U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists mountain caribou as endangered. But is it too late?

The disappearance of woodland caribou from the Idaho wild is one of the saddest stories of 2019, and there is no way to put a positive face on the failure of 35 years of intensive conservation to protect this native species.

Idaho’s last surviving caribou was trapped in a net in the Selkirk Mountains and carried by helicopter over roads, development and powerlines into Canada on Jan. 14. Managers of state and federal forests had restricted logging and snowmobiling in Idaho’s only rainforest, but the extensive clearcutting and encroaching civilization on the Canadian side, along with growing predator populations, doomed these Idahoan animals.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was listing mountain caribou — which live in British Columbia and once lived in Idaho, Washington and Montana — as endangered. It also protected 30,010 acres in the Selkirk Mountains up north as critical habitat. The announcement came as a response to a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups.

In its press release, the center crowed about its legal victory.

“It’s exciting news that these unique reindeer finally have the endangered species protections they need to avoid extinction,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the center.

And she shared the group’s long-term strategy.

“Caribou can be brought back to the lower 48 states, but only if we safeguard their habitat,” she said. “We have to move fast to curb further fragmentation of the wild places in the U.S. where they could live.”

You can’t blame a group for using its main tool for preserving biodiversity: the federal Endangered Species Act. If your tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

But the future of mountain caribou lies north in British Columbia now. These caribou, which adapted by using their large, plate-like hooves as snowshoes to travel through 10 feet of snow or more to eat the boreal lichens that grew on the bark of the trees, are now under Canadian rule.

Its endangered species protection is nowhere near as strong as the U.S. act, which still wasn’t enough to save the caribou. Santarsiere acknowledged as much, criticizing the Fish and Wildlife Service for only protecting 30,000 acres, not 300,000 acres as critical habitat.

The restrictions that will come with this critical habitat designation are uncertain since grizzly bears remain protected in much of the same country as a threatened species. That keeps limits on road building and other activities.

But it will give the center a pretext to sue if people want to change management solely protective of caribou habitat in that limited area. This is not a foundation on which conservationists could build a successful program to restore caribou to the United States even if they really are prepared to try.

We will not save mountain caribou unless the people who share its places are willing to work together to make it happen. Beating them over the head is not going to work.

Instead, conservation groups and Indian tribes on both sides of the border should reach out to find and encourage residents to restore their wild neighbors. As Timothy Male, director of the Sand County Foundation’s Environmental Policy Innovation Center, said: We need people who care.

How do we do this?

Start with reaching out to the people who are most threatened by the habitat restrictions. The reality, according to local snowmobilers, is they don’t go up into caribou habitat and likely never would, except for a few outliers.

Examples of adversaries doing just that exist.

Faced with increasing restrictions from the need to protect wolverines in Idaho’s mountains, the Idaho Snowmobile Association helped fund research to determine where they roam and what habitat they need. Idaho conservation groups already have developed similar relationships with the state’s timber industry, which has paid off for both sides.

Unfortunately, for caribou in the United States, I’m afraid it’s too late. The effort now lies in British Columbia where, so far, wildlife groups and caribou protectors can’t even come to agreement on predator control.

This is what extinction looks like, a tear running down a cheek.

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