DNR keeps tabs on snowmobilers
In a rare move, state Department of Natural Resources recently sent wardens to patrol Walworth County public and private trails, making sure sled operators were safe and sober.
Even though the snow is disappearing, wardens at least for a while are staying in the area, a state official said.
Wardens say they want to be visible and educate area snowmobilers, but they pinched a number of riders who didn't play nice.
Six snowmobile operators were given tickets for operating while intoxicated. In all, 34 operators were ticketed for various violations, and 61 were issued warnings on Feb. 4 and 5. No incidents of underage drinking were found, a state warden said.
Tickets and warnings also were issued for failing to properly display registration stickers, failure to have trail passes, trespassing, failing to comply with regulatory signs and operating noisy sleds.
A drunken operating ticket is $627 for a first-time offender. A second offense within a year is elevated to a criminal charge. The legal limit is 0.08 percent, the same as regulations for driving on roads.
"We recognized the big snow storm would bring out a tremendous amount of snowmobile use in Walworth County the days of Feb. 4 and 5, so we deployed our Warden SART (Snowmobile Accident Reduction Team) to the area," said Kevin Mickelberg, southeast regional warden.
"The primary focus of the team is to be a highly visible presence on the trails and educate and save lives."
The team patrolled public and private trails Feb. 12 and 13 in Jefferson County.
Mickelberg explained that the team usually works the snowy counties of northern Wisconsin. Because of the deep snow here and the diminished economy in northern counties, the DNR decided it was a good opportunity to pay the southern counties a visit.
"There's a limited window when trails here are good, and we wanted to educate people about the deadly results of speed and alcohol," Mickelberg said.
The patrol team began in 2005 with the mission of decreasing snowmobile fatalities. In the previous winter, 38 people died in snowmobile accidents, one short of the record figure set the winter of 1999-2000, said Gary Eddy, DNR snowmobile administrator.
The DNR manages a state-supported, annual grant of $400,000 to help support the 55 Wisconsin sheriff's offices with snowmobile patrols, including Walworth and Rock counties, Eddy said.
This year's statewide fatality total as of the second weekend in February was 12. At the same time last year, there were 18 fatalities. In the 2009-10 snowmobile season, 21 lost their lives, Eddy said.
Warden Randy Falstad led the team in Walworth County. He said about 95 percent of the people they contacted were pleased to see them.
"My general impression is things went very well," Falstad said. "We made a difference in trying to save lives."
The team operated in four groups, each traveled about 80 miles the first day and 65 miles the second. He estimated each team "eyeballed" about 700 snowmobiles.
The team comprises a supervisor, five assigned wardens and two or three volunteer wardens from the area.
Falstad said the Walworth County Sheriff's Office snowmobile team provided important guidance but operated separately. He also said the public appreciated the team's work on the trails.
"People were taking pictures of their kids, who were showing wardens their safety certificates," Falstad said.