Caribou in United States is fighting for survival | india | Hindustan Times
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Caribou in United States is fighting for survival

In the frozen Selkirk Mountains near the Canadian border, the last tiny herd of caribou in the contiguous United States is fighting for survival. The less than three dozen animals struggle with starvation, an increase of predators and, powerful snowmobiles.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2006 12:17 IST

In the frozen Selkirk Mountains near the Canadian border, the last tiny herd of caribou in the contiguous United States is fighting for survival. The less than three dozen animals struggle with starvation, an increase of predators and, powerful snowmobiles.

Conservationists have sued to ban snowmobiles from caribou habitat, and tension between the groups is rising. “There is no prospect for negotiation,” said Mark Sprengel of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. “I think these people are capable of extreme acts.”

Critics contend snowmobiles disturb caribou during the winter, when they are struggling to survive on low-nutrition lichen from old-growth trees. Modern snowmobiles have a wider range, allowing them to go deeper into caribou backcountry. The groomed snowmobile trails also provide surer footing for deer, and the cougars that prey on them, to enter caribou habitat.

Caribou were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1984, and are considered by some the most endangered animal in the Lower 48 states, Sprengel said. Of the estimated 34 caribou in the south Selkirk herd, only three were spotted on the US side of the border last winter.

That means the animals may be a lost cause in the area, said snowmobiler Tom Holman. “In winter time in the past, the resorts were closed and only one gas station was open,” said Holman, of Nordman, Idaho. “We created this economy from snowmobiling and cross-country skiing and we rely on it.”

But just before Christmas, a federal judge in Washington, banned snowmobile trail grooming for the rest of the season. Although the order did not prohibit snowmobiling, trails quickly become rough and impassable. The conservation alliance had sued the US Forest Service to force the agency to protect caribou. The ban covers about 77 miles of trails in the federally designated caribou recovery zone.

Caribou supporters say the ban leaves another 251 miles of ungroomed snowmobile trails and more than 50,000 acres of snowmobile play areas.
The noisy machines are not the only threat to caribou. Logging of old-growth forests, which the caribou depend on for lichen, has increased on state lands in Idaho and in Canada.

The logged land is ideal for white-tailed deer. In turn, the population of predators, like mountain lions, has increased. In Canada, the government has reached agreements with snowmobile clubs to stay out of caribou habitat.

Efforts in US have failed, Holman said, because environmentalists want to completely remove combustion engines. “We can’t make ourselves extinct,” he said.