BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to scale back the acreage it wants to set aside in northern Idaho and eastern Washington as critical habitat for the rare woodland caribou.
The agency announced Tuesday the designation of 30,100 acres in Idaho's Boundary County and Washington's Pend Oreille County as critical habitat to help improve conservation of the species. The agency initially proposed more than 375,000 protected acres, but modified its plans after taking public comment and reconsidering population data at the time the species was given protections under the Endangered Species Act in 1984.
"Thoughtful inquiry and scientific information was presented to us," said Brian T. Kelly, the agency's Idaho supervisor. "Because of this, we have a modified rule that adheres to policy, is responsive to issues raised by others and most importantly addresses habitat for caribou conservation."
Woodland caribou are struggling to survive in habitat south of Canada and only four were tallied in the region encompassing northern Idaho and eastern Washington during an aerial census last winter.
To protect its habitat and bolster populations, the service proposed a special habitat stretching across 600 square miles, an area that also included Bonner County. But that plan and restrictions that would be imposed on the region angered recreation groups, loggers and local government officials.
Idaho's congressional delegation also got involved, complaining that the proposed habitat map was overreaching and infringed on human activity in the forest and backcountry.
But the agency's changes earned praise Tuesday.
"I am pleased the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listened to the public outcry regarding the impacts this expanded critical habitat designation would have had on people's livelihoods," said U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, a Republican.
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, also a Republican, said the agency acted "appropriately" in modifying its proposal to better balance the needs of humans and rare species.
It's unclear, however, what the reduced habitat decision means for a lawsuit filed in federal court related to caribou and its protected status.
Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association sued the U.S. Department of Interior earlier this month, asking a federal judge to lift ESA protections for the caribou. The groups, along with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group, petitioned the federal government earlier this year claiming ESA listing is unwarranted.
"We're still going forward with our lawsuit to require the service to respond to our petition, said Daniel Himebaugh, an attorney for PLF. "If our lawsuit is successful, then there will be no need for critical habitat designation at all."
The rule becomes effective 30 days after it's published in the Federal Register.