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Plea for wetlands

Random snowmobiling poses threat

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 21/01) - Using a tiny orange shovel, Jamie Bastedo pokes at a cushion of fluffy snow beside a snowmobile track.

Crouched down to the ground, the environmental consultant points at tiny holes in the snow, a spaghetti-like network of tunnels and burrows used by voles, mice and shrews.

Behind him, snowmobile tracks converge on a single point, then branch out across Willow Flats -- white roads of compact snow.

Bastedo says those tracks are destroying habitat for rodents and plants.

"We tend to think of the wetlands as important for ducks, grebes and terns," he says. "We don't think of the wetlands as being anything but a dormant husk of life in the winter. But underneath that snow -- not hibernating at all -- are literally thousands of small mammals."

Wetlands provide an ideal habitat for these animals, and snowmobiles can easily destroy it by compacting snow.

"It's not a doughnut shop, it's an environmental reserve," he said.

Bastedo and others want to see snowmobiles stick to one route through wetlands such as Willow Flats and the areas around Niven Lake and Frame Lake. That would prevent more widespread damage to flora and fauna in each area.

"If this is rampant scooting around then they'll have more of an impact," said Dean Cluff, regional biologist for the Department of Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development.

About 1,300 Yellowknifers have snowmobile licences. "I don't know how exactly these snowmboiles are wrecking the wetland areas just by driving through them," said Gord Olson, owner of Polar Tech snowmobiles.

"We live in such a vast area that the amount of trails that are actually put in are very minimal to the amount of land space we have," he said.

Olson expressed doubt that snowmobilers would be able to differentiate between wetlands and frozen lakes. "It's wintertime, everything's frozen and we don't know."

"Ninety per cent of the time, if you went more than a kilometre out of town you'd find there is only one trail that goes in a direction on the lake."

While most of the city's wetlands are zoned to protect them from development, they are considered open spaces and snowmobilers are breaking no laws crossing them.

Even so, Olson said he thinks snowmobilers would pay attention if signs were posted.