Caribou Proposal Would Broaden Population, Trim Protections

By Paige Browning

The Selkirk Mountains are home to the last herd of mountain caribou in the lower 48 states. The southern Selkirk mountain herd of about 30 is listed as endangered under the ESA - endangered species act. But May 7th, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed changing their status, and neither environmentalists nor snowmobilers are completely happy.
 
The first thing to clarify is that the ruling is not final. Officials have one year to decide on whether to change the protected status of the mountain caribou. The second thing is what’s actually proposed. Fish and Wildlife biologist Bryan Holt says the proposal lists the southern mountain caribou as threatened. Currently, just the small group of southern Selkirk mountain caribou are as endangered.
 
Holt: “Which is a local population of that larger population. Am I confusing you?”
 
Basically, they want to list all caribou in the northwest and British Columbia mountains, not just the Idaho herd. The agency is seeking comments from the public until July 7th.
 
Holt: “Specifically one of the things that we are requesting comment on is this notion of should the mountain caribou population, should it be listed as threatened or should it be listed as endangered. We’re looking for comment from Canada on this as well. You know they’ve got a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge abut caribou.”
 
The ruling was prompted by a petition in 2012 from the Pacific Legal Foundation, representing Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association. Holt says petitioning is a way to prompt ESA changes. Sandra Mitchell with the snowmobile association says they’re disappointed in the ruling.
 
Mitchell: “There have been numerous lawsuits because of the caribou and snowmobile access to some of the back country, and we have believed that the snowmobiling didn’t have a negative impact on caribou and the declining populations.”
 
She says snowmobilers face closures in parts of the Selkirk Mountains, and delisting caribou could remove those closures down the road.
 
Mitchell: “But, um, they did down list it. And so for that we’re grateful because that is a step towards, we believe, ultimately delisting it completely.”
 
Mike Peterson with the Lands Council also sees this as a step in a larger game.
 
Petersen: “It’s kind of a first step towards the extinction down here, is what I think.”
 
The Lands Council is among the groups fighting to protect caribou in the lower 48 states. He says broadening the population of caribou will diminish protection.
 
Petersen: “All of the sudden instead of being able to focus on the 27-35 caribou down here, this in a way lets them say well as long as there’s some caribou a little bit further north, then they’re going to be okay.”
 
He says, in a way, the petitioners won this time.
 
Fish and Wildlife will take comments for 60 days, and one year from now make a final decision. Find more information go to www.regulations.com.

Copyright 2014 Spokane Public Radio
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