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Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through Bonner County, a lot of creatures were stirring… because, well, both the Bonner County Commissioners and the Property Rights Council were both still holding meetings. Indeed, this week, the Bonner County Commissioners have an attack on caribou habitat scheduled, and the Property Rights Council will be discussing how to eliminate drinking water protections for county water supplies.

Monday night, the Bonner County property rights council promises a “Commencement of hearings on proposed watershed control ordinance.” In the meeting agenda (pdf), the chairman describes the ordinance as “a proposal to lay the foundation for new county wide compulsory controls on private lands for the benefit of public water system source water quality.”

Then, in a procedure typical of the PRC so far, the Council proposes to have a “discussion/decision” of how exactly the hearing will be conducted, after the “commencement of the hearings.” According to the proposed hearing process, the PRC “shall take testimony” on a specific sequence of subject matter topics, also noting that “The PRC places the burden of proof for new public controls on the proponents of public control. The Proponents must show public controls are necessary and must show that private alternatives are not likely to provide the necessary protections.” It is not entirely clear, however, why proponents would bother to participate in such a charade.

Meanwhile, on the caribou battlefront, the Bonner County Commissioners will attempt Tuesday to monkeywrench the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designation of critical habitat for the endangered Selkirk woodland caribou. With an overwhelming portion of the critical habitat on government-owned upper-elevation backcountry lands, and with none of the habitat on developed private lands, the Commissioners’ fit of pique appears to be mostly a knee-jerk reaction to anything federal government related.  The Commissioners are evidently demanding that the federal government “coordinate” with the county on the habitat designation where it might conflict with local land use priorities. Of course, the County’s own comprehensive plan acknowledges the caribou habitat, and most of the critical habitat land is already federally-owned, so it isn’t entirely clear where the local land use conflict is.

Whatever it is in the Bonner County government’s egg nog, we’ll pass.

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In response to a successful petition and lawsuit by some of our regional colleagues, last week the U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service released a mapping of critical habitat for the woodland caribou in the Selkirk Mountains. Some 375,500 acres are designated, most of which is in remote roadless areas in Boundary County, Idaho, with some lands designated in Bonner County, Idaho and Pend Oreille County, Washington. The tiny herd of Selkirk caribou — estimated to consist of about 46 animals — are probably the most endangered mammals in the continental United States.  Comments will be taken on the proposal through January.

In its news release (pdf), the Fish and Wildlife Service describe the habitat and why it’s important:

The southern Selkirk Mountains caribou is a member of the deer family, and it possesses unique biological and behavioral traits. It prefers high elevations above 4,000 feet and steep terrain with old-growth forests. Small groups of mountain caribou migrate seasonally up and down mountain ranges, rather than undertaking the mass group, long-distance migrations some species of caribou are known for. When winter snow deepens, mountain caribou feed almost exclusively on arboreal lichens that occur on old trees (typically 125 years or older), in high elevation forests.

and

The primary threat to the species’ survival is the loss of contiguous old growth forest habitats due to timber harvest and wildfires. Human activities such as road-building and recreational trails can also fragment caribou habitat and facilitate the movement of predators into the caribou’s range.

Indeed, like too many other species, woodland caribou were once found across much of the northern United States, but were forced from their habitats by old-growth logging, hunting and poaching, and roads. Now, their last habitat in the U.S. is under stress by disturbance from snowmobiles and winter recreation. For several years, our friends at Selkirk Conservation Alliance, a party to the caribou lawsuit, have performed aerial monitoring of caribou habitat confirming the threats.

According to the Lands Council, also a party to the lawsuit:

The conservation groups petitioned for critical habitat in 2002 and sued for the designation in 2009.  In 2005, the conservation groups challenged grooming of snow mobile trails into caribou habitat on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and obtained an injunction on snow mobile travel and trail grooming in a small portion of the forest that is essential for the caribou.  Much of that habitat has now been designated as critical habitat, ensuring these protections will be maintained.

The designation of critical habitat flows directly from the Endangered Species Act, serving the purpose of identifying geographic areas that contain habitat features essential for the conservation of a listed species. The primary legal effect is that critical habitat requires federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on federal actions that may affect critical habitat, federal agencies are prohibited from funding or authorizing actions that would adversely affect critical habitat.

For our friends at the Bonner County Property Rights Council, who have the caribou designation on their agenda for tonight’s meeting, USFWS points out that: the designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership; critical habitat is not the same as a refuge, a wilderness area or any other conservation area; it does not allow government or public access to non-federal lands; and a critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved.

In a statement, Mark Sprengel from Selkirk Conservation Alliance says, “The woodland caribou of the Selkirk Mountains are highly endangered and need this habitat protection to survive. Protecting the caribou means protecting the old-growth forests and wild places of the Selkirks, which are cherished by many.”

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To understate it a bit, grizzly bears have certainly been in the news a lot this summer in North Idaho. Two widely publicized incidents have left two grizzlies dead, one hunter dead, and more white-hot debate over the very rare large carnivore. If there’s a universal lesson about anything this summer, it might be that human-grizzly interactions are dangerous for humans and grizzlies alike.

After retreating from 99% of their original habitat range, grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 1975 in the lower 48 states.  Currently, grizzly bears are found only in a very few distinct areas in the western United States, but they include the Cabinet-Yaak range in North Idaho and northwest Montana, and the Selkirk mountains in North Idaho, northeastern Washington and British Columbia.

The number of bears in our two recovery regions is uncertain, but current estimates number from the several dozens to the several hundreds. To determine more precisely how many there are, a grizzly bear census may be coming to North Idaho next summer. Federal researchers plan to analyze DNA from hair samples captured at some 800 collection sites to be established across the Cabinet-Yaak Mountains in North Idaho and western Montana. Using DNA and mapping tools, researchers will be able to identify individual bears and their location. The 3-year study will cost more than $1.7 million.

A similar study in the region around Glacier National Park discovered more than twice the number of grizzly bears were roaming the area than were previously estimated. For this reason, much of the financial support for the North Idaho study is coming from some seemingly unlikely sources. Boundary County, Idaho and Lincoln County, Montana are chipping in. So too is Revett Minerals, which has mining interests in Troy, Montana, and has proposed the Rock Creek mine in the Montana Cabinet Mountains above Lake Pend Oreille. Why? Because if the study shows that the grizzly bear population is more robust here, then grizzly-related restrictions on mining and timber activities on federal lands eventually might be lifted.

But this research will provide only an initial baseline. Most important to bear recovery efforts will be the trend line over time.  Is the bear population increasing or decreasing? Is the biological genetic diversity of the bear population improving or not? A single census, therefore, is unlikely to prove much about the species’ recovery, regardless of the number of bears found.

Moreover, the one thing that grizzly bear research in North Idaho is already very clear about is that the leading cause of death for grizzly bears in the region is human interaction (PDF). More than 50% of grizzly deaths in the Cabinet-Yaak, and 80% of grizzly deaths in the Selkirks are a direct result of human interaction. Categories of human-caused mortality used by researchers included defense of life, management removal, mistaken identity, poaching, train or automobile collision, and “unknown but human caused” in which bears were shot but researchers could not determine the circumstances of the death or incidences of cut off radio collars where no carcass was discovered.

So, for the safety of the humans and the recovery of the bears, regardless of the outcome of the census, human-bear interactions will still need to be managed very carefully.

 

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The Bonner County Commissioners didn’t even blink when, yesterday, they approved the Sandpiper Shores subdivision on the north end of Priest Lake. The development crams 14 building lots on narrow uplands above a rare and valuable wetland habitat.  Ignoring several hours of testimony about wildlife impacts, wetland impacts, and legal inconsistencies, the Bonner County Commissioners unanimously allowed the development to move forward.

The 72 acre site contains more than 50 acres of undevelopable wetlands and highly important habitat. The developer, however, was given approval for a development density as if the entire site was developable. By doing so, the proposed site plan effectively chokes off wildlife passage to and from the wetland habitat. It also makes it impossible for the development to comply with setback requirements and wildfire protection guidelines that would have otherwise been required.

None of which bothered the Bonner County Commissioners for more than a half-second. What little deliberation that did occur focused on whether a proposed boardwalk to nowhere would be limited to “non-motorized” vehicles or, their favored, vehicles “without internal combustion engines.” Our congratulations to the Commissioners for arranging those particular deck chairs so nicely.

We expect that the Commissioners’ thin decision-making will lead everyone to a Bonner County courtroom. It was a bad decision for Bonner County, and a bad day for Priest Lake.

 

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On Tuesday evening in Sandpoint, the Bonner County Planning and Zoning Commission will hold a continuation of a hearing to approve the proposed Sandpiper Shores development at the northern end of Priest Lake. The proposal would take some 72 acres and subdivide it into 14 single family lots to include a boardwalk, beach and shared dock. The application clusters the development, purporting to protect some 56 acres of “open space,” most of which is unbuildable wetland.   At the initial hearing on July 19th, wildlife issues were at the center of debate.

In a letter submitted to Bonner County in April, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game was critical of the development, noting that the site is located in mapped moose range and includes white tailed deer winter range.  Also, the Department noted that black bear and grizzly bear are known to be present in the area, and the development would increase the potential for wildlife-human contacts.

This is significant because grizzly bears are federally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.  According to IDFG, “Loss of grizzly bears due to human related interaction is the primary mortality factor” for the bears and stalls their recovery. The Bonner County Comprehensive Plan’s Natural Resources Chapter (a huge pdf at page 5-27) says “Ideally, no development would occur in grizzly bear habitat.”

Moreover, according to IDFG, merely preserving open space acreage is not enough.

The high wildlife values of the wetland and winter range associated with the site make it clear that this development, as proposed, will negatively affect associated wildlife resources. While providing blocks of open space is generally commendable, reserving 56.94 acres of unbuildable mapped wetland open space will not mitigate habitat loss and disturbance associated with the development.

Indeed, the clustering of housing on the upland would ruin otherwise unfettered access by wildlife to the large “open space” wetland.  Of what use is open space to wildlife if the wildlife can’t get to it? Or no longer want to get to it? Or can’t get to it without risking human interaction?  Mark Sprengel from our colleagues at Selkirk Conservation Alliance noted that wildlife would probably just avoid the area altogether — meaning that the well-functioning wetland habitat “preserved” by the developer would still be lost forever.

As the Fish and Game Department wrote in an earlier letter regarding the development, “Each new rural subdivision displaces wildlife and permanently reduces the ability of Bonner County to support future wildlife populations.”  At this particular location, this loss is unacceptable.

UPDATE 8/3: The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-2 to approve the subdivision. The application now goes to the Bonner County Commissioners for their hearing and final decision.

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Often, our job seems like an exercise in futility. Today, KEA sent yet another set of comments regarding wolf management to Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game.  Shielded from lawsuits (maybe), the Department is free to push the state’s wolf management balance back toward extinction.

On the table at the quarterly meeting of the Fish and Game Commission’s meeting in Salmon this week, are hunting and trapping seasons for wolves that we believe go far beyond what would be reasonable and sustainable.  With no limits on taking wolves in some regions – including the panhandle – the plan isn’t really much of a plan.

Fundamentally, we continue to oppose a wildlife management philosophy that so strongly favors an un-endangered class of animals at the detriment of an endangered or threatened one.  The balance between predator and prey is one that will reach equilibrium naturally if left alone to do so.  Indeed, we think that predators should return naturally to their fundamental ecological roles instead of the heavy-handed human interventions to adjust nature to our preferences.

Nevertheless, we acknowledge the political desire for more active management. We would just prefer that management be based in facts, science, and transparent honesty.

The current stated target population for wolves in Idaho — 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs — is not based in science, but rather old school ideas about what minimal wolf populations should be.  Of course, Congressionally-established immunity from judicial review helps. Still, accepting arguendo the premise that there should be specific numeric targets, having no hunting quotas or limits whatsoever in certain zones is arbitrary and indefensible.

Idaho’s plan proposes tracking and monitoring wolf kills, with the Commission supposedly able to review and adjust the plan at its November and January meetings. But the plan gives no indication as to how the adjustments would be made, and under what criteria. Indeed, we suspect that there are secret harvest quotas in each of the no-quota zones, but that the Department and the Commission do not have the political courage to honestly announce them.

Instead, we have a season that quite literally relies on the failure of hunters. While complete extermination of a wolf population in a particular zone might be cheered by some, it would be a disaster for wolf management, and it would probably not survive federal scrutiny.  Even if there is reason to be emboldened by the recent Congressional intervention, the Commission should not so blatantly test the limits of federal interests if it wants to continue state control over wolf management in the long run.

Sure, other animals are managed without limits. But the Department’s rationalizing analogy to management of black bears and mountain lions, for example, is inapposite. Other species have longer histories of much more robust, stable populations, with well-established and similarly stable hunting seasons. Also, black bears and mountain lions are not as endangered.

To be completely clear, Kootenai Environmental Alliance is not opposed to sustainable management of sustainable wolf populations if such management is based in fact, sound science, and honest transparency. In this instance, though, Idaho Fish and Game has proposed no such plan.

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Idaho”s Department of Fish and Game has proposed an aggressive wolf hunting season to start August 30 and run through March of next year.  In addition, the agency is also proposing a trapping season (to allow both snare and foothold traps) from December 1 through February 15 through much of North Idaho.  The agency is not proposing “harvest limits” in the Panhandle, Lolo, Selway and Middle Fork Zones.  (See the coverage by the Coeur d’Alene Press, Spokesman-Review, and Idaho Statesman.)

This is, of course, why there are lawsuits. How does an agency “manage” a population if it doesn’t set numeric targets or limits?  But with Congress covering the agency’s metaphorical behind, IDFG seems to be happy to rely on the inability of hunters to actually kill the hard-to-find wolves as their sole management strategy.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission will consider the proposal at the quarterly meeting in Salmon starting July 27th. Send them your comments.

Update 7/12:  Idaho Fish and Game has posted a “survey” to take your comments.  It’s rigged, but feel free…

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