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Saturday, May 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Judge tells agency to reconsider decision on caribou habitat

Part of a Southern Selkirk caribou herd move north through the Selkirk Mountains in November 2005. About 18 caribou remain in the South Selkirk herd. (Associated Press)
Part of a Southern Selkirk caribou herd move north through the Selkirk Mountains in November 2005. About 18 caribou remain in the South Selkirk herd. (Associated Press)

A federal judge on Monday ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider a decision that reduced critical habitat for the South Selkirk caribou herd by 90 percent.

Six environmental groups sued the agency over its 2013 decision to designate 30,000 acres of habitat as critical to the recovery of the last caribou herd in the Lower 48 states, instead of the 375,000 acres originally proposed.

“We can recover mountain caribou in Idaho and Washington, but it can’t be done without protecting their habitat,” said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the lawsuit.

About 18 caribou remain in the South Selkirk herd, which migrates through British Columbia, North Idaho and northeastern Washington. Monday’s federal court ruling said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t give the public an opportunity to review and comment on the agency’s analysis of Canadian habitat for the South Selkirk herd.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials will work with the Department of Justice to review the decision and consider options, said Mike Carrier, supervisor for the agency’s Idaho office.

Efforts to protect caribou habitat have generated years of controversy because of impacts to winter recreation. Snowmobilers have lost access to popular ridges to avoid displacing the caribou, which spend the winter in the high country, eating lichens that grow on 250-year-old Engelmann spruce trees. North Idaho officials and the state’s congressional delegation opposed designating 375,000 acres as critical habitat.

In their challenge, the environmental groups said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred in determining that the South Selkirk herd resided mostly in Canada, and that conservation efforts there were sufficient. Conservation Northwest, Selkirk Conservation Alliance, The Lands Council, Idaho Conservation League and Defenders of Wildlife were also part of the lawsuit.

In a related development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that it will be looking at new Canadian studies related to the long-term viability of caribou in southern B.C.

About 1,300 caribou remain in the dark, wet forests of the province’s southern mountains, but survival rates for newborn calves are so low that the Canadian Wildlife Service has classified the population as endangered. Caribou numbers have dropped by about 30 percent since 2002. The isolated herds are at risk from logging, heli-skiiing, snowmobiling and predators, the report said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed downgrading the South Selkirk herd’s status from “endangered” to “threatened,” but will analyze Canadian scientists’ work as part of that decision.

The agency will reopen the public comment period on the caribou status review through April 23, with a decision expected by late summer. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/idaho/Caribou.html.

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