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Environmental groups sue over caribou habitat cuts

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Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 3:08 am

    BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A coalition of environmental groups is suing the federal government over cuts in protected habitat in Idaho and northeastern Washington for the last known domestic herd of mountain caribou.

    The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Boise, comes nearly a year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service slashed protected caribou habitat in the two states from 375,000 acres to about 30,000 acres, or by 93 percent.

    Large herds of caribou exist in Canada, but its range in the lower 48 states is now confined to a small corner in Idaho’s Panhandle and northeastern Washington. The animals face a variety of conflicts with humans, including road construction, timber harvest and snowmobile recreation.

    “The reduction in protected habitat is a death sentence for mountain caribou,” said Noah Greenwald, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “They will not survive in the United States if we don’t protect their habitat.”

    Officials with the federal agency in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Attorney in Idaho did not immediately return telephone messages left Tuesday by The Associated Press.

    Caribou once ranged across much of the country, but habitat loss, poaching, accidents with vehicles and genetic problems caused their numbers to decline significantly. In 1984, the federal government protected the animal under the Endangered Species Act, but the service never designated any critical habitat.

    In 2011, the agency proposed setting aside 375,000 acres in the two states as critical habitat. That decision irked snowmobile groups, loggers and local government officials who ultimately got Idaho’s congressional delegation involved. After a review and round of public hearings, the agency scaled back the amount of protected acres.

    The agency also announced last year that it plans a new study to determine if the caribou found in Idaho and Washington should continue to be protected as an endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service said removing them from protection “may be warranted” in response to a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation and its clients, Bonner County in Idaho and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association.  

    In the lawsuit, the groups accuse federal officials of ignoring science and bending to political pressure.

    “Reducing the amount of protected areas by more than 90 percent is clearly a step in the wrong direction that goes against the best available science,” said Jason Rylander, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife.

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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