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Posts Tagged ‘Selkirk Mountains’

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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