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Protecting Critical Habitat for Woodland Caribou

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designating 375,562 acres of protected critical habitat in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington for the endangered woodland caribou.

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The woodland caribou is perhaps the most endangered species in the continental United States. The southern Selkirk herd of the caribou, which is the only one to occur in the U.S., consists of about 45 animals. The southern Selkirk herd belongs to a unique mountain dwelling form of caribou known as the "mountain ecotype" that, unlike other woodland caribou, do not form large herds or make large migrations.  Instead, these caribou migrate between low and high elevation forests. 

"The woodland caribou of the Selkirk Mountains are highly endangered and need this habitat protection to survive," said Mark Sprengel, executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. "Protecting the caribou means protecting the old-growth forests and wild places of the Selkirks, which are cherished by many."

Thousands of woodland caribou once roamed the northern United States but were eliminated from all of their habitats except the Selkirk Mountains by a combination of logging of their old-growth forest habitats, hunting and poaching, and roads. They continue to be threatened in their last habitat in the U.S. by disturbance from snow mobiles and other winter recreation. 


A very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic. - Edward O. Wilson 

Roaming wild expanses of forests mountain caribou historically traveled throughout Canada and the northern United States. Tragically, this community of wandering large creatures, with their distinctive antlers, their large hooves adapted to snowy landscapes, their peculiar reliance on arboreal lichens, and their backdrop of stunning old-growth forests, have been distilled into a minor issue, an afterthought, or an obstacle. These caribou have survived two ice ages, human development, and human degradation of their land. These endangered animals symbolize the valuable remains of what once was a thriving ecosystem, with clean air, clean water, and pristine forests.

Today evidence reveals that human disturbance has caused tremendous habitat loss, and fragmented the once great population into isolated smaller groups. Their numbers in Canada and the US have plunged 30% since 1997, from 2400 to fewer than 1700 today, making them as endangered as Africa's disappearing black rhino. The Selkirk Mountain caribou population is the only caribou population remaining in the coterminous US, and is considered one of the most critically endangered mammals in the United States. This herd of around 34 caribou is a globally unique species found only in the inland temperate rainforests of southeast British Columbia and parts of Washington, Idaho and Montana.

In 1984, the Selkirk Mountain population was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Logging, road building, and motorized recreation are some of the identified causes of habitat loss, predation, and increased mortality of the species. One of the primary threats identified by federal agencies and the conservation community was snowmobiling activity, which displaces suitable habitat, increases predation, and radically affects reproduction and survival.

Snowmobile use is an extremely recent addition to the list of human disturbance. Rapid technological changes allow more and more people to travel off trails and into previously undisturbed federal land. Agencies have found themselves unequipped to manage areas already traversed by motorized use, and have been unsuccessful at resolving continued snowmobile violations. Despite Forest Service research documenting the adverse effects of snowmobiling activity on caribou, and without the research and documentation required of logging and mining activities for potential effects on our public watersheds, the Forest Service has encouraged snowmobile use in the Caribou Recovery Area.

Because of these violations of the Endangered Species Act, The Lands Council, along with other area conservation groups filed suit in federal court. This does not suggest that snowmobiles should be illegal; it asks for a minuscule yet necessary fragment of US federal land to be managed as a rare wild resource, unique to our country, and precious to endangered caribou.


  • Click here to read the Spokesman Review article, Caribou face precarious prognosis, by Becky Kramer, February 26, 2012
  • Click here to read the Spokesman Review article, Feds propose critical caribou habitat in Idaho, Washington, by Rich Landers, November 29, 2011
  • Click here to read The Spokesman Review article, Agency will study habitat of caribou - Conservationists hail decision as crucial for species' survival, by Becky Kramer, The Spokesman Review, June 4, 2009

  • Woodland caribou may receive habitat protections - FWS to decide critical habitat for rare caribou by 2012 - June 3, 2009
  • Click here to read The Spokesman Review article, Lawsuit filed to protect caribou - Selkirk herd could disappear, groups say

  • Click here to read the Bellingham Herald article, Lawsuit seeks critical habitat for caribou



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