Fresh off its U.S. Supreme Court victory for Priest Lake residents Mike and Chantell Sackett, the Pacific Legal Foundation is taking on another major environmental case in northern Idaho.
It petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the mountain caribou from the federal Endangered Species List. The mountain caribou is the most endangered mammal in the United States.
Its population of about 43 animals straddles the border with Canada and live in the Selkirk Mountains.
The foundation, which represents Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association, argues the herd isn’t distinct from the vast population of caribou elsewhere on the North American continent.
“Caribou aren’t endangered, when you look at North America as a whole, and the federal government can’t legally single out this single herd in isolation,” said PLF attorney Brandon Middleton. “The unjustified ESA listing should be dropped and the economically destructive regulations that it has caused, should be lifted.”
The issue of whether caribou qualified to be an endangered species was studied by federal scientists in the 1990s. They concluded it was a distinct population segment of a specific caribou subspecies in a significant portion of its range, said Terry Harris, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance.
"This issue has been long-settled with several previous attempts at delisting," Harris said. "Bonner County's legal action borders on frivolous."
The Foundation won its biggest victory when the Supreme Court which affirmed the Sacketts right to challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s wetlands “compliance order,” in court. But it did not throw out the wetland protection provisions of the Clean Water Act.
Bonner commissioners have appropriated funds to cover incidental costs of the litigation, such as filing costs and attorneys’ travel expenses, but the foundation is not charging any legal fees for attorneys’ time spent litigating the case.
The petition comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to designate 375,562 acres as critical caribou habitat in Idaho’s Bonner and Boundary counties and Washington’s Pend Oreille County. The foundation argues that could trigger new restrictions on logging, road building and winter recreation.
“Caribou are majestic animals, and thank goodness they are not endangered,” said Bonner County Commissioner Mike Nielsen. “There are hundreds of thousands of caribou in Canada.”
The group that has faced the most recent restrictions has been winter users because the caribou survive in the high county with plate-sized hooves that allow them to travel through deep snow. Trails in the Selkirks have been closed to protect the caribou that feed on lichens, which grow upon old-growth fir and spruce trees.
The Idaho State Snowmobile Association has opposed these closings.
“The members of ISSA do not want our sport to endanger woodland caribou or any other species,” said Sandra Mitchell, ISSA’s public lands director. “However, we also do not want to be the victims of ‘feel-good’ biology that is based on personal biases rather than scientific studies and findings.”