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County seeking to delist caribou

Sun., April 29, 2012

A law firm that successfully argued a North Idaho couple’s wetlands dispute with the federal government before the U.S. Supreme Court has been retained by Bonner County to petition for a delisting of woodland caribou.

The petition will argue that the remaining 40-some caribou in the South Selkirk herd don’t qualify for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“There are millions of caribou to the north of us,” said Mike Nielsen, a Bonner County commissioner who recruited the Pacific Legal Foundation to work on caribou delisting.

“I like caribou. They are majestic animals. I don’t want to hurt them,” he added.

But Nielsen also thinks that backcountry snowmobiling restrictions to protect habitat for the last caribou herd in the Lower 48 states have destroyed Priest Lake’s once-thriving winter tourism economy. The restrictions have led to deep resentment, especially since few caribou are seen south of the U.S.-Canadian border.

Most of the cross-border South Selkirk herd lives in British Columbia; only four caribou were spotted in Idaho during recent aerial surveys.

The herd is a subspecies of caribou that uses mountain ridges and alpine meadows. Most of its habitat is over 4,000 feet in elevation.

Jim Burling, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s director of litigation, said another attorney is working on the case and he didn’t have all the details Friday afternoon. But the Sacramento-based firm will essentially argue that the South Selkirk caribou herd doesn’t count as a distinct population eligible for endangered species listing.

This will be the second Bonner County case for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which focuses on property rights issues. Its attorneys also represented Mike and Chantelle Sackett in their dispute with the Environmental Protection Agency over a wetlands designation on their Priest Lake property.

Bonner County has agreed to pay the Pacific Legal Foundation up to $10,000 for their representation.

Past efforts by North Idaho communities to remove federal protections for the Selkirk herd have failed.

“We’ve been petitioned to delist the herd in the past,” said Bryon Holt, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We found that delisting is not warranted.”

The current delisting effort coincides with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to designate 375,562 acres as “critical caribou habitat” in Idaho’s Bonner and Boundary counties and Washington’s Pend Oreille County.

Environmental groups sued the agency to force them to designate critical habitat. The proposed area covers about 600 square miles, mostly on federal forests.

Critical habitat designation “formally recognizes” the types of habitat that caribou need to survive, Holt said.

However, agency officials say they expect few, if any, changes in land use activities as a result of the caribou designation. The Forest Service already manages the land to protect caribou habitat.

But they faced a skeptical crowd Saturday at a public hearing in Bonners Ferry. Federal, state and local officials said they feared the designation could lead to new restrictions on logging, road building and winter recreation, including snowmobiling.

The public’s animosity toward caribou is likely to grow as a result of the critical habitat designation, said Dustin Miller, acting director for Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s Office of Species Conservation.

As proposed, the critical habitat includes 65,000 acres of state timberland that generates money for public schools. New restrictions could lead to millions of dollars in lost revenue for the state, Miller said.

Critical caribou habitat should be scaled back to something that’s “scientifically sound, legally defensible and politically palatable,” he said.

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