SANDPOINT, Idaho— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today finalized protection of a population of woodland caribou that, until 2019, straddled the border between British Columbia and Idaho, Washington and Montana. After the last caribou in the lower 48 states were removed in January, these caribou remain only in British Columbia.
The protections are in part a response to a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity and allies.
“It’s exciting news that these unique reindeer finally have the endangered species protections they need to avoid extinction,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center. “Caribou can be brought back to the lower 48 states, but only if we safeguard their habitat. We have to move fast to curb further fragmentation of the wild places in the U.S. where they could live.”
A more limited population of caribou, known as the southern Selkirk herd, has been protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1983.
In 2014 the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the herd is actually part of a larger population known as Southern Mountain caribou. Today’s rule protects this population as endangered.
The Southern Mountain caribou population includes 15 herds in Canada. Two other herds have been wiped out. The animal’s range has declined by 60 percent in British Columbia.
Until today the Service had delayed finalizing protection for Southern Mountain caribou. The agency also delayed reconsidering critical habitat designation for the caribou. That was after a successful lawsuit from the Center and allies that challenged a previous designation, which included only a small fraction of the caribou’s former U.S. range.
The rule today includes a mere 30,010 acres of protected critical habitat, instead of the 300,000 acres that were originally proposed.
“While it’s a relief that these caribou are protected, it’s disappointing that the Service is only setting aside a fraction of the critical habitat the animals need,” said Santarsiere. “For these species to return to the western U.S., more habitat has to be protected.”
The conservation groups in the lawsuit leading to the federal rule announced today are represented by attorneys from the Center and from Advocates for the West.
Caribou once had a broad range across the lower 48 states, including the northern Rockies in Washington, Idaho and Montana, the upper Midwest and the Northeast.
But by 1983, when they were protected under the Endangered Species Act, caribou were limited to just the northern Rockies and declining fast. In the 1990s the Fish and Wildlife Service augmented the southern Selkirk herd with caribou from Canada, which helped the population grow to more than 100 animals. But the effort was abandoned without explanation, allowing the Selkirk herd to languish and decline.
Mountain caribou are an “ecotype” of the more widespread woodland caribou. They are uniquely adapted to life in the very snowy mountains of British Columbia and the northernmost areas of the northern Rockies in the lower 48 states.
Caribou hooves are the size of dinner plates and act like snowshoes. The animals can survive all winter eating arboreal lichens found on the branches of old-growth trees only accessible in winter.
Development and roads are increasingly fragmenting their habitat. And the increased power and popularity of snowmobiles have allowed more people to infringe on the caribou’s alpine habitat. Snowmobiles disturb the caribou while also compacting trails that provides predators access to caribou during winter.