Making a home for the woodland caribou—but at what cost?

Posted: Sep 19, 2018



The woodland caribou is one of the most endangered species in the country, with approximately 50 remaining in the Selkirk Mountain area in northern Idaho, northeast Washington, and British Columbia.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to its proposed rule to classify the Selkirk Mountains as critical habitat for the endangered woodland caribou. On one hand, environmental groups have been pressuring the FWS to go through with the critical caribou habitat designation for the last three decades. On the other hand, many local residents, business-owners, and politicians are staunchly opposed to the FWS’s proposed rule. A draft economic analysis (DEA) conducted by the FWS indicated that designating this area as critical caribou habitat would cost approximately $1.5 million over the next twenty years. Over $4 million has already been spent on the project. Local residents are debating whether or not it is worth the investment. Federal endangered species law requires the FWS to set aside critical habitat for the woodland caribou, but the size and scope of the designated area could be affected by this ongoing debate.

The woodland caribou is a subspecies of caribou. The United States and Canada were once home to thousands of woodland caribou, but today only one herd remains in the U.S. Also known as the Selkirk herd, the last woodland caribou herd in the U.S. lives in the Selkirk Mountain area in northern Idaho, northeast Washington, and British Columbia. This rare and elusive animal is difficult to spot, which has led to speculation that there are far fewer than 50 left in the U.S. Local residents wary of the costs associated with designating critical habitat have used this to argue there aren’t any left to protect—that they have either died out or are living primarily in Canada and only cross the border into the U.S. occasionally.

The Selkirk herd is also globally unique. It belongs to the “mountain ecotype”—caribou that live in the mountains, migrate between low and high elevation forests, and do not form large herds or make large migrations. The endangered woodland caribou population relies on the old-growth forest of the Selkirk Mountains. Woodland caribou migrate to these forests in the winter to feed on lichens on old-growth trees, and to be safe from predators. Fragmentation of old-growth forests is a serious threat to the woodland caribou population.

When a species is proposed for listing as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the FWS must determine whether there are areas of habitat that are essential to the species’ conservation. The proposed critical habitat area includes 375,544 acres of federal, state and private lands. If the rule is finalized, section 7(a)(2) of the ESA prohibits destruction or adverse modification of that area, and requires that federal agencies consult with the FWS before taking action that would adversely affect the critical habitat.

Woodland caribou already face many hardships, including the loss of old-growth forests, logging, hunting, development, and motorized recreation. Snowmobiling, in particular, poses a unique threat to the caribou population. Although snowmobiling is a fun winter activity, it has numerous negative effects on the environment and wildlife. Snowmobiling has led to an increase in people traveling off trails into previously undisturbed federal land. This winter activity is a large component of the tourist industry in Idaho and Washington and, as a result, many local residents are supportive of the activity. Business owners claim that restricting snowmobiling in order to protect caribou habitat in the Selkirk Mountains will negatively affect local tourism, costing local residents resources and jobs. Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association will produce their own economic analysis of what designation will cost them.

The problem with making environmental conservation a question of economic practicability is that many environmental benefits are unquantifiable. For instance, it is difficult to put an economic value on the preservation of a unique species like the woodland caribou. Having already invested $4 million, $1.5 million over the next two decades seems like a prudent amount to spend in order to continue the project. It is true that there are only a few caribou left, but perhaps that is all the more reason we should protect them. They have been listed as an endangered species for almost 30 years—it is time to give them a home.

If the FWS is unsuccessful in creating critical habitat for the caribou, the hardships faced by this species will continue; and with so few caribou remaining, it could lead to their extinction.

It is not just the woodland caribou that need protection. The entire Selkirk Mountain ecosystem, as an old-growth forest, is constantly threatened by logging, development, and motorized recreation. Altering one aspect of an ecosystem can wreak havoc on the ecosystem as a whole. Human activity has disrupted ecosystems like the Selkirk Mountains before. That is the root cause of the disappearance of the woodland caribou, and it is our responsibility to right that wrong.

Unfortunately, designating critical habitat does not automatically “save” endangered species from extinction. Endangered species in critical habitat areas do not necessarily receive more protection than other endangered species, since listed species and their habitat are protected under the ESA whether or not they are in a critical habitat area. The FWS has admitted that designating an area as critical habitat often has only a minor impact on protection of the species, and can even harm the species in some cases, particularly in cases where the public is against the designation.

Critical habitat is not perfect, but it is a start. If designating the Selkirk Mountains as critical habitat does not solve all of the problems faced by the woodland caribou population, environmental groups and agencies should supplement it with education, outreach, and creative grassroots movements aimed at informing local residents of the issue and advocating on behalf of the dwindling caribou population.

According to the ESA, the size of the critical habitat designation should be based on the significant portion of its range; that is, the size of the population at the time of the endangered species listing—in this case, 1984. This concern has been brought up by Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch. According to a letter the senators submitted to the FWS opposing the critical habitat designation, only a handful of caribou were spotted in the U.S. at the time of the listing, so the proposed acreage seems astoundingly large.

Looking forward, a smaller habitat designation may not be all that practical. Environmental groups have noted that the caribou will need even more room to grow. In other words, while a smaller swath of land may be sufficient to support the caribou’s current numbers, it would not be able to accommodate a recovered population. If the ultimate goal is to increase the caribou population, then we must provide them with a home big enough for them to grow into.

The controversial phrase “significant portion of its range” should be interpreted to include historic range. The ESA should take into account the possibility of population growth and recovery when determining the limits of a critical habitat classification. Growth and recovery of endangered populations are what the ESA should be working for, not against.

It is possible to strike a balance between the extremes of protecting an endangered species at any cost and avoiding all costs associated with conservation. The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho has expressed guarded support for the critical habitat designation, but has suggested that it be limited to a smaller area. Although this plan would likely calm the nerves of local residents concerned with the cost of the project, it may be a compromise conservationists are unwilling to make. For those who believe that the Selkirk Mountains represent the woodland caribou’s only chance of survival, no cost is too high to save the species.

While some sort of compromise must be reached in order to ensure the health and well being of both the caribou and local residents, certain aspects of the proposed rule cannot and should not be compromised. Designating a significant amount of land in the Selkirk Mountains—even if it is not as robust as the 3,000 acres in the proposed rule—is essential to the survival of the woodland caribou. There is no time left to waste in securing the fate of this disappearing species. After nearly 30 years, it is time to give the endangered woodland caribou a home.

~Emi Estelle

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