The federal government plans a new study to determine if the woodland caribou found in Idaho and Washington should continue to be protected as an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday.
The agency will conduct a new review of the Selkirk population of caribou, after deciding that removing them from protection “may be warranted.” The animals were given endangered species protection in 1984.
The agency made that decision in response to a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation and its clients, Bonner County in Idaho and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association.
“This petition questions whether the southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou warrants listing under ESA,” said Brian T. Kelly, Idaho supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Opponents of protection have long contended that the handful of caribou in Washington and Idaho are just a subset of the massive herds in British Columbia, and that the animals travel freely across the border and do not warrant protection.
The petition prepared by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation contended the Selkirk caribou were improperly protected as endangered species in 1984 because they were not a distinct population segment. Restrictions put in place to protect the animals should be removed, said Daniel Himebaugh in the foundation’s Bellevue office.
“The restrictions have infringed on the local economy and the freedom of our clients,” Himebaugh said.
But the Center for Biological Diversity said this is the last population of woodland caribou in the lower 48 states and should be protected.
“If it were up to the Pacific Legal Foundation, caribou, Puget Sound orcas and many other species would be allowed to go extinct in the contiguous United States simply because they also live in Canada,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Scientists from both sides of the border have determined the southern Selkirk population is significant and needs protection to survive.”
The agency last winter proposed setting aside 375,000 acres in the two states as caribou habitat, an amount that produced an outcry from recreation groups, loggers and local government officials. In late November, the agency reduced that total to 30,100 acres in Idaho’s Boundary County and Washington’s Pend Oreille County, after taking public comment.
No one disputes that woodland caribou are struggling to survive in the U.S. Only four were tallied in North Idaho and Eastern Washington during an aerial census last winter, although the U.S. population is estimated to total several dozen animals.
The new review of the caribou’s status will likely take up to nine months, said Joan Jewett, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland. It is not unusual for the agency to decide to perform such a study when it receives a petition to delist, Jewett said.
The agency has twice before considered delisting caribou and rejected the idea both times.
The agency will collect public comments for 30 days, Jewett said.
The animals have adapted to the difficult winters of the Inland Northwest by having dinner-plate sized hooves that work like snowshoes, and eating lichen that grows at high elevations.
Greenwald said the animals are especially threatened by the expansion of snowmobile recreation into their habitat.
“Now is not the time to back away from nearly 30 years of effort to recover the woodland caribou,” Greenwald said. “With protection from snowmobiles, logging and other threats, caribou can once again thrive in the United States.”