Feds reopen comment period to determine level of protected status for mountain caribou

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BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reopened for comment a proposed plan to change the protected status of a herd of caribou in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington from endangered to threatened.

The agency on Tuesday opened the 30-day comment period based on new information about declining herds in Canada.

The agency made the initial proposal last May after deciding to lump the small herd of about 14 caribou into the Southern Mountain Caribou distinct population that has another 14 herds in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta with a total of about 1,300 caribou.

But Canadian officials that same month determined those herds are faltering and protection levels there should be increased from what that government calls "special concern" to endangered, the same term as used by U.S. officials.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that it came across as part of its review that new information, which triggers a new comment period.

"We'll certainly consider how they (Canadian officials) have it listed," said Bryon Holt, a Fish and Wildlife biologist based in Spokane, Washington. "But their laws are not exactly the same as ours."

On a related front, a federal court on Monday ruled in response to a lawsuit by six conservation groups that Fish and Wildlife must reconsider its 2013 decision that reduced the designated critical habitat for the lower 48 herd from about 375,000 acres to 30,000 acres.

"We can recover mountain caribou in Idaho and Washington, but it can't be done without protecting their habitat," Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

The herd in the lower 48 has been the focus of lawsuits by conservation groups who want more protections and other groups who contend the protected status limits use of the mountains and forests by humans for activities such as recreation and resource extraction.

Fish and Wildlife's decision to propose reducing the protected status of the herd followed a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation, northern Idaho's Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association. They argued the herd in the lower 48 was too small a subset of animals to warrant listing.

Holt, the Fish and Wildlife biologist, said the agency agreed with that argument and decided to group the lower 48 herd with the Southern Mountain Caribou distinct population.

Then in May 2014 the agency proposed reducing protections for the lower 48 caribou herd, starting a 60-day comment period that concluded in July 2014. About 400 comments were received, Holt said.

The agency had been planning to make a decision early this summer but Holt said that will likely now be pushed off until at least August following the new information and additional comment period.

Canadian officials in a report cited a number of reasons for concluding the Southern Mountain Caribou population needed additional protections. "A recent population viability analysis predicted that 13 of 15 subpopulations would be lost within 50 years," Canadian authorities wrote.

Threats, the report said, include snowmobiling, heli-skiing, climate change and habitat change resulting from forest harvesting in valley bottoms.

The caribou, biologists say, have unique traits and behaviors that allow them to survive in the mountains within their range.

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