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Enviros Sue Over Caribou Habitat Ruling

BOISE, Idaho (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law by failing to designate enough habitat for woodland caribou in northern Idaho, environmental groups say in Federal Court.

The Selkirk Mountains span over 200 miles from Idaho's northern panhandle, near Coeur d' Alene, into Washington and southeastern British Columbia. Northern Idaho is part of the woodland, or mountain, caribou's natural range. The species is listed as threatened under Canada's Species at Risk Act and critically endangered in the United States, according to the Defenders of Wildlife, co-plaintiffs in the action.

Defenders, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Idaho Conservation League, Selkirk Conservation Alliance and The Lands Council have filed suit in Idaho's Fourth District, alleging the FWS is in violation of both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

The lawsuit stems from the FWS's final rule designating a fraction of its proposed critical habitat in the Selkirk mountains for a species the environmental groups claim requires "large contiguous areas of high-elevation, old growth coniferous forests with little or no disturbance from vehicles or other human activities."

The FWS's proposed rule designated 375,562 acres for the caribou, but decreased that number to a little more than 30,000 acres in its final rule, a reduction of more than 93 percent, the plaintiffs say.

The environmentalists allege the FWS, which listed the caribou as endangered, never wanted to designate habitat for the species, stating that such designation would increase the danger of illegal hunting and poaching. In 2002, a coalition of environmental groups petitioned the FWS to designate habitat. The FWS dragged its feet for seven years, forcing the coalition to file suit in 2009, resulting in a proposed rule for critical habitat.

Some modifications were made following public comment and a draft final rule was sent to Washington, D.C. for review. The modified proposed rule still consisted of a significant designation area of approximately 227,100 acres. The FWS, however, suddenly changed course after the August 2012 review in D.C., the plaintiffs charge.

"In early September, the service suddenly decided to significantly reduce the critical habitat designation," the complaint states. "It substantially reduced the amount of habitat it considered occupied and then determined not to include any habitat that was now considered unoccupied. Thus, the new recommendation eliminated all critical habitat in Idaho except a small area near the borders of Washington and Canada, resulting in just 30,010 acres of critical habitat compared to the 375,000 + acres originally proposed. The new recommendation would occur on federal land only, with no critical habitat on state or private land."

The environmentalists say the final rule leaves many questions unanswered.

"Specifically, the final rule failed to describe what a recovered southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou would look like in terms of population size and of geographic distribution," they explain. "It failed to explain or provide any support for the proposition that the small amount of occupied habitat supporting just 20-30 animals was adequate to ensure the recovery of the population and that designation of unoccupied habitat was not necessary."

The FWS also has failed to explain how the caribou can possibly recover without increasing its population and spreading out into unoccupied habitat.

"It simply stated that because the population had declined and its southern range had contracted, the unoccupied habitat was not essential to the conservation of the species," the groups say. "The service's final designation was not supported by best available science, including the opinions of its own biologists ..."

The environmental groups want the court to order the FWS to set aside its final rule and rewrite its critical habitat designation in compliance with the ESA and the APA.Lauren Rule of Advocates for the West, in Portland, Ore., and Jason Rylander of Defenders of Wildlife, in Washington, D.C., represent the plaintiffs.

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