SANDPOINT — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced on Tuesday that it is designating 30,010 acres in Boundary County and Washington state’s Pend Oreille County as critical habitat for the southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou.
The final designation is less than a tenth of the 375,552-acre designation proposed last year. None of the acreage in the final designation lies within Bonner County.
The final designation is drawing mixed reactions.
Bonner County commissioners challenged Fish & Wildlife’s proposed designation and attempted to coordinate with the agency to roll back the acreage. The board viewed the designation as a threat to the local economy and forest access.
Commissioner Mike Nielsen, who represents the Priest Lake area, was pleased that the final designation did not involve any additional lands in Bonner County.
“I think the outcome was as good as we could get,” said Nielsen.
However, Nielsen said large swaths of the Selkirk Mountains near Priest Lake remain restricted to snowmobile use because of prior efforts to protect the dwindling caribou population.
Nielsen said there could be a move to lift those restrictions in light of the final habitat designation for southern Selkirk Caribou.
The Idaho Conservation League, meanwhile, was disheartened by the scaled-back designation.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed to see a 90-percent reduction in habitat compared to the original proposal. It’s basically an about-face,” said Brad Smith, a conservation associate with ICL.
Fish & Wildlife said the final designation follows a 150-day period of public involvement, public meetings, hearings, scientific peer review and a re-examination of information regarding the occupancy at the time of the caribou listing.
Brian Kelly, Fish & Wildlife’s Idaho state supervisor, said thoughtful and scientific information was presented to the agency by Native American tribes, residents, 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 the priority habitat for caribou conservation,” Kelly said in a statement.
Caribou were listed as endangered in 1983 and a Fish & Wildlife status review indicated Caribou in the U.S. and Canada decreased from about 2,300 in the mid-1990s to about 1,939 in 2008.
The southern Selkirk herd has continued to shrink, particularly in the U.S., according to Fish & Wildlife. The most recent census showed a decline from 46 caribou in 2009 to 27 in 2012. No caribou were detected in the U.S. in 2011 and a 2012 survey documented four caribou on Little Snowy Top near the Canadian border.
Smith said the final rule designates the habitat that was occupied when caribou were listed in 1983.
“The problem with that approach is that it represents the habitat occupied by an imperiled herd. In order to have a growing herd and to achieve recovery, much more habitat would have to be protected,” Smith said.
There are no more administrative avenues ICL can pursue to expand the final designation, which could only leave one option left — litigation.
“We’re still assessing our options,” said Smith.
Each member of Idaho’s federal delegation released statements Tuesday praising the outcome of the habitat designation.
Congressman Raúl Labrador said he was pleased the agency listened to the public outcry the designation would have on people’s livelihoods. He added that Endangered Species Act is in need of an overhaul.
“This is an example of the Fish & Wildlife Service recognizing the need for improved species management and we applaud the efforts of the men and women on the ground in Idaho who made this decision,” said Labrador.
Senator Mike Crapo, a member of the Senate Environmental & Public Works Committee, said input from local residents, sportsmen and county officials is critical in the determinations involving critical habitat.
“It is appropriate for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to appropriately modify the critical habitat proposal to better balance the caribou’s recovery needs with recreational and other human use of Idaho’s landscape,” Crapo said.
Congressman Mike Simpson said modifying the designation was a challenging but necessary step.
“It is clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service has done its work on this issue, resulting in a reasonable and fact-based decision. I would like to express my appreciation to the Idaho office of the Fish and Wildlife Service for their leadership in gathering vital information from all parties who were interested in and impacted by the 2011 proposal,” said Simpson, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior.
Senator Jim Risch said the current designation is more realistic than the initial proposal.
“The input by private citizens and elected officials from the region was very helpful, as was the attention paid to it by Brian Kelly and Ben Conrad of the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Risch. “This new designation protects private property, allows continued access to public lands, and provides adequate range for recovery of woodland caribou that may come into Idaho.”