The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is designating about 30,000 acres in Northeast Washington and North Idaho as critical habitat for woodland caribou, a fraction of the 375,000 acres originally proposed.
The decision was hailed by Idaho’s Congressional delegation.
“I’m pleased to see the final designation of critical habitat for caribou in northern Idaho is more realistic than the initial proposal,” Sen. Jim Risch said in a prepared statement.
Environmental groups were less pleased.
“It’s a 90 percent reduction from what was originally proposed,” Brad Smith, of the Idaho Conservation League, said. “What happened there is that Fish & Wildlife decided to designate habitat as critical that was occupied when caribou were listed as endangered in 1983. To have a growing or expanding herd we need to protect more habitat.”
About 46 caribou are believed to remain in the South Selkirk herd, with most of the herd found north of the Canadian border. Alpine forests undisturbed by motorized use are vital to the survival of caribou, which feed on lichen growing on old-growth trees.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had said designating 375,000 acres as critical caribou habitat in North Idaho and northeast Washington would have minimal economic impacts.
Another study commissioned by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, however, found that protecting caribou habitat had already cost North Idaho $26 million since 2005, when court-ordered trail grooming restrictions were put into place.
The change in acreage came about after Fish & Wildlife officials “reviewed information from many different sources, including articles in peer-reviewed journals, scientific status surveys and studies, unpublished materials, and experts’ opinions or personal knowledge,” the final designation document says.
After proposing to designate 375,000 acres as critical caribou habitat in November 2011, the agency requested public comment and sought out responses from state and local agencies and Indian tribes.
Fish & Wildlife received about 60 individual comments supporting the proposed rule, and about 70 opposing it, the agency said. “We received an additional 64,258 comments in support of the proposed designation consisting entirely of template letters,” the agency said.
Smith, of the Idaho Conservation League, said he’d like to see U.S. Fish & Wildlife update its caribou recovery plan.
“Just saying this is a habitat alone is not enough, they also need to have a plan of action for recovery,” he said.
Madonna Luers, spokeswoman for Fish & Wildlife in Spokane, said the agency will review the state recovery plan to ensure it’s consistent with the final decision on habitat.
Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador said in a statement that he’s happy Fish & Wildlife officials “listened to the public outcry regarding the impacts this extended critical habitat designation would have had upon people’s livelihoods.” He applauded the agency for “recognizing the need for improved species management.”