Idaho County Challenges Endangered Status of Caribou

Published June 13, 2012

Bonner County, Idaho is suing the federal government to remove woodland caribou from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). County officials point out there are millions of woodland caribou, mostly in Canada, and the fact that only a small number live in the extreme northern United States does not justify onerous ESA protections.

Trivial Feeding Distinction

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials argue the caribou that inhabit northern portions of Idaho and other U.S. states are distinct from the millions of caribou that inhabit Canada and elsewhere. Fish and Wildlife claims the U.S. caribou population is distinct because they tend to eat lichen off trees, whereas caribou farther north tend to eat lichen off the ground. 

Bonner County officials say the asserted distinction is trivial and scientific evidence does not support the claim the caribou in the northern United States are genetically or otherwise distinct from the millions of caribou just over the political border with Canada.

Restrictions Harming Economy

Fish and Wildlife has proposed designating more than 375,000 acres of land in the Selkirk Mountains in northern Idaho and eastern Washington as critical habitat for the caribou, which would shut down logging, recreation, and other human access to the mountains. 

Fish and Wildlife has already closed roads and snowmobile trails in the region to protect the caribou, and has also limited regional logging activities. 

Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, says the impact of this regulation and others like it is tremendous. 

“Most of Idaho is federally protected public land with abundant natural resources. It’s hard enough to derive income from timber, so when you declare huge swathes of land off-limits, then it just makes it that much harder to derive any economic benefit,” Hoffman observed. 

“Extreme environmental activism is causing untold economic harm to communities like Bonner County. Every single attempt they have made has worsened the economic situation,” Hoffman explained.
Citizens Not Giving UpThis is the third time concerned government officials or concerned citizens have challenged the caribou listing. The Greater Bonners Ferry Chamber of Commerce filed petitions in 1993 and 2000 to delist the caribou. Both were denied. 

H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, says delisting the caribou is sound policy, especially since they are not rare across the vast majority of their range.

“The Northwest United States is the extreme southernmost part of their range, and there were never that many here,” said Burnett.

“There are thousands of caribou across North America, but in this group in Idaho, they’re classified as a distinct population of a subspecies because they eat lichens off trees rather than the ground. If they encountered another herd, they would eventually interact and breed with them. I’m not sure why we should be worrying about protecting [individual] breeds,” he said.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.