Bonner County, Idaho, officials fear plan to protect 375,000 acres of woodland caribou habitat will create economic hardship in rural areas, restrict logging, forest access

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho , December 21, 2011 () – Commissioners in northern Idaho's Bonner County fear a plan to protect habitat for about 50 remaining woodland caribou will create economic hardships in rural areas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed designating more than 375,500 acres in the Selkirk Mountains as critical habitat for these endangered North American reindeer cousins. Nearly 80 percent of the proposed habitat is federal land in Bonner and Boundary counties in northern Idaho and nearby Washington state's Pend Oreille County.

The Spokesman-Review reports that members of the Bonner County Commission predicted Tuesday this plan will create new restrictions on logging, snowmobiling and forest access. Commissioners referred to the proposal as a "de facto wilderness" designation and said efforts to protect the rare caribou that roam this forested border region in northern Idaho, northeastern Washington and British Columbia, Canada, have already hurt snowmobiling and tourism around Priest Lake, Idaho.

"We've already had a lot of road closures," said Cornel Rasor, the board's chairman. "These are our public lands."

His commission on Tuesday passed a resolution demanding the federal government coordinate its activities with the county's land use plan.

Coordination theory, which is promoted by private property rights activists, contends federal laws including those governing land use planning on public land, require agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extensively review how federal plans mesh with those of local governments.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials declined to comment on the resolution requiring coordination.

"We haven't seen the resolution so we can't comment on it, but we would love to hear their concerns," said Meggan Laxalt Mackey, a Boise spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Her agency did say the proposed habitat designation could impose nominal new restrictions on logging, winter recreation and other forest activities to protect caribou, but it insists that most existing activities will be able to continue.

Fish and Wildlife is accepting public comments on the habitat proposal through Jan. 30. After the economic analysis is released, another 30-day comment period will be scheduled.

The lower 48 states' last remaining woodland caribou herd wanders the border area between Washington, Idaho and British Columbia. They were listed under the ESA 27 years ago, but the Fish and Wildlife Service refrained from designating critical habitat. At the time, it argued telegraphing to the public just where the caribou were could heighten poaching risks.

Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, first sued in 2002, contending the 1984 listing of the woodland caribou under the Endangered Species Act must also be accompanied by habitat protections. But it took a subsequent lawsuit in 2009 to force the agency into creating the critical habitat, a move that was announced by Fish and Wildlife in late November.

This caribou herd relies on old-growth forests above 4,000 feet for survival, feeding almost exclusively on lichens growing on trees that are 125 years old or older when deep winter snows cover other sources of food. Only about 46 caribou are believed to remain in the southern Selkirk herd. Low reproductive rates, high calf mortality and habitat losses have hampered caribou recovery efforts.

Environmentalists including Brad Smith, with the Idaho Conservation League in Sandpoint, said caribou recovery and winter recreation can coexist.

"There's room in the Selkirks to protect the habitat that caribou need to survive and recover . and also provide places for people to go snowmobiling, which is a legitimate use of public land," he said.

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