The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last November announced that it was slashing the habitat proposed in Idaho and Washington from 375,000 acres to about 30,000 acres.
That decision came after an outcry from some politicians and snowmobile advocates, who complained that too much land was being set aside to help a small number of caribou.
While there are large herds in Canada, the mountain caribou in the U.S. is limited to a small corner of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington. The animals face conflicts with humans over road construction and snowmobile recreation.
"This reduction in protected habitat is a death sentence for mountain caribou in the United States," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that filed an intent to sue notice on Thursday.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's decision ignored the science and caved to political pressure," he contended.
The Fish and Wildlife Service had not yet seen the intent to sue and does not comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Joan Jewett said Thursday.
The agency last winter proposed setting aside 375,000 acres in the two states as caribou habitat, an amount that produced an outcry from recreation groups, loggers and local government officials. After some contentious public hearings, the agency reduced that total to 30,100 acres in Idaho's Boundary County and Washington's Pend Oreille County.
In December, the agency also announced that it plans a new study to determine if the caribou found in Idaho and Washington should continue to be protected as an endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service said removing them from protection "may be warranted" in response to a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation and its clients, Bonner County in Idaho and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association.
Opponents of protection have long contended that the handful of caribou in Washington and Idaho are just a subset of the massive herds in British Columbia, and that the animals travel freely across the border and do not warrant protection. But supporters of the caribou say they should not be allowed to go extinct in the U.S. because large numbers exist in Canada.
No one disputes that woodland caribou are struggling to survive in the U.S. Only four were tallied in northern Idaho and eastern Washington during an aerial census last winter. The U.S. population is estimated to total only a few dozen animals.
Caribou once ranged across many of the northern states, from the Rocky Mountains to the Northeast, but their numbers were decimated by habitat loss, poaching, motor vehicle accidents and genetic problems.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's cut in critical habitat will greatly increase the caribou's risk of extinction in the Lower 48 states," said Jeff Juel, policy director at the Lands Council, another of the environmental groups.
Mountain caribou have adapted to harsh winters in deep snow by developing dinner-plate-sized hooves that work like snowshoes. They can subsist on nothing but arboreal lichens found on old-growth trees for three to four months.
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