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Conservation Groups Sue Over Unfinalized Protections for Mountain Caribou, Now Extinct in the Lower 48

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CLIFF RAZZO
  • Cliff Razzo
On Jan. 14, the population of wild mountain caribou in the U.S. portion of the Selkirk Mountains—a range that straddles Washington and Idaho, and runs up into Canada—officially ticked down to zero when biologists moved the last member of the once-massive heard into captivity. Now, conservation groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, The Lands Council and Defenders of Wildlife are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for "failing to finalize endangered species protections and designate critical habitat" for the animals, according to a press release.

"[The Fish and Wildlife Service] had proposed a listing of 'threatened,' and I think I can safely say we would be okay with that," said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It would pretty much give the caribou the same protections they would have under endangered status."

The Selkirk herd, which represented the last caribou in the lower 48 states, was protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1983, but lost its protections in 2014 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified it as part of a larger group, the Southern Mountain Caribou. Planned protections giving that second group "threatened" status in the U.S. were never finalized, and conservation groups argue that that failure, along with the designation of 30,000 acres of critical habitat rather than the originally proposed 375,000 acres in 2012, contributed to the caribou population slump. The conservation groups filing suit hope that, if their lawsuit is successful, the return of protections and in the best case an expansion of habitat protections could reverse the trend when the caribou are eventually reintroduced to the wild.

"We're hoping that the Fish and Wildlife Service just moves quickly to actually get the distinct population segment protected," said Santarsiere. "... The Endangered Species Act gives them a year from these proposals to put a final rule in place, and they were moving along pretty well until 2016 came, and then they just kind of stopped. We just want to get them moving again and make sure caribou and their habitat are protected, because they desperately need it."