Residents blast caribou habitat plan

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Elkin’s Resort owner Bob Davis expresses his displeasure with the habitat proposal and points out that “people will go elsewhere to ride” if the land is designated for caribou. That could have dire impacts to local business owners, he added. (Photo by NICK IVIE/HNN)

COOLIN — With more than 375,000 acres of land seemingly “up for grabs” upon the designation of critical habitat for caribou in the southern Selkirk Mountains — nearly 200 citizens turned out to show their concerns at Tuesday’s coordination meeting between Bonner County commissioners and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials.

The meeting, called by commissioners and held at the Inn at Priest Lake,  was set with the hopes of altering or influencing the designation process through the coordination.

An open forum for over an hour, the audience pulled no punches showing their displeasure with the proposal, asking “where are these caribou” and “what will happen to this land after it’s designated as critical habitat.”

Questions posed to U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials, who had the answers but left the audience members with mixed emotions and a foreshadowed outcome of gloom if the proposal goes forward.

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 reindeer relative.

Woodland caribou were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1984, with Fish & Wildlife estimating a herd of 46 caribou in the recovery area.

County officials, along with those in attendance who live around and frequent the area, contend, however, that those numbers are over-inflated and expressed that as few as only “one or two” caribou may be present.

Fish & Wildlife Supervisory Biologist Bryon Holt opened the meeting by reiterating the proposal is, “just a draft” and “input from experts and community members is still needed.”

He added that the woodland caribou were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1984 and 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.

Holt would also try to reassure everyone in attendance that “private activities will still occur without interference from ‘the fed.’ even after designation.” And that the proposal is somewhat “redundant.”

“To the average person you’re not going to see a difference,” he added.

A sentiment that didn’t sit well with the audience, who collectively seemed to feel the designation will ‘open the flood gates’ for further government action. Even calling the proposal a complete, “land grab” while citing Agenda 21 as the main driving force behind the decision. Agenda 21 is an action plan  of United Nations for sustainable development.

Mike Nielsen, along with fellow commissioner Lewis Rich and commission Chairman Cornel Rasor, also pointed out that “the language in the proposal is so vague that it could include prohibiting activities such as snowmobiling, hiking and huckleberry picking.”

All activities that are the lifeblood of the local community, audience members and officials said.

A point taken by Holt and North Idaho field office supervisor Ben Conard, who both represented the Fish & Wildlife service at the meeting.

Resident Lee Pinkerton, a retired assistant chief with the Border Patrol, spent his fair share of time adding thoughts he said he wouldn’t have been able to express when he was with the agency.

“The Forest Service manages the land,” Pinkerton said. “So even though the proposal may not signify any roads or areas being closed now, once they consult with Fish and Wildlife they could do just that.”

“The forest managers need to take into account past, present, and future,” he added before a strong applause from the audience.

The attendees also touched on the true number of woodland caribou in the area, citing a national census that has shown between 0-4 caribou each winter over the past decade.

“To add one, or lose one is a 10-15 percent increase or decrease,” Holt said, adding “in the last several years we have documented 0-4 caribou through telemetry in the winter time.”

One factor unable to be documented through telemetry being that of the number of gray wolves, a known predator to caribou that was introduced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to the Selkirk Mountain area.

Numerous audience members expressed the noticeable absence of predation in the proposal, a serious threat to the caribou and best put by one local resident who stated, “you could drop off 40 caribou in Sandpoint each year and they would all be eaten (by wolves) before they could get back to the border.”

  The public comment period was also announced to be extended 60 days and that a final ruling on the designation is due by Nov. 20 of this year.

Rasor and Nielsen also noted that they intend on having at least two more ‘town hall style’ meetings to discuss the issue.

“This is a balance between animals and humans, and this community would dry up and go away if we don’t handle it correctly, Nielsen said.

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