Woodland caribou, rarely-seen creatures that with their antlers stand as tall as a man, are struggling to survive in the United States, precariously occupying one remote area of the Northwest as a final toehold in the Lower 48.
The federal government has proposed designating about 600 square miles in Idaho and Washington _ roughly half the size of Rhode Island _ as critical habitat in an effort to save this last U.S. herd of fewer than 50 animals.
But the plan has touched a raw nerve in this deeply conservative region, where the federal government is already viewed as a job destroyer because of restrictions on logging and other activities.
A recent public meeting on the habitat proposal drew a crowd of 200 angry people, several of whom excoriated government officials for allegedly trying to destroy their local lifestyle.
"Please leave northern Idaho alone," Pam Stout, a local tea party activist, told federal biologists.
"We belong here too, not just the animals," added resident Scott Rockholm.
Other speakers were less polite, accusing government officials of a land grab, raising allegations of United Nations conspiracies or telling the federal government to get out of a region that is mostly federal land.
But it's not that simple.
Federal endangered species law requires that critical habitat be set aside for the caribou, and environmental groups went to court to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to comply.
This is one of the few places left in the United States that still contains all of the species that were present when Lewis and Clark traveled through 200 years ago, including caribou, said Terry Harris of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance.
"I don't think we want to lose that," Harris said.
Under the proposal, 375,000 acres of high-elevation forest land in the Selkirk Mountains, including portions of Bonner and Boundary counties in Idaho and Pend Oreille County in Washington, would be designated as critical habitat. Nearly all of the land is already owned by the federal and state governments, with about 15,000 acres in private hands in Idaho.
Under a critical habitat designation, any activities that require federal approval or money would be scrutinized for their impact on the caribou.
This has alarmed residents who snowmobile, hunt and chop wood in the thick forests of northern Idaho's lake country, or who have businesses that rely on forest access.
"Our economy revolves around that national forest," said resident Lee Pinkerton. "Without it, we have to find a new way to make a living."
Snowmobiling is a particularly popular activity here, drawing lots of tourists in winter. Operators worry that the region's trail system will be reduced to help caribou.
Bob Davis, a resort owner and 30-year resident of the area, said previous restrictions on snowmobiling already cut that business by 70 percent.
"Snowmobilers don't go where they are not wanted," Davis said. "These people will ride someplace else."
Federal biologists Ben Conard and Bryon Holt spoke at the public meeting, telling the crowd that the critical habitat designation would be mostly unnoticed.
"To the average person, you are not going to see a difference," Conard told the audience, drawing guffaws from skeptics.
Federal approval has already been required for many activities ever since the mountain caribou were first listed as an endangered species in 1984. The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to designate critical habitat at that time, fearing that would help poachers locate the animals. Those concerns have now faded.
But while the designation won't immediately lead to road closures or land restrictions, the federal officials acknowledged that some activities could ultimately be curtailed if they are found to hurt the caribou.
"We are trying to re-establish an animal that is native to the United States," Holt said.
Coolin is located on the shores of Priest Lake, about 80 miles north of Spokane, Wash., in the thick, wet forests of the southern Selkirk Mountains. Such forests produce the lichen that are the animals' only food source in winter.
Woodland caribou used to be found across the northern tier of the United States, but these days are found only here and in Canada.
The southern Selkirk herd moves across the border between the U.S. and Canada. But only one or two caribou are typically spotted each year on the U.S. side. Last year none were spotted.
"Why do we need 375,000 acres of critical habitat if we have no caribou?" wondered resident Pat Hunter.
Locals also complain that the caribou are being eaten by grizzly bears and wolves that are also protected species in the area.
Environmental groups say the designation is long overdue.
Harris said people who argue that there are too few caribou to warrant the designation are missing the point.
"The issue of too few caribou is precisely the reason for the critical habitat designation," Harris said. "That's the problem this is intended to solve."
There is no evidence that reintroduced wolves are eating many of the animals, he said.
Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service blames the caribou decline on the loss of contiguous old-growth forests due to logging and wildfires, plus the building of roads and recreational trails that fragment habitat and help predators move into caribou range.
But many local leaders are determined to prevent the critical habitat designation.
Bonner County Commissioner Cornel Rasor told the crowd that his goal in calling the meeting was to start the process of derailing the proposal.
"We're trying to change the direction of the ship of state," he said.
After a public comment period, the federal government will announce its decision on the critical habitat proposal this fall.