Protecting old-growth habitat for endangered woodland caribou will cost about $1.5 million over the next 20 years, according to a draft economic analysis prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Designating critical caribou habitat in North Idaho and northeast Washington would have the greatest impact on the timber industry, which could face up to three-year delays for some types of logging operations, the study said.
Those delays would occur in relatively rare circumstances, the study said. One possible scenario: If a timber company needed special permits to use Forest Service roads in caribou habitat to get to private lands for logging, the company would have to go through a formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that caribou weren’t harmed.
The proposed critical habitat area includes 375,544 acres of federal, state and private lands. Harvests on 4,300 acres of private forest could be affected by a caribou habitat designation, the study said.
About 46 woodland caribou are believed to remain in the South Selkirk herd, which occupies territory in North Idaho, Northeast Washington and southern British Columbia. Fragmentation of old-growth forests is one of the main threats to caribou.
Woodland caribou migrate to deep-snow forests over 4,000 feet in elevation in the winter to feed on lichens on old-growth fir and spruce, and to evade predators.
“We don’t want to dismiss that there are costs associated with protecting caribou or managing caribou,” said Bryon Holt, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But the 87-page economic analysis generally confirms the agency’s assertion that designating critical caribou habitat in Idaho and Washington would have little effect on day-to-day use of public and private forests, he said.
Caribou were listed as an endangered species in 1983. Nearly 80 percent of the proposed critical caribou habitat is on federal land, which Holt said is already managed to protect old-growth habitat for caribou, grizzly bears and Canada lynx.
The draft analysis was done by Industrial Economics Inc., a consultant in Cambridge, Mass. Public comments on the analysis will be accepted through July 2.
“I’m anxious to read it,” said Mike Nielsen, a Bonner County commissioner. “We’d like to be able to compare their report with our report.”
Bonner County is working with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association to produce its own economic analysis of the cost of caribou protection, which will be released Monday afternoon. Nielsen said that report will be comprehensive look at the “social and economic” costs of caribou protections since the 1980s, including the ongoing effect on winter recreation.
He represents the resort community of Priest Lake, where business owners say that backcountry restrictions on snowmobiling to protect caribou habitat have had devastating repercussions for the local tourist industry.
Only four caribou were spotted south of the Canadian border during last winter’s aerial census, which has fueled residents’ resentment of habitat protections. Bonner County recently petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove woodland caribou from the endangered species list.
Environmental groups sued the agency to force it to designate critical habitat for caribou. The Fish and Wildlife Service opted not to designate habitat in the 1980s because officials feared that releasing habitat maps would lead to poaching of caribou.