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Caribou lawsuit forced by agency inaction

On Aug. 17, five conservation groups filed suit in federal court to protect the last remaining herd of mountain caribou in the United States. This action was taken because of an exponentially increasing invasion of snowmobiles into caribou winter habitat.

It is quite apparent that mountain caribou are desperately endangered. Only 35 remain in the Selkirk Mountains. What is not so apparent is the big picture, of which caribou are only a part.

The lawsuit to protect caribou does not ask that snowmobiles be entirely barred from caribou habitat, although restricting machines from certain crucial habitat within the Caribou Recovery Zone is necessary. The point of the suit is to ensure that caribou have access to caribou habitat. As defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the existing recovery area represents only a small fraction of these animals’ historic range.

Access to important habitat is the key to recovery. Barring or restricting snowmobiles in specific areas is a necessary and reasonable means to that end. Unfortunately litigation is the result of years of unsuccessful attempts to work with the Forest Service to:

“Enforce their own snowmobile exclusion zone. The Forest Service has designated a small snowmobile exclusion zone as a result of snowmobile harassment of caribou, but it won’t enforce the closure despite repeated violations.

“Design a science-based recreation plan that could accommodate snowmobiles while still allowing caribou to thrive.

Caribou have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1983. Since that time, agency scientists entrusted with the caribou recovery effort have emphasized the necessary objective of “reducing or eliminating” the impacts of snowmobile activity on caribou and their habitat.

However, instead of following the recommendations of their own scientists, the Forest Service has promoted snowmobiling in caribou habitat, still without a plan with clear standards and in the face of continued caribou declines.

We recognize that caribou conservation is a complex issue and won’t be solved by regulating snowmobiles alone. Habitat has been damaged significantly by logging and other development and this, in turn, has led to increased predation, among other things. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the impacts of winter recreation, well-documented in the scientific literature and government planning documents.

We believe that recreation and wildlife can coexist. Caribou, as well as grizzly bears, wolverines and other imperiled species are powerful symbols of the wildness that we still have, albeit greatly diminished, in the West — something that’s long vanished from the rest of the country. By maintaining these animals on the landscape, we are actually protecting a quality of life that is becoming as rare as they are.

We believe many snowmobile enthusiasts recognize this connection. Ken Barrett, owner of the Sandpoint-based Selkirk Powder Co., does. He said his snowmobile and backcountry ski clients often come to the wilds of North Idaho because it remains some of the most pristine terrain in the lower 48 states. He does not see caribou conservation and snowmobiling as mutually exclusive.

We want to work with the Ken Barretts of the world to see how we can solve these problems like intelligent human beings. But we can’t have a productive dialogue while the problems grow unchecked and the Forest Service makes excuses for inaction. When forced and without options, we will use the laws of the people to protect that which we must steward for future generations.

It would be immensely helpful if agency managers entrusted with this responsibility would assume a leadership role and actually bring people together instead of polarizing the community by ignoring their own science and allowing caribou to slide further toward extinction.

In the final analysis, we are lucky to still be able to have a choice about protecting caribou. It’s terribly unfortunate that most of this country isn’t so lucky; their majestic wild animals are gone forever. Let’s leave our grandchildren choices that include a rich wildlife legacy.


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