ENDANGERED SPECIES — A coalition of six conservation groups, including The Lands Council based in Spokane, filed a lawsuit today challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to cut more than 93 percent of protected critical habitat for the endangered mountain caribou — from a proposed 375,562 acres to a mere 30,010 acres.
The November decision was a major setback for the struggling animals, which in recent decades have only survived in the lower 48 states in a small area in North Idaho and northeastern Washington.
Caribou numbers have dwindled due to logging of old-growth forests, road construction and growing recreational use of snowmobiles, the groups say.
The groups warned in January they would file the lawsuit.
“This reduction in protected habitat is a death sentence for mountain caribou. They will not survive in the United States if we don’t protect their habitat,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision ignored the science and caved to political pressure.”
Caribou once ranged across much of the northern lower 48 states, including the northern Rocky Mountains, upper Midwest and Northeast. The southern Selkirks mountain caribou, the last remaining population in the northern Rocky Mountains was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1984.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, never designated critical habitat for the caribou, and in 2002 the groups filing today’s notice petitioned, and eventually litigated, to obtain a designation.
In keeping with a scientific recovery plan for the caribou, the proposed critical habitat issued in 2011 included more than 375,000 acres, which encompassed a majority of the area specified in the scientists’ plan as necessary for the animals’ recovery.
Organized business groups in north Idaho and state leaders opposed designating a large area of critical habitat.
In cutting this proposed acreage by more than 90 percent, the Fish and Wildlife Service appears to have abandoned the goal of recovering caribou in the contiguous United States, the conservation groups contend in the lawsuit.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s cut in critical habitat will greatly increase the caribou’s risk of extinction in the lower 48 states,” said Mike Petersen, executive director at the Lands Council. “It will be a sad day if we have to tell our children and grandchildren that we once had our own reindeer, but that we allowed them — like the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet and so many others — to be wiped out.”
In 2005 conservation groups sued the Forest Service and obtained a closure to snowmobile use for most of the caribou’s critical habitat included in the proposed rule. The final designation, however, only includes a fraction of this area, and the Forest Service is already considering lifting the closure.
With new technologies allowing snowmobiles to get ever farther into the backcountry, these machines are a major threat to the shy, easily spooked animals, the conservation groups say.
“Now is not the time to back away from nearly 30 years of effort to recover the mountain caribou,” said Tim Layser, a wildlife biologist with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. “With adequate protection from snowmobiles and other threats, caribou can once again thrive in the United States.”
Mountain caribou are a unique form of woodland caribou adapted to surviving winters of deep snow, with dinner-plate-sized hooves that work like snowshoes and an ability to subsist for three to four months on nothing but arboreal lichens found on old-growth trees. The caribou are part of a population that straddles the border with British Columbia and consists of fewer than 30 animals.
“Habitat loss and fragmentation is the top reason for the decline of mountain caribou,” said Brad Smith, a conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League. “If we are going to recover the last herd of caribou in the lower 48, then we must protect the habitat they need to survive.”
The groups on the lawsuit include the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Defenders of Wildlife, Idaho Conservation League, The Lands Council and Selkirk Conservation Alliance. They are represented by Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West.