Idaho politics: Crapo, Risch question caribou plan (UPDATED, 4:53 p.m.)

UPDATED, 4:53 p.m., with a link to an Idaho Conservation League blog on the issue.

It's a battle, it seems, even older than the 1973 Endangered Species Act: a battle over how much habitat to preserve in the name of preserving scarce species.

This time, the debate centers on the sparse woodland caribou population in the Idaho Panhandle. Idaho's Republican senators are questioning the feds' plans to designate nearly 600 square miles as critical caribou habitat.

To minimize the negative consequences of such a large designation, we urge the service to consider a more practical approach to habitat for woodland caribou that utilizes the best available science to balance the recovery needs of the species with the human needs on the landscape," Crapo and Risch wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe.

On Tuesday, Brad Smith of the Idaho Conservation League blogged on the issue, saying the federal government has to provide a place for the caribou, a species that once roamed as far south as the Salmon River. "While the senators raise legitimate concerns about the potential impacts to the local economy of Priest Lake, ICL believes that there is enough land in the Selkirk Mountains to manage for caribou and recreational use."

Here is a follower. a recent article on the issue from the Statesman's Rocky Barker.

And here is the letter from the senators:

We write to express our concern with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (“Service”) proposed designation of 375,562 acres of critical habitat for the Southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou. This proposed critical habitat covers nearly 600 square miles and includes land located in Boundary and Bonner counties in Idaho and Pend Oreille County in Washington State.

The proposed designation will significantly impact the public’s access to federal, state and private lands for recreation and other purposes, as well as disrupt economic activities associated with natural resources in the rural communities located within the designated habitat. To minimize the negative consequences of such a large designation, we urge the service to consider a more practical approach to habitat for woodland caribou that utilizes the best available science to balance the recovery needs of the species with the human needs on the landscape.

With regard to a smaller critical habitat designation, we agree with the Idaho State Department of Fish and Game’s assessment that because only two caribou were found in Idaho the same year they were listed, the service cannot justifiably designate 375,562 acres as critical habitat as caribou were occupying only a small northern portion of those lands at the time of listing.

Critical habitat is defined in Section 3 of the ESA as “the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed.” With this section in mind, we would expect that once the Service completes its analysis that this proposed designation will be more representative of the distribution of and population of caribou at the time of listing.

Finally, as with all federal actions that have the potential to negatively affect lives of Idahoans and all Americans, we urge the Service to give all due consideration to the concerns of affected stakeholders as you move toward a final determination on critical habitat designation for the woodland caribou.

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