By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Environmental groups concerned about an endangered type of reindeer facing extinction in the mountains of Idaho and Washington state sued the U.S. government on Monday for scaling back protections.
Fewer than 30 woodland caribou, popularly known as wild reindeer, roam a rugged mountain range in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border.
Unlike more plentiful caribou species in places like Alaska, the small herd in the Selkirk Mountains inhabits elevations above 4,000 feet and relies on old-growth forests for a winter diet of lichens and for protection from predators.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year cut to 30,000 acres from 375,000 acres the tracts of public land in the two states where commercial development and human activities would be restricted to save the rare and reclusive creatures, which were added to the federal endangered species list in 1984.
The greatest threat to survival of woodland caribou is the fragmentation of their habitat by logging, wildfires, road-building and recreation trails, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The reduction came after objections to conservation efforts on the federal lands from Idaho's Republican state leaders and groups promoting commercial activities and recreation such as logging and snowmobiling.
The agency said the downsizing was based on a revised lower estimate of area occupied by a much-reduced herd.
Conservationists said the failure to carve out sufficient habitat protections for the struggling caribou would greatly increase their risk of extinction in the Lower 48 states.
"It will be a sad day if we have to tell our children and grandchildren that we once had our own reindeer, but that we allowed them to be wiped out," said Mike Petersen, head of the Lands Council in Spokane, Washington.
The council is among six groups that sued on Monday in U.S. District Court in Idaho asking a judge to order the Fish and Wildlife Service to redo habitat protections to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act.
An agency spokeswoman declined comment on the lawsuit.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Osterman)