May 19, 2016

PLF comments on caribou critical habitat

By Jonathan Wood Attorney

This week, PLF filed comments, joined by Bonner County, Idaho and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association (ISSA), on the Service’s proposed critical habitat designation for the woodland caribou. The comment argues that the Service must address changes in the species’ status, which were brought about by a PLF petition challenging the earlier, illegal listing.

If you’re not familiar with the background, PLF filed a petition several years ago on behalf of Bonner County and ISSA challenging the listing of the Southern Selkirk Mountain population of caribou. We argued that the Endangered Species Act only permits the listing of “species” and that this isolated population didn’t fit the bill. In 2014, the Service acknowledged that we were right, the prior listing was invalid. However, it had designated critical habitat for the population in 2012. Rather than starting over from scratch, the Service proposed to list the woodland caribou (the subspecies containing the previously listed population) and “affirm” its earlier habitat designation for the new species. The Service never finalized that proposal, however. Then, last year, the critical habitat designation was struck down in an environmentalists lawsuit, for failing to give an adequate opportunity for public input.

In our comment, we argue that the Service should not simply reaffirm its earlier habitat designation. Because the woodland caribou is proposed for listing as threatened, rather than endangered, the analysis justifying the designation is no longer valid. Under what the Service calls an “incremental analysis,” it ignores most economic impacts during the habitat designation process, by attributing them to the statute’s take prohibition. This allows the Service to limit the impact of Congress’ command that the Service consider economic impacts when designating habitat and exclude areas where the costs exceed the benefits. Since the take prohibition does not apply to threatened species, like the woodland caribou, the incremental analysis is inappropriate for them.

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Bonner County v. Zinke

For decades, citizens of Bonner County, Idaho and members of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association have endured profound negative effects from the federal government’s listing of the Southern Selkirk Mountain caribou population. The local economy depends heavily on winter recreational activities that are significantly limited by trail closures related to the caribou. Over three years ago, the government acknowledged the caribou was not endangered and should never have been listed in the first place. And then it did…. nothing. The Endangered Species Act requires action within certain deadlines to delist species, and the government ignored all of them. PLF represents the residents of Bonner County and the snowmobilers in a lawsuit to force the government to follow the law and delist the caribou.

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