Conservation groups are challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to shrink protected habitat by more than 90 percent for the last caribou herd in the Lower 48 states.
After proposing that 375,000 acres in North Idaho and Northeast Washington be protected for endangered mountain caribou, the Service abruptly changed course last November, protecting only 30,010 acres.
Federal officials failed to explain why habitat originally deemed essential to recovering the South Selkirk caribou herd wasn’t included in the final plan, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Idaho’s District Court.
“They appeared to cave in to political pressure,” said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs want the court to order a new critical habitat review, saying the current one doesn’t protect large, contiguous tracts of high-elevation habitat the caribou need to survive. A Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman declined to respond, saying she can’t comment on litigation.
About 46 mountain caribou are believed to remain in the South Selkirk herd, with most found in British Columbia. Biologists have spotted only a handful of caribou south of the Canadian border in recent years. Last year’s count was four.
Idaho’s congressional delegation cited the low caribou numbers in opposing the 375,000 acres of critical habitat. Local politicians, loggers, hunting guides and snowmobilers also spoke out against the proposal, voicing concerns about loss of forest access and economic impacts.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said the critical habitat designation would have little effect on local economies, since most of the acreage was on federal land already managed for old-growth values.
Mountain caribou were once found across the northern Continental U.S., with populations in Maine, the Great Lakes states and the Northwest. As late as the 1950s, caribou ranged as far south as St. Maries. Their numbers declined as a result of habitat loss from logging and wildfires, intrusion from winter snowmobile use and natural predation.
Mountain caribou are adapted to deep snows, feeding on lichen growing on old-growth spruce and fir trees. Unlike the large caribou herds in Alaska, mountain caribou spread out over the landscape in small groups, said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Greenwald.
That helps mountain caribou avoid predators and it’s why they need a large, protected range, Greenwald said.
The recovery plan sets a goal of 125 caribou for the South Selkirk herd.
Other plaintiffs in the suit are The Lands Council of Spokane, Defenders of Wildlife, Conservation Northwest, the Idaho Conservation League and the Selkirk Conservation Alliance.