Letters from the West

Feds propose to downgrade Idaho's Selkirk caribou to threatened

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended downlisting Idaho’s mountain caribou from endangered to threatened and both sides in the longstanding fight are declaring partial victory.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which, with Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, sought to have the last remaining herd of the species left in the United States delisted, said in a blog today it would help its clients.

“The (Endangered Species Act) doesn’t require stringent regulation of private activity that affects threatened species, as it does for endangered species,” said the foundation’s Jonathan Wood in a blog today. “When necessary and appropriate for the conservation of the particular species, the Service and affected individuals can work together to narrowly tailor regulations to protect the species without excessively burdening individuals.”

He still says the decision is still illegal because it calls the Selkirk population of about 43 animal a distint population segment. The agency includes the Selkirk caribou a part of population the southern mountain caribou population in Canada.

That gives wildlife advocates something to celebrate even though one of the species most threatened with winking out in the U.S. is getting less protection. “What a relief that our last population of beautiful woodland caribou is going to continue to get the protection it needs to survive,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Woodland caribou once ranged across much of the northern lower 48 states, including the northern Rocky Mountains, upper Midwest and Northeast. The animals disappeared from all but the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho and extreme northeastern Washington more than 100 years ago. Since 1983 this last population has been protected under the Endangered Species Act and known as the southern Selkirk population.

“Fast action is needed to make sure we don’t lose caribou from the lower 48 states forever,” Greenwald said. “That should include strengthening and increasing the U.S. population by bringing in Canadian caribou, which is crucial for genetic resilience but hasn't happened in decades.”

Winter users have faced the most recent restrictions has because the caribou survive in the high county with plate-sized hooves that allow them to travel through deep snow. Trails in the Selkirks have been closed to protect the caribou that feed on lichens, which grow upon old-growth fir and spruce trees.

Environmental groups petitioned for critical habitat in 2002 and later sued to get the habitat. The groups also later sued the Forest Service to close a large area of the Selkirks to snowmobile use. The closure remains in effect, but the agency recently reduced its proposal to designate more than 375,000 acres of critical habitat to 30,000 acres.

The groups are now challenging this reduction. In all the cases, the groups have been represented by Advocates for the West.