By Randy Boswell
American snowmobilers are revving up to battle an ambitious
conservation plan aimed at protecting what U.S. wildlife officials describe as
a "unique," cross-border population of 40 woodland caribou that
inhabits a stretch of mountainous terrain in southern British Columbia as well
as adjacent parts of Idaho and Washington states.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to designate
152,000 hectares of "critical habitat" in the Selkirk Mountains for
the tiny herd of antlered animals—the only caribou living in the Lower 48
states—has been hailed by North American wildlife advocates as a perfect
complement to recent conservation measures on the Canadian side of the border.
Those Canadian efforts received $25 million in backing from
the federal Conservative government in 2008, along with gushing praise from
then-environment minister John Baird for preserving a "treasure" of
borderland wilderness and significantly enhancing "Canada's natural
legacy" in B.C., "one of the most beautiful places on the
main snowmobilers' association and a tourism-dependent county in the northern
part of the state have launched a lawsuit to halt the critical-habitat
They argue that the trans-boundary caribou aren't
genetically distinctive enough from other North American caribou to warrant
such stringent protection. They also say that commercial opportunities and
recreational rights in Idaho shouldn't be
thwarted by "feel-good biology" and "erroneous"
interpretations of the U.S. Endangered Species Act—the legislation under which
the Selkirk Mountain caribou population is listed as
The few dozen woodland caribou in the cross-border herd are
an isolated offshoot of a specialized "mountain ecotype" population
numbering just 1,700, almost all of them in B.C. The sub-group inhabits only
thick, high-elevation forests, feeding primarily on tree lichen rather than the
ground lichen consumed by the far more numerous woodland caribou living
Such observed differences in behaviour are key to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife plan to protect the border-crossing herd's southern range.
But opponents say the proposed U.S.
designation is "flawed" and legally "improper" because the
Selkirk caribou—even if separated from other herds and exhibiting some
behavioural differences—should not be eligible for the same level of protection
as a genetically distinct species.
"Caribou aren't endangered, when you look at North
America as a whole, and the (U.S.)
federal government can't legally single out this single herd in
isolation," argues Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Brandon Middleton,
who is representing the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Bonner County
in their joint petition to stop the critical-habitat designation.
The foundation—which describes itself as "the leading
watchdog organization that litigates for limited government, property rights
and a balanced approach to environmental regulations"—insisted in a
statement issued recently that "the unjustified ESA listing should be
dropped and the economically destructive regulations that it has caused should
The proposed U.S.
plan to protect the mountain ecotype caribou comes at a time of growing concern
for the animal's future in almost all of its Canadian habitats. Threats such as
climate change and habitat fragmentation have led wildlife advocates in recent
years to press all levels of government in Canada to restrict logging, mining
and other activities.
An arctic sub-species, the Peary caribou, is also facing
trouble because warming temperatures in the Far North are more frequently
causing the animal's food supply to become encased in an impenetrable sheet of
In 2008, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Canadian
government spent a combined $90 million to initiate the purchase and protection
of a 55,000-hectare swath of wilderness—known as Darkwoods—on the Canadian side
of the Selkirk caribou's range. The B.C. government has also established a
threatened-species recovery program aimed at halting habitat loss in the
Selkirks and throughout the province, including measures to curb disturbances
from backcountry snowmobiling and other human activities.
The proposed U.S.
designation of critical habitat, now being debated in a series of public
consultations, would produce a comparable level of protection in the U.S. portion of
the Selkirk caribou's range, experts have told Postmedia News.
Chris Ritchie, implementation manager for the B.C.
government's wildlife recovery program, told Postmedia News in December that
provincial officials are "quite pleased" with the U.S. proposal.
"As you can imagine," he said at the time,
"the caribou don't care about an international boundary. So if there's
analogous habitat protection on each side of that line, that's just good for
But Idaho's opponents of
plan insist the critical-habitat designation shouldn't be allowed.
"Caribou are majestic animals, and thank goodness they
are not endangered. There are hundreds of thousands of caribou in Canada," designation critic Mike Nielsen,
the commissioner of Bonner
County, said in a Pacific
Legal Foundation statement. "All that the ESA listing does in Idaho is threaten our
economy by putting winter tourism and recreation on the endangered list. There
simply is no justification for severe, destructive restrictions on property and
people in Idaho,
to help a species that doesn't need help—a species that is thriving north of
Sandra Mitchell, public lands director of the state's
snowmobilers' association, said her group's members are "seeing a piece by
piece destruction of recreational opportunities as more and more trails get closed
off" due to environmental protection.
"The members of (Idaho State Snowmobile Association) do
not want our sport to endanger woodland caribou or any other species," she
stated. "However, we also do not want to be the victims of 'feel-good'
biology that is based on personal biases rather than scientific studies and