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Suit filed over caribou habitat

February 8, 2013
A coalition of conservation organizations last week filed a formal 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for what the groups say were violations of the Endangered Species Act in the agency’s final declaration of “critical habitat” needed to sustain endangered mountain caribou that roam northeast Washington and northern Idaho.

The notice takes to task the USFWS’ November 2012 decision establishing critical habitat of 30,101 acres for the caribou. That total was less than 10 percent of the geographic area outlined earlier in a critical habitat designation proposal.

The notice, signed by representatives of the Center for Biological Diversity, The Lands Council, Conservation NW, the Idaho Conservation League, the Selkirk Conservation and Alliance Defenders of Wildlife can be found by clicking here.

“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 “is one of the most blatant examples of caving to political pressure and ignoring science issued so far by the Obama Administration.”

The southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou in the United States was emergency listed as endangered under the ESA on January 14, 1983. A final listing rule was published on February 29, 1984. The population is the only woodland caribou population that still occurs in the United States. The caribou range also stretches north into southern British Columbia. At the time it was listed, only an estimated 25-30 animals existed in the population.

The USFWS did not designate critical habitat, a requirement of the ESA, for the southern Selkirk Mountains population of caribou at the time the species was listed. Environmental groups petitioned the agency in 2002 to designate critical habitat, and ultimately sued the federal agency in 2009 to force action.

A settlement of that lawsuit resulted in a proposed critical habitat rule being issued on November 30, 2011. A final rule was issued on November 28, 2012.

The proposed rule designated 375,562 acres while the final rule designated 30,010 acres.

Under the ESA, the USFWS is required to identify the most important geographic areas that are critical to the conservation of a listed species. Acreage is designated as critical habitat because it contains the physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the species, the federal agency says.

The final designation is a result of 150 days of public involvement and extensive analysis that included public information meetings, hearings, comment periods, scientific peer review, and a reexamination of information regarding occupancy at the time of the caribou listing, the USFWS said. All of the area being designated as critical habitat is federally owned lands under management of the U.S. Forest Service

“Thoughtful inquiry and scientific information was presented to us by tribes, citizens, federal and state agencies, elected officials and other interested parties. Because of this, we have a modified rule that adheres to policy, is responsive to issues raised by others, and most importantly, addresses priority habitat for caribou conservation,” Brian T. Kelly, USFWS Idaho State supervisor, said in announcing the critical habitat designation.

The reduction in the critical habitat area from the proposed to final decisions “reflects a 1,000 foot change in elevation from 4,000 feet in the proposed rule, to an elevation at or above 5,000 feet in the final critical habitat designation. Literature and information we have reviewed, and peer review comments received, confirm that although caribou may use elevations below 5,000 feet, habitats at this elevation and above are essential to their conservation,” according to the USFWS.

Caribou once ranged across much of the northern lower 48 states, including the northern Rocky Mountains, upper Midwest and Northeast.

Mountain caribou are a unique form of woodland caribou adapted to surviving winters of deep snow with a diet focused on arboreal lichens found on old-growth trees for three to four months.

Meanwhile, the USFWS Service announced in mid-December that it will conduct a review of the status of the southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou in response to a petition to remove the mammal from ESA protection.

The USFWS received the petition to delist in May, 2012, from the Pacific Legal Foundation, an organization representing Bonner County, Idaho, and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association.

The southern Selkirk Mountains woodland caribou was first protected in 1983 due to the threats posed by poaching, habitat loss due to timber harvest and wildfire, motor vehicle collisions and genetic problems through inbreeding, the USFWS said.

The agency’s conclusion, called a “substantial 90-day finding,” does not mean that the USFWS has made a decision on the petition’s requested action. It does, however, indicate that a more thorough review of the information, or a “12-month status review,” is needed to be able to make a decision on whether delisting this population of caribou is warranted.

The petition claims that the caribou population in Bonner County’s Selkirk Mountains isn’t distinct from nearby healthy populations in a legally relevant way that would support federal regulation.

A 2008 status review completed by the USFWS says “The geographic separation between the South Selkirk population and the next two closest populations (South Purcells and Nakusp), the physical movement barriers between these populations, and the limited exchange of animals between the South Selkirk and adjacent populations demonstrate that this population is markedly separated from other populations of the same taxon as a result of physical factors.

The snowmobilers’ in November filed a legal complaint in U.S. District Court to press the delisting issue. It says that due to purported threats to the Southern Selkirk Mountain Caribou Population, a court-ordered injunction prevents Bonner County and its residents from using and maintaining certain trails in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests for snowmobile recreation.
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