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Caribou preservation project stikes the perfect balance
Published 12/6/2012 6:00:00 AM
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Welcome to Idaho’s wildlife wars.

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 30,000 acres as critical habitat for woodland caribou in northeastern Washington and northern Idaho, according to The Spokesman-Review. The 30,000 acres designated constitutes less than a tenth of the 375,000 initially estimated.

The service’s decision has satisfied few, except for maybe the caribou. Once again, both feel-good environmentalists and the great outdoorsmen have plenty to say at the expense of common sense.

Although the correct decision is not always the most supported, the choice to facilitate recovery of the fast dwindling caribou herd is backed by science and demonstrates an informed compromise between the environmentalists and the outdoorsmen.

The decision failed to content certain major players. Environmental protection agencies and recreational advocates made some of the loudest arguments.

Environmental protection agencies balked at the appropriation of what they said was a minimal amount of land. Hikers and snowmobilers ground their teeth, saying the creation of a critical habitat would come at the expense of recreational activities, according to the official U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposal.

Both of these arguments are critically flawed.

The acreage may be a tenth of the initial figure but it is far more reasonable. Only four caribou were sighted in the United States portion of the southern Selkirk mountain range in 2012.

However, the caribou must have sensed the frustration of restricted snowmobilers because they soon migrated back to Canada. The herd of 27 is documented to prefer residency just across the Canadian border.

This preference could be for a number of reasons. Maybe Canadian grizzly bears are nicer than the American variety, or, maybe the Canadian habitat is far more suitable to the caribou’s needs. The alpine forests are critical to caribou, which feed on lichen of old-growth trees.

30,000 acres is about 46.9 square miles. In comparison, Pullman is approximately 9 square miles. If all 27 caribou decided to occupy the northern Idaho portion of the Selkirk mountain range, each animal would receive 1.73 square miles unto itself. If the four caribou sighted decide to return for a quick trip, they would individually see a range of over 11 square miles, which trumps the size of Pullman.

The current critical habitat of 30,000 acres would not be able to sustain permanent residency and growth of the whole caribou herd, but at this point that argument is not relevant. If the herd migrates back to the United States, the decision will need revision.

It might feel good to these environmental agencies to give 375,000 acres to the caribou. Unfortunately, it goes against common sense.

I tend to agree with Idaho’s congressmen, who said the original plan was overreaching, according to The Seattle Times. I disagree, however, with their opinion that it will infringe upon human activities in the backcountry.

Fish and Wildlife has repeatedly said hikers and campers would not see any restrictions in access to the critical habitat. Only snowmobilers would, as their motor vehicles cause damage to the old-growth trees that constitute the caribou’s diet.

The backcountry of Washington is beautiful, and many Washingtonians enjoy camping or hiking to some extent. There is no shortage of trails and suitable places to snowmobile in either northern Idaho or northeastern Washington.

Go find somewhere else to snowmobile. 30,000 acres is a small price to pay for the conservation of a magnificent species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan is commendable. They consulted with caribou and forest experts, researched using papers from peer-reviewed journals and sought responses from local and federal agencies. The 192-page plan considers everything, from the optimal elevation for caribou for each season to how wildfire prevention methods would affect suitable vegetation for the caribou.

While the proposal addresses concerns of environmental agencies and the general public, it puts the wellbeing of the woodland caribou first.

The plan was never about playing into environmental politics, or opening the habitat up to destructive snowmobiles. It was about propagating the continuation of an endangered species, and it does so perfectly.

-Corrine Harris is a junior animal science major from Edmonds. She can be contacted at 335-2290 or by opinion@dailyevergreen.com. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of Student Publications.

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