Only two woodland caribou were spotted in North Idaho in 1983, when the last wild herd in the Lower 48 received emergency protection under the Endangered Species Act.
As the federal government looks to protect old-growth habitat for the still-struggling South Selkirk caribou herd, it should consider the small territory occupied at the time the herd was declared endangered, said Idaho’s two U.S. senators.
Designating nearly 600 square miles of critical habitat in North Idaho and Eastern Washington seems excessive, particularly when only four or fewer caribou are regularly seen south of the Canadian border, U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch wrote in a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week.
The critical habitat should “be more representative of the distribution and population at the time of listing,” they wrote, urging “a more practical approach” that balances caribous’ need for undisturbed territory with human activities in the forest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has received nearly 300 comments on a controversial proposal to designate 375,562 acres as critical caribou habitat. “We’re looking at what the caribou would need if we could get them back, the amount of habitat and the type of habitat,” Brian Kelly, the agency’s state supervisor in Boise, said in an earlier interview.
Comments from loggers, hunting guides and snowmobilers are fiercely opposed. They fear the habitat designation will lead to additional restrictions on forest access, though agency officials predict few changes, saying much of the acreage is already managed to protect old-growth values.
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho suggested a smaller habitat area. Over the past 30 years, most caribou sightings have occurred at elevations above 4,500 feet, while the agency’s habitat proposal includes acreage at 4,000 foot, the tribe’s letter said.
Refining the proposal to focus on areas of known use could shrink the critical habitat area by 40 percent to 60 percent, the letter said.
“This reduction in area would likely not affect caribou recovery, is scientifically defensible and could be better understood and supported by the communities,” the tribe’s letter said.
The Idaho Conservation League, however, supports the larger protection zone. Caribou once roamed as far south as Idaho’s Clearwater region, so the agency’s proposal protects only a fraction of the caribou’s known range, said Brad Smith, a conservation associate for the league.
Woodland caribou require large tracts of land to avoid predators, he said. They don’t bunch up in big herds, like the tundra caribou of the far north, but spread out thinly over the landscape.
In addition, the old-growth forests the caribou depend on are vulnerable to large wildfires, Smith said. Protecting a larger area ensures that caribou would have habitat in the event of a blaze like the 1967 Sundance Fire, which burned across 50,000 acres in North Idaho in nine hours, he said.
“It’s our belief that the landscape is big enough to provide for the needs of caribou and recreational use,” Smith said. “I think it’s unfortunate that people aren’t working together to find real solutions.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials anticipate finalizing critical caribou habitat later this year.
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