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Mountain Caribou
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 4, 2009

Feds to study critical habitat for Idaho caribou
The Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to consider designating critical habitat for woodland caribou that roam northern Idaho and northeastern Washington.

The agency earlier this week settled a federal lawsuit out of court that requires it to make a critical habitat decision by November 2011. Critical habitat designations ensure that federal activities don't lead to habitat losses.

Defenders of Wildlife and three other environmental groups filed a petition in 2002 asking the agency to designate critical habitat for the last caribou herd in the Lower 48 states. They filed suit in January in U.S. District Court in Spokane, Wash., saying the agency never responded and that the delay in deciding whether to make the habitat designation violated federal law.

"The Bush administration ignored this species and our petition for six years," Mike Leahy, Defenders of Wildlife's Rocky Mountain region director, told The Spokesman-Review. "We're hopeful the Obama administration will have a greater interest."

The other plaintiffs were the Lands Council, Selkirk Conservation Alliance, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Fish and Wildlife has pledged to draft a critical habitat decision near the end of 2011, with a possible designation by 2012.

"You can't protect woodland caribou without protecting the places they live," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore.

The caribou in the region were federally protected under an emergency order in 1983, but no habitat was designated for them because officials feared they would become targets of poachers if their location was revealed.

Leahy said those arguments no longer stand, since caribou habitat has been posted with signs as part of public education efforts.

"There's been no evidence of poaching for a long time, and the location of the caribou is well known," he said.

The caribou typically spend the winter at elevations above 4,000 feet, eating lichen from old-growth forests.

"Caribou are part of Idaho's wildlife heritage and we think they're worth conserving and restoring," said Leahy. "This is one of the most endangered species in the country. We've pushed it all the way back into one mountain range."

A spokesman with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Spokane did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press on Thursday.

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Photo © Paul S. Hamilton