Idaho's caribou are the mammals most likely to go extinct in the United States, but some state residents say the large creatures don't need the security of the Endangered Species Act.
Biologists counted fewer than 30 caribou this winter in the Selkirk Mountains, which reach south from British Columbia into the northernmost parts of Idaho and Washington. But Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association filed a petition this month to remove the caribou from the endangered list.
Reindeer and caribou around the world are the same species, argues Brandon Middleton, the Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who filed the petition.
The Endangered Species Act allows the government to protect only a population that is a distinct species or subspecies, and the Selkirk Mountain caribou don't meet that standard, Middleton said.
"Caribou are majestic animals, and thank goodness they are not endangered," said Bonner County Commissioner Mike Nielsen. "There are hundreds of thousands of caribou in Canada."
As one can imagine, there is no consensus on that question.
The mountain caribou are the only ones that live in high-elevation forests and eat lichens that grow on trees, said Leo DeGroot, a wildlife biologist for the province of British Columbia.
"That makes them unique in the world," he said.
KIDS CONNECT WITH IDAHO CARIBOU
Since the caribou was listed in 1983, roads and snowmobile trails have been closed and logging limited in the high-elevation, old-growth rainforest of the Selkirks to protect the animals and their habitat.
Transplant programs in the 1980s added 60 caribou to the population, and allowed children across Idaho to "adopt" an animal and follow their lives.
But concerns about restrictions on logging, road construction and recreation have been renewed since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designating 375,562 acres as critical caribou habitat in Idaho's Bonner and Boundary counties and Washington's Pend Oreille County.
Bryon Holt, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said the agency doesn't anticipate any change in management, even with the new designation.
He also said the agency looked to see whether anything had changed with the science about caribou species on which the listing is based.
"We believe it meets the criteria as a distinct population segment," Holt said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is not alone. Canada lists the Selkirk caribou herd as at-risk, its version of endangered.
Canada separates the mountain caribou from other woodland caribou by diet, since other caribou eat lichens off the ground.
In high elevations, the caribou's plate-sized hooves allow them to get around in deep snow -- which actually gives them access to lichens that grow higher up in the trees.
"They are not genetically that different," DeGroot said. "It's more the way they use the habitat that's different."
Snowmobilers do not want to endanger woodland caribou or any other species, said Sandra Mitchell, public lands director for the Idaho Snowmobilers.
"We also do not want to be the victims of feel-good biology that is based on personal biases rather than scientific studies and findings," she said.
This is the third effort to delist the caribou. The Greater Bonners Ferry Chamber of Commerce filed petitions that were denied in 1993 and 2000. This case is different because it is questioning the taxonomy.
Caribou have been scarce in the lower 48 states since 1900. The Selkirk population never got above 60 in the states. They once existed in Montana's Yaak Mountains, but have not been seen there for years.
The entire population appears to be on a downward path. Today's population of 27 to 29 is significantly less than the 45 of just a couple of years ago. In the past 30 years, the mountain caribou throughout British Columbia have suffered because of habitat fragmentation from roads and logging.
"Even some of the source herds we used for the transplant are now listed in Canada," said Wayne Wakkinen, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist who has worked on caribou since the late 1980s.
The biggest threat to Idaho's caribou today is climate change, he said. Fire and logging have opened up forests, improving habitat for deer and moose. And warmer temperatures allow them to live higher on the mountains.
But where the deer and moose go, predators follow.
So now caribou face threats in later summer and fall, as deer and moose and the wolves, bears and lions that feed on them move into the caribou's high-elevation habitat.
The Pacific Legal Foundation's Middleton doesn't see any paradox in arguing that the most endangered mammal in the United States -- the last caribou in the lower 48 states -- doesn't need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. With the feds out of the way, he said, the state will make better decisions.
"I think the caribou would be better managed," Middleton said.
(c)2012 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)
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