County seeks de-listing of woodland caribou

SANDPOINT — Bonner County is contracting with the Pacific Legal Foundation to petition the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove the southern Selkirk Mountain woodland caribou from the federal endangered species list.

County commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to contribute up to $10,000 toward the effort.

“Getting into contractual agreements with a not-to-exceed amount always makes the most sense,” said Commissioner Lewie Rich.

A memorandum of understanding approved by the board also allows the public to contribute financially to the de-listing move.

“We’re going to seek out donors,” Commissioner Mike Nielsen said after the board approved the expenditure.

Contributions gathered from the public can only be spent on the de-listing move.

The nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation is regarded as one of the oldest conservative/libertarian public interest law firms in the nation.

“They’re the most nationally respected free-market law firms in the country,” said Scott Bauer, the commission’s civil counsel.

The foundation is already representing a Priest Lake couple who are dueling with the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. Supreme Court over a wetland designation.

Commissioners have aggressively challenged Fish & Wildlife’s plan to designate 375,500 acres in the Panhandle and eastern Washington as critical habitat for woodland caribou. They contend the caribou population is too small to justify the designation and the impact on the economy would be too great.

The board’s stance has been cheered by business owners at Priest Lake who contend caribou considerations have already restricted snowmobile riding on national forest land and hurt tourism. They fear the habitat designation will further restrict snowmobiling and virtually every other forest activity.

Fish & Wildlife officials assert that they are unable predict what forest uses would be impacted in deference to caribou enhanced protections.

Environmental groups such as the Idaho Conservation League have defended the habitat designation and maintain that logging, motorized recreation and other forest uses can continue despite the designation.

Fish & Wildlife was sued by the Selkirk Conservation Alliance and other groups to compel the agency to designate critical habitat.

When the designation was announced last year, county commissioners invoked a federal rule requiring the agency to coordinate with local officials on the designation.

But there unease whether coordination will enable the county to influence the designation. Fish & Wildlife officials told commissioners at a meeting last month that federal rules prohibit them from accepting the county remarks on the issue because they are being made outside of the regimented public comment process.

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