Northern Idaho’s south Selkirk Mountains herd of caribou should be taken off the federal Endangered Species Act list, because the herd isn’t distinct in a legally or biologically relevant way from the vast population of caribou elsewhere on the North American continent, according to a “delisting” petition filed this week by the Pacific Legal Foundation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Caribou aren’t endangered, when you look at North America as a whole, and the federal government can’t legally single out this single herd in isolation,” said PLF attorney Brandon M. Middleton. “The unjustified ESA listing should be dropped and the economically destructive regulations that it has caused, should be lifted.”
PLF attorneys, which represent Bonner County say the region has been negatively impacted economically because of the caribou listing, in great part because the Idaho State Snowmobile Association’s members have been unjustifiably barred from using recreational trails within caribou habitat.
The PLF says the listing’s economic threat extends to school funding
The economic impact of the caribou listing threatens to intensify under the federal government’s proposal to designate 375,562 acres as “critical caribou habitat” in Idaho’s Bonner and Boundary counties and Washington’s Pend Oreille County, the PLF says. New restrictions could be triggered on logging and road building, as well as winter recreation, the PLF says.
Dustin Miller, acting director for Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s Office of Species Conservation, pointed out that the proposed critical habitat includes tens of thousands of acres of state timberland that generates funding for public schools. He says the new habitat restrictions could cost the state millions of dollars in lost revenue.
To see the delisting petition, visit www.pacificlegal.org.
The woodland caribou population decline is largely due to historic habitat loss and fragmentation (due to fires and logging), predation, collisions with vehicles, and overharvest, according to the USFWS. Protecting the habitat of the woodland caribou has reduced the impact for most of these threats, but predation from mountain lions and other large predators remains the greatest threat to the woodland caribou's population, the agency says.
Since the 1960s, the woodland caribou population in the United States has been restricted to the Selkirk Mountains of northeastern Washington and northern Idaho. They also range into southeastern British Columbia.
By the early 1980s, the population dwindled to 25 to 30 individuals around Stagleap Provincial Park in British Columbia. Between 1987 and 1997, a total of 103 additional caribou were introduced into Idaho, Washington and British Columbia. However, due to predation from mountain lions and bears many of these animals did not survive.
Today, fewer than 50 woodland caribou exist in Canada and the United States, the USFWS says. A recovery plan for the population, developed in 1994, calls for management of about 443,000 acres of habitat to support a self-sustaining population. Managing access to habitat, hunter and public education, and law enforcement are all components of the recovery strategy.
Woodland caribou are a medium-sized member of the deer family. Caribou have large hooves, broad muzzles, and distinct antlers both sexes develop annually. The average lifespan for caribou is eight to 10 years. Caribou feed on sedges, grasses, fungi, lichens, mosses, and the leaves and twigs of woody plants, except in winter, when they live on lichen hanging from trees.
Female caribou do not breed until they are 3.5 years old and produce only calf per year. Only about three out of 10 calves survive. Protecting the habitat of the woodland caribou has reduced the threats to their survival and recovery, but predation remains the greatest threat to the woodland caribou's population.
In the Selkirk Mountains, cougars are the primary threat to woodland caribou, but bears and wolves are also known predators of woodland caribou.
Bonner County Commissioner Mike Nielsen in a release issued by PLF said “Caribou are majestic animals, and thank goodness they are not endangered. There are hundreds of thousands of caribou in Canada.
“All that the ESA listing does in Idaho is threaten our economy by putting winter tourism and recreation on the endangered list” Nielsen said. “There simply is no justification for severe, destructive restrictions on property and people in Idaho, to help a species that doesn’t need help -- a species that is thriving north of the border.
“Moreover, the federal government has consistently failed to acknowledge that, if there’s a threat to caribou in Idaho, it’s from predators, not from recreation or other human activity,” Nielsen said.
“We’re seeing a piece by piece destruction of recreational opportunities as more and more trails get closed off,” Sandra Mitchell, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association’s public lands director, said. “For destination areas like Priest Lake in Bonner County, these trail closures have a big economic impact, by undermining the tourism industry. And these restrictions are being imposed without scientific basis, without a showing that recreationists cause harm to caribou.”
The ISSA is a statewide organization representing approximately 4,000 people, including 41 clubs, individuals, and many businesses throughout Idaho. Approximately 54,000 snowmobiles are registered in Idaho each year.
“The members of ISSA do not want our sport to endanger woodland caribou or any other species,” Mitchell said. “However, we also do not want to be the victims of ‘feel-good’ biology that is based on personal biases rather than scientific studies and findings.”
The Selkirk Mountains caribou population, federally listed as endangered since 1984, is found above 4,000 feet elevation in Englemann spruce/subalpine fir and western red cedar/western hemlock forest types. During the winter, the caribou primarily feed on lichens hanging from trees above snowline.
The USFWS and others began late in December 2010 enforcing closures in the woodland caribou recovery area, where current regulations require all snowmobilers to ride only in approved areas. These efforts will augment the ongoing woodland caribou recovery plan, which involves partners in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the USDA Forest Service. A free map of legal snowmobile trails and open areas is available at any Forest Service office in northern Idaho.
The federal agency charged with protecting ESA listed species announced in November a proposal to designate critical habitat for southern Selkirk Mountains caribou. In total, approximately 375,562 acres are being proposed for designation as critical habitat. The 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, USFWS Idaho state supervisor, said in announcing the proposal. Public comment on the proposal was accepted through the end of January.
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 federal agency 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.
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 USFWS 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, according to the USFWS.
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.
For more information on USFWS workm, visit www.fws.gov.