The tiny caribou herd in the South Selkirk Mountains will keep its federally protected status.
Just 27 animals are believed to remain in the herd, which uses habitat in North Idaho, northeast Washington and southern British Columbia.
Two years ago, the Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the herd from the Endangered Species List. Acting on behalf of Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, the foundation’s attorneys argued that the caribou are a subset of healthy Canadian herds and didn’t warrant protection.
The petition triggered an agency review, and now federal officials are recommending that the caribou’s protection status be downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened.”
In a report released Wednesday, Fish and Wildlife officials agreed the South Selkirk herd is part of a larger caribou population that inhabits a belt of high-elevation, wet forests extending from the Inland Northwest through Interior British Columbia. Fifteen herds make up that mountain caribou population, estimated at 1,657 animals.
Those mountain caribou use different habitat and have distinct behaviors from other caribou populations in Canada and Alaska, said Bryon Holt, a Fish and Wildlife biologist. They’re unique in that they rely on lichen from old-growth forests for food three months of the year.
But mountain caribou numbers are also dwindling. They’re facing the same threats as the South Selkirk herd from habitat loss and fragmentation, Holt said.
Based on the review, agency officials said, the cross-border South Selkirk herd requires continued protection under the Endangered Species Act. But because the herd is part of Canada’s larger mountain caribou population, the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to downgrade their status from “endangered” to “threatened.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments on the proposal and plans to schedule public meetings at a later date.
The South Selkirk herd is the last remnant caribou population in the Lower 48 states. The animals once inhabited parts of the Great Lakes region and New England, but most populations died out by the early 1900s.
In recent years, predators, the loss of old-growth stands from logging and wildfires, and winter recreation have taken a toll on the remaining herd. Between 50 and 70 percent of caribou calves die during their first year.
But protecting caribou has been controversial. A 2012 study commissioned by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association said protections for caribou habitat has cost North Idaho’s economy $26 million, with winter tourism in the resort area of Priest Lake taking the biggest hit.
The study calculated economic impacts back to 2005, when court-ordered trail grooming restrictions were put into place to keep high-powered snowmobiles out of alpine forests and meadows favored by caribou.