Weighing the Costs of Caribou Protection

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Woodland caribou are one of the most endangered species in the U.S. With just 50 or fewer remaining, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is proposing designating approximately 375,000 acres of high-elevation forest land in the Selkirk Mountains, including portions of Bonner and Boundary counties in Idaho and Pend Oreille County in Washington, as critical habitat for the species to recover. These designated forests, 15,000 acres of which are privately owned, produce lichen hanging from trees, an essential source of food for caribou during the winter season.

“This is one of the few places left in the United States that still contains all of the species that were present when Lewis and Clark traveled through 200 years ago, including caribou,” said Terry Harris of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. “I don’t think we want to lose that.”

The USFWS proposal is meeting fierce resistance from local residents and businesses, including the area’s popular tourist-attracting snowmobiling industry, who are concerned that the caribou recovery area will close off trails.

“Snowmobilers don’t go where they are not wanted,” said snowmobile resort owner Bob Davis, a 30-year resident of the area. “These people will ride someplace else.”

More than 200 people attended a recent public meeting between Bonner County commissioners and the USFWS.

Those opposed to the recovery plan criticized that it was instigated by “eco-activist” ideals to turn the area into a “caribou zoo” at the expense of the local economy and lifestyle. “We belong here, too, not just the animals,” said resident Scott Rockholm.

In response, USFWS Supervisory Biologist Bryon Holt clarified that “private activities will still occur without interference from ‘the fed,’ even after designation,” and that the average person would not even “see a difference,” or be aware of the new protections, in their daily life. “We are trying to re-establish an animal that is native to the United States,” he added.

Considering so few caribou now exist in the U.S, and only one or two are typically spotted each year, complaints also surfaced about restricting such a large expanse of backcountry (about half the size of Rhode Island) for an animal most have never seen. “Why do we need 375,000 acres of critical habitat if we have no caribou?” asked resident Pat Hunter.

The USFWS believes more frequent sightings will occur when the caribou population rebounds, and protecting their terrain will reduce the threat of further decline from “historic habitat loss and fragmentation (due to fires and logging), predation, collisions with vehicles, and overharvest.”

The public comment period has been extended 60 days and a final ruling on the designation is due by November 20, 2012. Bonner County Chairman Cornel Rasor and Commissioner Mike Nielsen announced they intend to have at least two more town hall style meetings to further 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.