Endangered Caribou Gets New Chance for Protection

24 March 2015 | Center for Biological Diversity News Release

BOISE, Idaho— In response to a lawsuit from a coalition of six conservation organizations, a federal court has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its 2013 decision to reduce by 90 percent its designation of critical habitat for the endangered mountain caribou. The court found in Monday’s decision that the agency had not given the public sufficient opportunity to comment on the final designation, which slashed protected habitat for the beleaguered caribou from a proposed 375,562 acres to a mere 30,010 acres.

“We can recover mountain caribou in Idaho and Washington, but it can’t be done without protecting their habitat,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I’m encouraged the lower 48’s last caribou will get another chance at being awarded the amount of critical habitat that will truly foster their recovery.”

Caribou once ranged across much of the northern lower 48 states, including the northern Rocky Mountains, upper Midwest and Northeast. The last remaining population in the northern Rocky Mountains was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1984. In response to a 2002 petition from the conservation groups, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designation of more than 375,000 acres in 2011. But then, in a sharp reversal in 2012, the agency designated only about 30,000 acres for the animals, arguing that caribou primarily reside in Canada now and that conservation efforts there are sufficient.

“We didn’t abdicate recovery of the bald eagle to Canada nor should we do so with the caribou,” said Senior Attorney Jason Rylander at Defenders of Wildlife. “It will be a sad day if we have to tell our children and grandchildren that we once had reindeer in the lower 48 states, but that we allowed them — like the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet and so many others — to be wiped out.”

The Fish and Wildlife decision to slash critical habitat threatens to undermine habitat protections called for in the species’ federal recovery plan, which identified the area needed for recovery as being somewhat larger than the proposed 375,000 acre designation. In 2005 the groups sued the Forest Service and obtained a closure to snowmobile use for the habitat identified in the recovery plan. The final critical habitat designation, however, includes only a fraction of this area, and the Forest Service is already considering lifting the closure. With new technologies allowing snowmobiles to get ever farther into the backcountry, these machines are a major threat to the shy, easily spooked animals.

“This is one step out of many that are needed to stop the decline of this small caribou herd that likely once numbered in the hundreds,” said Tim Layser, wildlife biologist with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. “With adequate protection from the impacts of off-trail snowmobiling and other threats, caribou numbers can once again be given a chance for recovery in the United States, although other issues need to be addressed.”

Mountain caribou are a unique form of woodland caribou adapted to surviving winters of deep snow, with dinner-plate-sized hooves that work like snowshoes and an ability to subsist for three to four months at a time on nothing but arboreal lichens found on old-growth trees. U.S. caribou are part of a population that straddles the border with British Columbia, with fewer than 20 animals found on the U.S. side of the border in recent years.

The groups fighting for greater protection for the caribou are the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Selkirk Conservation Alliance, The Lands Council, Idaho Conservation League and Defenders of Wildlife, and were represented in litigation by Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West.

Contact: Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495, ngreenwald@biologicaldiversity.org
Tim Layser, (509) 671-2501
Haley McKey, (202) 772-0247, hmckey@defenders.org

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