Meeting set for caribou habitat coordination

Caribou prefer old-growth forests with arboreal lichens. (Photo courtesy U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE)

SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners are meeting with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials on Jan. 24 to discuss the designation of critical habitat for caribou in the southern Selkirk Mountains.

It’s slated for 1:30 p.m. at the Inn at Priest Lake in Coolin.

Commissioners asked Fish & Wildlife last month for formal coordination authority on the habitat designation.

The board hopes to influence the designation process through the coordination.

Fish & Wildlife announced last November it proposed designating 375,562 acres in Bonner and Boundary counties and Washington state’s Pend Oreille County as vital habitat for the endangered member of the deer family.

The deadline to comment on the proposal is Jan. 30, although the comment period could be extended another two months.

“We’ve received some requests for an extension and we’re working on that right now to meet that 60-day extension request,” said Susan Burch, chief for listing and recovery at Fish & Wildlife’s Boise office.

Woodland caribou were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1984. The Selkirk Conservation Alliance and several other environmental groups sued in 2002 to bring about habitat protections. A subsequent suit in 2009 forced Fish & Wildlife to designate critical habitat.

A final rule is due by Nov. 20, according to the terms of the settlement in the 2009 suit.

The proposed designation has set resort operators and forest users at Priest Lake on edge. They fear the designation will result in a year-round halt on recreation on public lands above 4,000 feet, where the caribou dine on arboreal lichens in old-growth forests.

County commissioners are building a coalition of other governments in the tri-state to challenge the designation.

“We’ve got about 10 or 12 counties all asking to be in involved,” said Commission Chairman Cornel Rasor.

Commissioners here have been unrelenting in their criticism of the proposal, which they contend is propped up by weak science and over-inflated population estimates.

Fish & Wildlife estimates there are 46 caribou in the recovery area, although county officials point out only several have been spotted in Idaho over the years.

“For three caribou, we’re going to tie up over 375,000 acres? That’s over a hundred thousand acres per caribou that people can’t use,” said Commissioner Mike Nielsen.

Commissioner Lewie Rich said the agency is skirting the impacts of wolves and mountain lion have on the caribou population.

“They would not deal with the predation issue,” said Rich.

Fish & Wildlife declines to speculate on what impact the designation could have on recreation and other forest activities.

“There’s no intent to close anything or do anything different. It just adds another conversation between the federal agencies,” said Burch.

Burch said the designation does not give the government authority to appropriate private lands, nor does it grant it access to private lands.

“It doesn’t create a wilderness — I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions just in general of critical habitat,” she added.

•••

Lend your voice to the discussion

The deadline to comment on the caribou habitat designation is Jan. 30, although a request is pending to extend the comment period. Comments can sent to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R1-ES-2011-0096, Division of Policy & Directives Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 4401 North Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM, Arlington, VA. 22203. They can submitted electronically to www.regulations.gov (enter FWS-R1-ES-2011-0096 in the keyword box).

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