October 29, 2005 in Idaho

Canada might ‘abandon’ recovery of caribou herds

By The Spokesman-Review

British Columbia is considering abandoning recovery efforts for some smaller herds of caribou, including five of the most imperiled herds that roam mountainous backcountry along Canada’s border with Washington, Idaho and Montana, according to an early version of a government proposal.

Caribou advocates expressed outrage and warned that if protections are pulled away from the herds in Canada, it would be akin to signing a death warrant for the estimated three mountain caribou remaining in Idaho.

“The international transborder herd would be written off for extinction,” said Joe Scott, with Conservation Northwest, of Bellingham, Wash. “That’s totally and completely unacceptable.”

Copies of the document, which are marked confidential, began circulating among the region’s conservation groups late Monday afternoon. Five different options are spelled out in the document. The most aggressive management plan would attempt to recover all 12 herds of mountain caribou in the province. Two of the options would abandon the five smallest herds, including the groups located in the southern reaches of the Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges.

Nothing will be decided until later in November and the document was only meant to give managers a full range of options to consider, said Pat Bell, British Columbia’s minister of lands and agriculture. “It is only for comment purposes and consultation purposes. It is not a decision document,” Bell said, speaking from his office in Victoria. “We want all options on the table so the public can comment on those.”

Fewer than 1,700 mountain caribou live in southeastern British Columbia, but many of the herds have fewer than 50 animals. Their numbers have plummeted in recent years and some experts worry mountain caribou will be extinct within 20 years unless quick action is taken. Mountain caribou are considered a different subspecies than the more numerous caribou that live in arctic regions and boreal forests.

Bell said the province is taking the risk of mountain caribou extinction “very seriously.” Logging has been halted in some temperate rainforests favored by caribou. There has also been a suspension of business permits for backcountry recreation operators on roughly 2.5 million acres of habitat.

“We think we can achieve the results necessary,” Bell said.

But environmental groups said they were shocked that writing off entire herds is even being considered.

“It’s not conscionable. It’s shocking,” said Candace Batycki, a Nelson, B.C.-based activist with Forest Ethics. “Abandoning herds should not be an option at all.”

The southernmost herds, including the herd that has a few animals living in Idaho, are facing the steepest odds, according to caribou experts. A report issued by the Canadian government cites logging, predation, winter recreation and even global warming as leading factors in the decline of the herds.

Caribou feed on lichens that hang from branches in deep, dark tracts of old-growth rainforest. In winter, their snowshoe-like feet allow the animals to survive in alpine areas. Logging has destroyed portions of caribou habitat, but biologists say a bigger problem has been the influx of whitetail deer that browse new growth in the cutover areas. Whitetails are also believed to be moving north because of increasingly mild and dry winters. Cougars and wolves follow the deer, but the predators also prey on caribou, especially calves.

Scientists also say backcountry skiing, snowmobiling and even ecotourism scare the notoriously shy ungulate.

Earlier this year, a coalition of conservation groups in the Inland Northwest filed a lawsuit seeking to restrict snowmobile access on 450,000 acres in far northern Idaho. A court date has yet to be set on the lawsuit. Drastic action is needed because only three mountain caribou remain in Idaho, making them the most endangered mammal in the United States, said Mark Sprengel, director of the Priest Lake-based Selkirk Conservation Alliance. Sprengel believes British Columbia is considering abandoning the most threatened herds because they would be the hardest to recover and could pose an obstacle to the province’s tourism and timber industries.

“These animals are inconvenient to a lot of interests,” Sprengel said.

Canadian environmental protection laws allow little room for lawsuits and provide less chance for public participation than laws in the U.S., said John Bergenske, director of the British Columbia-based Wild Sight. But if the province decides to abandon any herds, environmental groups would fight back and “let the marketplace know,” Bergenske said. He declined to elaborate, as did other members of environmental groups.

In the past, boycotts have been threatened against retail stores that carry wood products cut from forests that are deemed threatened by environmental groups.

“If there’s not changes taking place (in the proposed plan) this will have to become a much, much bigger issue,” Bergenske said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley said he was not yet aware of the options outlined in the British Columbia proposal. But he said it’s common for a range of ideas to be presented with any conservation proposal. He added that British Columbia has been working closely with the U.S. government to help reverse caribou declines.

“I would really be surprised from everything I have seen if that were an option that people would want to go for at this stage,” Buckley said.

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