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Conservation groups announce intent to sue Fish and Wildlife over caribou

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 13, 2019

The Center for Biological Diversity, joined by the Spokane-based Lands Council, has announced its intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “failing to finalize endangered species protections and designate critical habitat for Southern Mountain caribou.” (Shutterstock)
The Center for Biological Diversity, joined by the Spokane-based Lands Council, has announced its intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “failing to finalize endangered species protections and designate critical habitat for Southern Mountain caribou.” (Shutterstock)

The Center for Biological Diversity, joined by the Spokane-based Lands Council, on Wednesday announced its intent to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to respond to a 2015 court order that the agency re-examine a drastic reduction in protected caribou habitat.

“We’ve been very engaged at the Lands Council trying to help the caribou recover and protect their habitat,” said Mike Petersen, Lands Council executive director. “This is simply saying that Fish and Wildlife needs to do what the court told them to do.”

Defenders of Wildlife also signed the notice.

The notice of intent to sue alleges the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to “issue a final rule listing the Southern Mountain Caribou” as a distinct population segment of the greater woodland caribou population.

The distinct population segment designation allows the service to “protect and conserve species and the ecosystems upon which they depend before large-scale decline occurs that would necessitate listing a species or subspecies throughout its entire range.”

It also claims Fish and Wildlife failed to reconsider the critical habitat designation for caribou in North Idaho and Eastern Washington despite a 2015 court order demanding the department re-examine a 2013 decision that reduced critical habitat for caribou by 90 percent.

The lawsuit will be filed in 60 days unless Fish and Wildlife begins to address the situation, said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Fish and Wildlife did not return a call seeking comment.

“The court remanded the final rule back to them and directed them to hold another public process,” Santarsiere said. “So they did that and they completed that in 2016, but they haven’t put out another final rule designating critical habit.”

Santarsiere said the notice gives the agency time to respond.

“It gives the agency two months to come to us and say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about it,’ rather than going through full-blown litigation,” she said.

Caribou have been driven from from the contiguous U.S. through habitat loss, climate change and increased predation from wolves and cougars. That’s despite concerted efforts in the 1990s and 2000s.

The South Selkirk Caribou herd was the last herd that occasionally crossed into the U.S. from Canada. The sole surviving member of that herd was relocated farther north into Canada in January.

The critical habitat designation can limit snowmobiling and logging.

In response to a 2002 petition from the conservation groups, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designation of more than 375,000 acres in Idaho and Washington in 2011. In a reversal in 2012, the agency designated only about 30,000 acres for the animals, saying that caribou primarily reside in Canada and that conservation efforts there were sufficient.

“That seemed arbitrary and capricious to us,” Petersen said.

The designation was not popular with snowmobilers in a 2012 study, commissioned by the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, finding that protecting caribou habitat had already cost North Idaho $26 million since 2005, when court-ordered trail-grooming restrictions were put into place.

The Lands Council generally avoids litigation; in fact, Petersen is known for his collaborative work on timber projects like the Colville A to Z project. In this case, he said, the threat of a lawsuit seemed the most appropriate course.

“It’s OK to challenge people who are basically ignoring the law, and that’s what’s happening here,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a gentle reminder, but it’s a reminder that they need to act on what the court told them they needed to do.”

Although the South Selkirk and Purcell herds have been relocated farther north to a maternal pen near Revelstoke, British Columbia, the hope is that caribou could be reintroduced onto the southern landscape someday, Santarsiere said. Having protected caribou habitat already in place is key for future recovery.

The threat of a lawsuit, Petersen said, is not about the designated acreage. Instead, it’s a call for transparency from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Given that critical habitat acreage had just dropped so dramatically and there was so much public interest in that, I think we’d all like to see the agency step up and let us know what they’re going to do,” he said.

Ray Entz, the director of wildlife and terrestrial resources for the Kalispel Tribe, said he struggles with “the legal end” of conservation and habitat restoration work, preferring to get into the field and do the work.

He said Fish and Wildlife is ignoring a court order and thereby undermining future conservation work, which needs to be addressed. The Kalispel Tribe is not part of the threatened lawsuit.

In a “perfect world,” Entz said, he’d rather see the lawsuit money be used to restore caribou habitat.

“We unfortunately lost the last caribou in the Lower 48,” he said. “That’s sad that more people weren’t engaged in that part of our shared natural heritage.”

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