SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners are preparing to push back against a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposal to designate the southern Selkirk Mountains critical habitat for endangered woodland caribou.
The board is tentatively scheduled to take up the matter at its business meeting on Tuesday. Commission Chairman Cornel Rasor said the county will decide whether to invoke a federal rule requiring agencies to coordinate with local officials on land use matters.
It could mark the first time the conservative county commission will demand negotiations with a federal agency.
“We have a dog in this fight and we have tools that have never been used before,” said Rasor.
Fish & Wildlife announced last month it intends to designate 375,562 acres critical habitat for the mammal in Bonner and Boundary counties, in addition to Washington state’s Pend Oreille County.
The agency estimates that there are about 46 woodland caribou in the southern Selkirks.
A handful of environmental groups, including the Priest River-based Selkirk Conservation Alliance, petitioned Fish & Wildlife in 2002 to designate critical habitat for the species.
The proposal is chilling spines at Priest Lake, where residents bitterly contested changes to a winter motorized access plan with the U.S. Forest Service a few years ago. Snowmobile tourism is the lake’s lifeblood during winter and helps sustain local resorts in the off season.
“The number of businesses that have either gone out of business, bankrupt or sold in the last three years is unimaginable,” said Bob Davis of Elkins Resort.
The habitat designation is particularly troubling to Priest Lake residents and merchants and visitors because they feel it could lead to year-round restrictions on forest use. Some are also concerned that the rules could be interpreted to restrict all forms of recreation — including hiking and huckleberry picking — in the forest above 4,000 feet.
Priest Lake landowner Don Howell argues the critical habitat designation could serve as backdoor passage to a wilderness designation at Priest Lake.
“It’s wilderness by fiat rather than wilderness by congressional designation,” he said.
Agency maps depicting the proposed habitat boundaries do not square with the federal register, which indicates the habitat would extend west from the U.S. Highway 95 corridor into Washington state and south to the Pend Oreille River.
“It’s far more vast than what they’re describing,” said Matt Linscott, a Bonner County snowmobile rider and forest access advocate.
In addition to coordination, commissioners may seek a peer review of the science justifying the designation and assistance from the Mountain States and Pacific legal foundations and forest access groups. They may also rally support from other commissions from affected counties, state lawmakers and Idaho’s federal delegation.
“We need a united front,” said Commissioner Mike Nielsen.