Santa's reindeer have to work for a living, but they have it better than their southern cousins, the woodland caribou, who live in scant numbers along the U.S.-Canada border in Idaho and Washington and the province of Alberta.
Though caribou are found in large numbers in Quebec--more than 1 million animals roam 390,000 square miles there--their habitat has been disrupted and they've been heavily hunted by indigenous peoples. Their range is almost exclusively found in the far northern reaches of Canada--that is, except along the narrow southern spine of the Selkirk Mountains, which straddle the border of British Columbia and Alberta and into the northernmost counties of the Idaho panhandle and northeast Washington.
It is there--and only there--that woodland caribou can be found in the contiguous United States, but their numbers have been steadily declining. According to a 2010 aerial census conducted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, only 43 of the animals were found in the southern Selkirks, a habitat including hundreds of square miles of rugged backcountry from British Columbia's Kootenay Lake in the north, south to the mountains east of Priest Lake in Bonner County.
A 2011 census counted 36 caribou, and the most recent survey--conducted between Jan. 12 and April 2 of this year--found only 27 animals. Four were found in the U.S..
Calling them rare would be an understatement. Indeed, woodland caribou have been listed as an endangered species in the U.S. since the early '80s and are protected as an at-risk species in Canada. Still, despite their miniscule numbers, the caribou in Idaho and Washington have been at the center of a long-running and contentious land-use debate.
Seeking to conserve the species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate 375,552 acres of the southern Selkirks as critical habitat for upland caribou in 2011. The area would have covered a broad swath of the Kaniksu National Forest in north Bonner County, the entire western half of Boundary County and the northeast corner of Pend Oreille County in Washington.
Opposition was immediate, notably from outdoors groups like the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, arguing protection of so much territory effectively closes the northern Panhandle's backcountry to recreational use.
"Snowmobiling has lost thousands of acres where we have historically ridden, so every acre is important," said Sandra Mitchell, Boise-based public lands director for ISSA. "They're all important, and they provide opportunities for recreation that further the quality of life and economic prosperity of rural Idaho."
Bonner County Commissioner Mike Nielsen, representing the Priest Lake area, which would have seen about half its eastern mountains closed under the 2011 proposal, was also quick to push back.
"There's only at most, in the past 11 years, four animals. I don't think they need 100,000 acres apiece," he said.
After 150 days of analysis and public outreach, Fish and Wildlife announced a final critical habitat designation on Nov. 27 that carved out only 30,010 acres for the caribou--about one-tenth of the first proposal--and split between 6,000 acres in northwest Boundary County and 24,000 acres across the border in Washington. No areas in Bonner County were included in the designation.
"We thought it was a very reasoned decision," said Mitchell. "It made sense and it provides the critical habitat for the caribou that's needed and necessary and provided by law, and it won't put any unnecessary burdens on the community's use of that area."
"This decision reflected good science," said Boundary County Commissioner Dan Dinning. "The community is not against the animal in any fashion, but there could have been some real catastrophic impacts to both economies of Bonner and Boundary counties should the original proposal have gone forward."
According to a study commissioned by ISSA and conducted by Moscow-based Forest Econ, Inc., which works closely on timber investment and timber taxation issues, more than 1,000 jobs in the recreation and natural resources sectors have been lost across North Idaho because of caribou habitat protection, accounting for lost earnings of about $26 million per year.
Fish and Wildlife opted for the much smaller habitat designation because it was limited to the areas in which caribou were actually sighted in past years' surveys. Proponents of the smaller designation also point out that it reflects the actual number of animals that are consistently found on the U.S. side of the border.
That's the wrong approach, according to groups like the Idaho Conservation League.
"When the primary threat to a species is habitat loss and fragmentation, it doesn't make sense to protect less habitat," said Brad Smith, Sandpoint-based conservation associate with ICL.
Rather, Smith said, the caribou need a much larger habitat because the ecosystem they currently inhabit is still recovering from massive fires dating as far back as the 1960s.
"In 1967, there was a fire in the Selkirks called the Sundance Fire that burned up 55,000 acres in a day. That's more than the habitat that they're proposing to protect," he said. "What caribou would do is use an alternative habitat until those areas grow back and become old growth. You need alternative or replacement habitats."
For Smith, the smaller designation seems like an attempt by Fish and Wildlife to put the burden of caribou conservation on the Canadian side of the border by basing habitat areas not on what the caribou need but on what they currently struggle with.
"Not only have they put all their eggs in one basket, the decision looks like the Fish and Wildlife Service put all their eggs in Canada--or they've thrown in the towel," he said.
What needs to happen, according to Smith, is a completely new recovery plan for woodland caribou. The last plan was crafted in 1994 and "it's outdated," he said. "There are no more boxes to check or anything. What they need to do is update the plan. Designating habitat alone isn't going to recover the population."
Budget constraints make that unlikely, Smith added, and if Bonner County and ISSA have their way, it won't even be necessary. The groups filed two petitions with Fish and Wildlife to have upland caribou completely removed from the Endangered Species List, but the agency did not respond within the given 60-day time frame. Finally, in mid-November, the county and ISSA retained the Pacific Legal Foundation--the same law firm that represented a pair of Priest Lake landowners in their successful U.S. Supreme Court battle against the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year--to file a lawsuit requiring Fish and Wildlife to consider de-listing.
"The point is that, for whatever reason, we don't have the population of caribou that we once had in North Idaho," said Mitchell, with ISSA. "That could be for a lot of reasons: based on predators, based on climates, any reason. ... We think it's time to be realistic. ... We're asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to do an evaluation to see if they're an extinct population."
Nielsen, with the Bonner County Board of Commissioners, said that while the smaller habitat designation was preferable to the first proposal, it didn't go far enough.
"This critical habitat designation, small as it is, didn't lift the restrictions that were imposed when they were first listed. It has closed a vast amount of land and only very small corridors remain open," he said, pointing to decreased snowmobile rentals in the Priest Lake area and an overall depressed winter business climate for communities in the rugged area. "That's what's really hurt our economic business up here."
The suit is still at least a year or two away from running its course, according to Nielsen. In the meantime, Smith, with ICL, agreed that de-listing is the goal.
"We're keeping track and watching [the lawsuit] and the point at which we'd become involved is during final determination," he said. "Obviously, we wouldn't want to see that. We want to see caribou de-listed because they're recovered."