a rewarding and unique winter activity and provide critical access for other traditional winter activities, while at the same time potentially result in a variety of biological and social concerns. Management concerns and responses can vary greatly depending on the levels of use, annual snow cover, area-specific snow depths, wildlife species in the area, regulations employed to minimize impacts, and user compliance with published regulations.

Although minimal research has been conducted at Kenai Refuge to examine levels and characteristics of snowmobile use, that is changing with new resolve to understand all of the Kenai's outdoor recreational activities and access methods including snowmobiles. New studies over the next couple of winters will add to our overall understanding of the use and issues related to snowmobiles. Such research is the best way to assure that this popular activity continues on the Refuge as a well managed and compatible use for many winters to come.

If you would like information about snowmobiling on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, regulations, or other winter recreational opportunities contact the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters at 262-7021 for information.

Rick Johnston is a Ranger/Permit Specialist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website http://kenai.fws.gov/.



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