Last Caribou in Lower 48 Stay Protected Under Endangered Species Act
BOISE, Idaho— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that mountain caribou continue to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision came in response to a petition from an anti-environment law firm, Pacific Legal Foundation, along with Bonners County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, which sought to remove protections for the stately animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, did downlist the caribou from endangered to threatened based on a larger area of Canada being included in the protected population. In recent years the last remaining caribou in the contiguous United States — which occur only in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho — have been clinging to existence, with fewer than 30 individuals straddling the U.S.-Canada border.
“What a relief that our last population of beautiful woodland caribou is going to continue to get the protection it needs to survive,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Fast action is needed to make sure we don’t lose caribou from the lower 48 states forever. That should include strengthening and increasing the U.S. population by bringing in Canadian caribou, which is crucial for genetic resilience but hasn't happened in decades.”
Woodland caribou once ranged across much of the northern lower 48 states, including the northern Rocky Mountains, upper Midwest and Northeast. The animals disappeared from all but a small area of the Idaho Panhandle and extreme northeastern Washington more than 100 years ago. Since 1983 this last population has been protected under the Endangered Species Act and known as the southern Selkirk population. Today’s decision expands protection beyond the Selkirks to include a population also recognized by the Canadian government and known as the “southern mountain caribou.”
“Scientists from both sides of the border have determined southern mountain caribou are significant and need protection to survive,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “We should not allow these unique animals to go extinct in the United States.”
Although all caribou are the same species, mountain caribou have adapted to surviving winters with deep snow by having dinner-plate sized hooves that work like snowshoes and by surviving only on arboreal lichens during the winter months. As it has with a number of other species, including the orca and the marbled murrelet, Pacific Legal argued caribou should not be protected because there are plenty in Canada. The Endangered Species Act, however, specifically allows protection of distinct populations like southern mountain caribou.
“The woodland caribou is Idaho’s most endangered animal. It is important that they remain protected and we get down to the real work of recovery before they go extinct,” said Brad Smith, conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League.
A coalition of conservation groups, including those named on this release, have long been fighting for increased protections for caribou. The groups petitioned for critical habitat in 2002 and later sued to get the habitat. The groups also later sued the Forest Service to close a large area of the Selkirks to snowmobile use, which is a major threat to these shy animals. The closure remains in effect, but the Service recently reduced its proposal to designate more than 375,000 acres of critical habitat to a mere 30,000 acres. The groups are now challenging this reduction. In all the cases, the groups have been represented by Advocates for the West.
“Now is not the time to back away from over 30 years of effort to recover the woodland caribou,” said Mike Petersen with the Lands Council. “With protection from snowmobiles, logging and other threats, caribou can once again thrive in the United States.”