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Lawsuit Launched Against Elimination of 90 Percent of Protected Habitat for Endangered Mountain Caribou in Idaho, Washington
BOISE, Idaho - January 31 - A coalition of conservation organizations filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today over the agency’s decision to cut more than 90 percent of protected critical habitat for the endangered mountain caribou — from a proposed 375,562 acres to a mere 30,010 acres. The November decision was a major setback for the animals, which in recent decades have been limited to a small area in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington, where they are threatened by disturbance from snowmobiles, roads and loss of habitat.
“This reduction in protected habitat is a death sentence for mountain caribou in the United States. They will not survive in this country if we don’t protect their habitat,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision ignored the science and caved to political pressure.”
Caribou once ranged across much of the northern lower 48 states, including the northern Rocky Mountains, upper Midwest and Northeast. The last remaining population in the northern Rocky Mountains was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1984. The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, never designated critical habitat for the caribou, and in 2002 the groups filing today’s notice petitioned, and eventually litigated, to obtain a designation.
In keeping with a scientific recovery plan for the caribou, the proposed critical habitat issued in 2011 included more than 375,000 acres, which encompassed a majority of the area specified in the scientists’ plan as necessary for the animals’ recovery. In cutting this proposed acreage by more than 90 percent, the Fish and Wildlife Service appears to have abandoned the goal of recovering caribou in the contiguous United States.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s cut in critical habitat will greatly increase the caribou’s risk of extinction in the lower 48 states,” said Jeff Juel, policy director at the Lands Council. “It will be a sad day if we have to tell our children and grandchildren that we once had our own reindeer, but that we allowed them — like the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet and so many others — to be wiped out.”
In 2005 conservation groups sued the Forest Service and obtained a closure to snowmobile use for most of the caribou’s critical habitat included in the proposed rule. The final designation, however, only includes a fraction of this area, and the Forest Service is already considering lifting the closure. With new technologies allowing snowmobiles to get ever farther into the backcountry, these machines are a major threat to the shy, easily spooked animals.
“Now is not the time to back away from nearly 30 years of effort to recover the mountain caribou,” said Tim Layser, a wildlife biologist with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. “With adequate protection from snowmobiles and other threats, caribou can once again thrive in the United States.”
Mountain caribou are a unique form of woodland caribou adapted to surviving winters of deep snow, with dinner-plate-sized hooves that work like snowshoes and an ability to subsist on nothing but arboreal lichens found on old-growth trees for three to four months. U.S. caribou are part of a population that straddles the border with British Columbia and consists of only 40 to 50 animals.
“To save the last caribou in the lower 48 we must take bold action to protect the forest habitat they need to survive,” said Mike Leahy, Rockies and Plains director for Defenders of Wildlife. “Reducing the amount of protected areas by more than 90 percent is clearly a step in the wrong direction that goes against the best available science.”
The groups on the notice of intent include the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Selkirk Conservation Alliance, The Lands Council, Idaho Conservation League and Defenders of Wildlife. They are represented by Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West.