U.S. Snowmobilers Seek To Stop Caribou-Protection Measures In Their Tracks

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By Randy Boswell

Postmedia News 

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 planet."

But Idaho's main snowmobilers' association and a tourism-dependent county in the northern part of the state have launched a lawsuit to halt the critical-habitat proposal.

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 endangered.

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 throughout Canada's boreal forests.

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 be lifted."

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 ice.

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 caribou conservation."

But Idaho's opponents of the U.S. 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 the border."

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 findings."


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