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Residents upset about caribou habitat designation

January 25, 2012 at 01:55 PM

The Associated Press

Local residents upset with caribou plans

COOLIN, Idaho (AP) — Some local residents are upset by a proposal to designate an area half the size of Rhode Island in a remote part of Idaho and Washington as critical habitat for endangered woodland caribou.

They blasted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at a meeting on Tuesday, saying the federal plans amounted to a land grab that would devastate the local economy.

But federal officials said the designation was required to help save the last remaining caribou herd in the Lower 48 states. They said the average person should not be impacted by a critical habitat designation.

That didn’t satisfy many of the estimated 200 people who showed up at the so-called “coordination” meeting requested by the Bonner County commissioners, who are seeking to provide input to federal regulators.

“Our goal in this coordination is to stop this closure,” county Commissioner Cornel Rasor admitted.

The proposal calls for designating 375,000 acres in Bonner and Boundary counties in Idaho and Pend Oreille County in Washington as critical habitat to help save and grow a herd of about 40 woodland caribou that live on both sides of the Canadian border. In this conservative part of the world, the proposal is virtually a declaration of war.

“All this government does is keep taking and taking and taking land from the free citizens of this country,” resident Rick Hall said.

Ben Conard of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Spokane said the critical habitat designation was required by law, and would have little actual impact on locals because woodland caribou have enjoyed endangered species protections since 1983.

But many residents told the federal representatives that caribou were not thriving in the area because of federal efforts to save grizzly bears and wolves, which preyed on the caribou. They also complained that all the caribou lived in Canada and only a few ventured south.

“How can we establish that there are domestic caribou in the Selkirks (mountains) instead of Canadian transients that will want voting rights in the future,” said Tom Clark of Bonner County, drawing laughter.

No one other than federal officials spoke on behalf of the designation.

Locals are worried that the plan to designate as critical habitat nearly 600 square miles of land will harm the local economy by restricting logging, snowmobiling and forest access.

Fish and Wildlife announced the plan in November after lawsuits by environmental groups.

The deadline to comment on the critical habitat plan is Jan. 30, but Conard said it would be extended. A final decision is expected in November.

Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, first sued in 2002, contending the 1983 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 the action announced Nov. 29.

The proposal includes 295,000 acres of federal land; 65,000 acres of state of Idaho land; and some 15,000 acres of private land in Idaho. The lower 48 states’ last remaining woodland caribou herd wanders the border area between Washington, Idaho and British Columbia.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to designate critical habitat when the caribou were listed under the ESA more than 25 years ago. The agency at the time said listing could help poachers locate the caribou.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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