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Woodland caribou
seattlepi.com, November 29, 2011

Feds propose caribou habitat safeguards in N Idaho
By John Miller, The Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Nearly 600 square miles of land in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington will be designated critical habitat for a woodland caribou herd that has seen its numbers dwindle to less than 50, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday.

Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, first sued in 2002, contending the 1984 listing of the woodland caribou under the Endangered Species Act must also be accompanied by habitat protections. But it took a subsequent lawsuit in 2009 to force the agency into the action announced Tuesday.

"It's hard to recover species without protecting core habitat," said Mike Leahy, of Defenders of Wildlife in Bozeman, Mont. "The potential gain here is that impacts to habitat, as opposed to just the animals themselves, will be more carefully evaluated."

The proposal includes 295,000 acres of federal land in Idaho's Boundary and Bonner County and Washington's Pend Oreille County, near the Canadian border; 65,000 acres of state of Idaho land; and some 15,000 acres of private land in Idaho.

The lower 48 states' last remaining woodland caribou herd wanders the border area between Washington, Idaho and British Columbia. They were listed under the ESA 27 years ago, but the Fish and Wildlife Service refrained from designating critical habitat. At the time, it argued telegraphing to the public just where the caribou were could heighten poaching risks.

Susan Burch, chief for listing and recovery in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Boise, said the new designation won't result in significant changes in management of the rugged, mountainous territory, which is more than half the size of Rhode Island.

Even without critical habitat designation, Burch said, federal agencies, the state of Idaho or even a private individual seeking a federal permit to alter land use in the area where the caribou had been documented likely would already have had to consult with her agency, whether they were filling in a wetland or building a new picnic area.

"It does provide an additional level of discussion with federal agencies on what could happen to the habitat," Burch said, of the proposed rule announced Tuesday. "But it doesn't create a park. It doesn't shut down the boundaries of that (critical habitat). That's not what this is about."

If this was no big deal, counters Noah Greenwald, of the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, Ore., why did it take so long for Burch's agency to agree to the designation? He contends it will make it tougher to create groomed snowmobile routes, which his group helped shutter in a portion of the area with a separate 2005 lawsuit.

"There have been so few caribou sighted in the U.S. in recent years, this will make plain that even if caribou aren't there in one year, that those protections (on habitat) don't go away," Greenwald said. "It improves its chances of survival, by identifying its habitat and providing regulatory protections for that."

The rule, which won't be final before public comment ends in 60 days, forces federal agencies to ensure anything they fund or authorize on land within the 375,562 acres of critical habitat won't destroy features of the landscape deemed critical for the species' recovery.

Jason Kirchner, Idaho Panhandle National Forest spokesman, said his forest hadn't finished reviewing the proposed rule, so he couldn't say how it might impact day-to-day management of the Forest Service's share of critical habitat.

It plans to submit comments by the Jan. 30 deadline, he said.

© 2011 Hearst Communications Inc.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton