COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Federal land and wildlife managers should only designate as much critical habitat for woodland caribou in northern Idaho and eastern Washington state as the caribou occupied when they were first listed as a protected species, Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho said.
The Spokesman-Review reported that the senators last week wrote a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service telling the agency that critical habitat should “be more representative of the distribution and population at the time of listing.”
Two caribou were spotted in the region in 1983 when they were listed.
The agency has proposed designating nearly 600 square miles as critical habitat to bolster numbers. Most of the federal land is in Idaho’s Bonner and Boundary counties and nearby Washington state’s Pend Oreille County.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife has received nearly 300 comments about the plan that the agency anticipates finalizing in some manner later this year.
“We’re looking at what the caribou would need if we could get them back, the amount of habitat and the type of habitat,” said Brian Kelly, the agency’s state supervisor in Boise.
Officials said comments from hunting guides, loggers and snowmobilers oppose the designation out of concern it will lead to additional restrictions to forest access. But the agency said there will be few changes, and much of the area is already managed to protect old growth forests.
Woodland caribou, rarely seen creatures with antlers that stand as tall as a man, are struggling to survive in the Lower 48, precariously occupying one remote area of the Northwest as a final toehold. Only four caribou were counted south of the Canadian border during an aerial census last winter.
Federal endangered species law requires that critical habitat be set aside for the caribou.
But Crapo and Risch, in their letter, said nearly 600 square miles for four caribou is too much, and that a more practical approach should be taken that balances human activities in the forest with caribou habitat requirements.
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho has suggested a smaller habitat area including elevations above 4,500 feet, higher than the agency’s proposal of habitat above 4,000 feet. The tribe’s proposal would shrink the critical habitat area by about 40 to 60 percent.
“This reduction in area would likely not affect caribou recovery, is scientifically defensible and could be better understood and supported by the communities,” the tribe said.