SANDPOINT, Idaho — Caribou share similar features around the world, including branching antlers, stocky bodies and snowshoe-like hooves.
But caribou in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho, northeast Washington and British Columbia have a trait that sets them apart from other caribou: When winter snow sets in, they head to ridge tops, where they spend the winter eating lichens that grow on 250-year-old spruce trees. Other caribou stay in the valleys.
The Spokesman-Review reports that because of that behavior, the South Selkirk caribou herd deserves protection as a distinct population under the Endangered Species Act.
Officials for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made that point Wednesday at an open house in Sandpoint, Idaho.
“This is the last, remnant caribou herd in the Lower 48. It has unique behavioral traits that we’d hate to lose from the landscape,” said Bryon Holt, a fish and wildlife biologist supervisor, at the open house.
Only 18 caribou were counted in the South Selkirk herd last winter, down from estimates of 46 a couple of years ago. But federal protections for the cross-border herd have generated years of controversy, particularly from snowmobile groups. They’ve lost access to popular ridges to avoid displacing caribou, whose food is scarce and fat reserves are low in the winter.
Two years ago, the Pacific Legal Foundation of Sacramento challenged the herd’s endangered listing on behalf of Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association. Foundation attorneys argued that healthy caribou populations exist in Alaska and Canada, making it unnecessary to protect the South Selkirk herd.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reaffirmed the herd’s ESA protections in May. Officials agreed that the South Selkirk herd is part of a larger population of about 1,660 caribou scattered throughout the mountains of interior British Columbia.
But those animals are also in trouble, Holt said. Despite the B.C. government’s efforts to protect caribou habitat in recent years, caribou numbers have shrunk by a third.
However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed changing the South Selkirk’s designation from “endangered” to “threatened.”
Nothing would change in terms of caribou management, though the downgrade could give the agency more flexibility in the future, Holt said. A final decision on the proposal is expected next May.
Jonathan Wood, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, said Bonner County and the snowmobile association still question whether federal protections should apply to the South Selkirk herd.
“Snowmobile trail closures associated with the caribou are having a really critical impact on the region,” Wood said.
In 2012, the snowmobile association released a study that estimated the cost of protecting caribou habitat in northern Idaho at $26 million over seven years, with winter tourism in Priest Lake’s resort community taking the biggest hit.
But that argument doesn’t resonate with John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League.
“Caribou is a big-game species that we value,” Robison said. “The U.S. has some of the best remaining habitat. We don’t want to rely on Canada to save the species.”