SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The federal government on Wednesday downgraded the protected status of the last remaining herd of mountain caribou in the Lower 48 states from endangered to threatened. Environmental groups hailed the decision as good for the animals.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the change in response to petitions from Idaho's Bonner County, a snowmobile group and a pro-business law firm that had sought the removal of all protections from the herd in northern Idaho.
The herd is thought to number fewer than 30 animals but interacts with a much-larger herd on the Canadian side of the Selkirk Mountains.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group seeking to protect the herd, said the decision means the animals will continue to get the protection they need.
"We're just glad they stayed protected," said Noah Greenwald of the center. "As far as the protections a species gets, the difference between endangered and threatened is not substantial."
The decision came in response to a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation, Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, which said the herd in the U.S. was too small a subset of animals to warrant listing.
"We think it is a partial victory," said Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, California.
The downgrade in status may lift some of the most severe restrictions on activities in caribou habitat, Wood said.
"The severe burden on property owners and Bonner County and people interested in recreation may get greater flexibility," he said.
Woodland caribou once ranged across much of the nation's northern tier. However, the animals disappeared 100 years ago from all but a small and remote area of the Idaho Panhandle and northeastern Washington.
The population has been protected since 1983 under the Endangered Species Act.
"Scientists from both sides of the border have determined southern mountain caribou are significant and need protection to survive," said Jason Rylander, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. "We should not allow these unique animals to go extinct in the United States."
All caribou are the same species, but mountain caribou have adapted to harsh winters with deep snow by developing dinner-plate sized hooves that work like snowshoes. They eat only arboreal lichens during the winter months.
The Pacific Legal Foundation argued that caribou should not be protected because there are plenty in Canada. But environmentalists countered that the Endangered Species Act specifically allows protection of distinct populations.
"The woodland caribou is Idaho's most endangered animal. It is important that they remain protected and we get down to the real work of recovery before they go extinct," said Brad Smith of the Idaho Conservation League.
Conservation groups have sued for the establishment of protected critical habitat and to close a large area of the Selkirks to snowmobiles, which pose a threat to the animals.
The Fish and Wildlife Service originally set aside more than 375,000 acres of critical habitat, but pro-business groups complained that would decimate the economy of the area. The habitat was eventually reduced to about 30,000 acres, a decision that remains in litigation.