The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week announced a proposal to designate critical habitat for southern Selkirk Mountains caribou, an endangered woodland mammal protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The southern Selkirk Mountains caribou was listed as an endangered species in 1984. It occurs in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington and British Columbia, and the entire distinct population segment is estimated to include about 46 animals.
In total, approximately 375,562 acres are being proposed for designation as critical habitat. The proposed critical habitat is located in Boundary and Bonner counties in Idaho, and Pend Oreille County in Washington, United States. These lands are all currently considered to be occupied by the species, and no exclusions are proposed.
“This proposed critical habitat designation is required under the ESA, and it is the first of a two-step process. The Service seeks to gain as much information as possible from all interested parties in this step. We do encourage our federal, state and tribal partners, and others, to provide comments specific to this proposal,” said Brian Kelly, Idaho State Supervisor for the Service.
The primary threat to the species’ survival is the loss of contiguous old growth forest habitats due to timber harvest and wildfires. Human activities such as road-building and recreational trails can also fragment caribou habitat and facilitate the movement of predators into the caribou’s range.
In 1980, the Service received petitions to list the South Selkirk populations of caribou as endangered from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and a U.S. Forest Service staff biologist. The southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou was emergency listed as endangered in northeast Washington, northern Idaho and southeast British Columbia in 1983, with a final listing in 1984.
Defenders of Wildlife, The Lands Council, Selkirk Conservation Alliance, and Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Service to designate critical habitat for the species in 2002. A 2009 Settlement Agreement stipulated that the Service would submit a proposed critical habitat rule to the Federal Register on or before Nov. 20, 2011, with a final rule by Nov. 20, 2012.
The southern Selkirk Mountains caribou is a member of the deer family, and it possesses unique biological and behavioral traits. It prefers high elevations above 4,000 feet and steep terrain with old-growth forests.
Small groups of mountain caribou migrate seasonally up and down mountain ranges, rather than undertaking the mass-group, long-distance migrations some species of caribou are known for. When winter snow deepens, mountain caribou feed almost exclusively on arboreal lichens that occur on old trees (typically 125 years or older), in high elevation forests.
Under the ESA, critical habitat identifies geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a listed species. Critical habitat receives protection under section 7 of the ESA by requiring federal agencies to consult with the Service on federal actions that may affect critical habitat and by prohibiting federal agencies from carrying out, funding, or authorizing the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat. Only actions that have some federal nexus are subject to consultation on critical habitat; activities undertaken by private landowners that do not involve any federal funding, permits or other activities are not affected by a critical habitat designation.
The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other conservation area. It does not allow government or public access to non-federal lands. A critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved. However, designating critical habitat on federal or non-federal lands informs landowners and the public of the specific areas that are important to the conservation of the species.