California Legal Foundation Asks: Are Caribou Really Endangered?
The short answer is: yes, in Idaho, of course they are — there were a grand total of four of them spotted this winter. But according to an industry and developer-funded California legal organization looking for loopholes, it isn’t that simple.
The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a California-based law firm with a take-no-prisoners property rights ideology, has filed a petition on behalf of Idaho snowmobile groups and Bonner County to take the Selkirk caribou off the endangered species list. According to the PLF, the Caribou found in the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho are no different than any other run-of-the-mill caribou found throughout Canada. While there are only a handful of caribou that frequent the south side of the U.S.-Canada border, the PLF says that the species itself is not endangered.
According to the Endangered Species Act, a species can be considered endangered if it is a species or subspecies, or distinct population segment, at risk of extinction, over a significant portion of its range. According to the PLF, the Selkirk caribou are not a distinct subspecies of caribou and the Selkirk Mountains are not a significant portion of the (broadly-defined) caribou’s range.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Selkirk caribou are of the mountain ecotype of Caribou — distinct from the much more numerous (lowland, migrating) caribou of Canada and Alaska, but not a subspecies. But these Selkirk mountain caribou are a small and isolated population, separated by significant distance and significantly different habitat from their lowland cousins. This qualifies them for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. For similar reasons, they are similarly protected under Canada’s species protection laws.
Their habitat is threatened by intrusions by motorized winter recreation. The best available science shows that motorized winter recreation causes caribou to be displaced and caribou will avoid these areas in subsequent years. Eventually they run out of places to hide. Originally, in our area on our side of the border, caribou ranged from northeast Washington to Glacier National Park and south to the Clearwater River.
The USFWS resolved the issue in favor of the caribou when they originally put the Selkirk woodland caribou on the endangered species list in 1983. The USFWS also fended off prior attempts at de-listing based on similar arguments back in 1993 and 2000. But with the formidable legal firepower of the PLF, with the official support (and taxpayer dollars) of Bonner County government, and with the support of organized snowmobile interests behind this effort, the petition is a serious threat to the last caribou in the lower 48.
We think that the PLF is unlikely to win this petition battle — the PLF are bringing no new facts and presenting no new arguments to USFWS decision-makers — but we’ve been wrong about them before. Moreover, unlike previous efforts to de-list caribou, the PLF is unlikely to take no for an answer unless the “no” is coming from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome, the petition is illustrative of the sad state of endangered species conservation in the U.S. and the depressing disrespect for our natural heritage in North Idaho. A tiny handful of caribou are all that remain of a prehistorically enormous population, and a tiny corner of Idaho is all that remains of their original range throughout the Rockies and New England states.
Why can’t we just agree to save these last few animals on our insignificant corner of the planet? Because hundreds of miles of existing snowmobile trails is evidently just not enough.