In response to a successful petition and lawsuit by some of our regional colleagues, last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a mapping of critical habitat for the woodland caribou in the Selkirk Mountains. Some 375,500 acres are designated, most of which is in remote roadless areas in Boundary County, Idaho, with some lands designated in Bonner County, Idaho and Pend Oreille County, Washington. The tiny herd of Selkirk caribou — estimated to consist of about 46 animals — are probably the most endangered mammals in the continental United States. Comments will be taken on the proposal through January.
In its news release (pdf), the Fish and Wildlife Service describe the habitat and why it’s important:
The southern Selkirk Mountains caribou is a member of the deer family, and it possesses unique biological and behavioral traits. It prefers high elevations above 4,000 feet and steep terrain with old-growth forests. Small groups of mountain caribou migrate seasonally up and down mountain ranges, rather than undertaking the mass group, long-distance migrations some species of caribou are known for. When winter snow deepens, mountain caribou feed almost exclusively on arboreal lichens that occur on old trees (typically 125 years or older), in high elevation forests.
The primary threat to the species’ survival is the loss of contiguous old growth forest habitats due to timber harvest and wildfires. Human activities such as road-building and recreational trails can also fragment caribou habitat and facilitate the movement of predators into the caribou’s range.
Indeed, like too many other species, woodland caribou were once found across much of the northern United States, but were forced from their habitats by old-growth logging, hunting and poaching, and roads. Now, their last habitat in the U.S. is under stress by disturbance from snowmobiles and winter recreation. For several years, our friends at Selkirk Conservation Alliance, a party to the caribou lawsuit, have performed aerial monitoring of caribou habitat confirming the threats.
According to the Lands Council, also a party to the lawsuit:
The conservation groups petitioned for critical habitat in 2002 and sued for the designation in 2009. In 2005, the conservation groups challenged grooming of snow mobile trails into caribou habitat on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and obtained an injunction on snow mobile travel and trail grooming in a small portion of the forest that is essential for the caribou. Much of that habitat has now been designated as critical habitat, ensuring these protections will be maintained.
The designation of critical habitat flows directly from the Endangered Species Act, serving the purpose of identifying geographic areas that contain habitat features essential for the conservation of a listed species. The primary legal effect is that critical habitat requires federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on federal actions that may affect critical habitat, federal agencies are prohibited from funding or authorizing actions that would adversely affect critical habitat.
For our friends at the Bonner County Property Rights Council, who have the caribou designation on their agenda for tonight’s meeting, USFWS points out that: the designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership; critical habitat is not the same as a refuge, a wilderness area or any other conservation area; it does not allow government or public access to non-federal lands; and a critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved.
In a statement, Mark Sprengel from Selkirk Conservation Alliance says, “The woodland caribou of the Selkirk Mountains are highly endangered and need this habitat protection to survive. Protecting the caribou means protecting the old-growth forests and wild places of the Selkirks, which are cherished by many.”