Indian Country Today Media Network covered the draft critical habitat designation proposed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) ("Caribou Crisis Sparks Familiar Economy-vs.-Environment Debate" ICTMN Staff February 6, 2012) without contacting the Kootenai Tribe, whose territory is affected by the designation. Unfortunately, this coverage exacerbates an already polarizing issue by falsely pitting the economy against the environment.
The Selkirk Mountain subpopulation of woodland caribou historically inhabited Kootenai Territory in what is now north Idaho, northeast Washington and southwest British Columbia. The subpopulation was emergency listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1983 with a final listing in 1984. The Canadian federal government listed the entire southern mountain population of woodland caribou under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2002. The Selkirk Mountain subpopulation is the southernmost subpopulation of woodland caribou that exists primarily in British Columbia and Alberta.
The ICTMN article and the linked Associated Press article take the legally and scientifically complex procedures of the Endangered Species Act and condense them at great detriment to the big picture. This opportunity could be used to educate the public about the ongoing process rather than simplifying it to an us-versus-them conflict.
The following is a brief explanation of the history of this ESA listing and the legal process currently underway:
The ESA requires designation of critical habitat that meets two separate requirements with two different temporal limits:
(1) The area must be within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed.
(2) The area must currently contain physical or biological features that are “essential to the conservation of the species.”
Generally, critical habitat is designated at the time of listing. In this case, however, the USFWS decided it was not prudent to do so and only recently revisited that determination in reaction to a lawsuit. In the meantime, the ecosystem and habitat have changed. Those changes include habitat fragmentation, but also include increased mountain lion populations and reintroduction of wolves as well as an increased human population.
The USFWS’s draft proposed caribou critical habitat designation does not take into account those changed conditions, because of the legal framework governing these determinations. But for people familiar with the changed conditions, including the Kootenai Tribe and its citizens, a draft proposed determination that caribou occupy 375,562 acres with a subpopulation of only about 46 animals comes as a shock.
You will notice that we use the terms "draft" and "proposed." Those terms are intentional as the USFWS proposal is just that, draft and proposed. One comment period recently ended and an additional comment period has been extended for sixty days. This affords the people affected by and who care about this determination an opportunity to educate themselves on the legal requirements of the critical habitat designation and, we hope, the bigger picture for caribou recovery.
The public comment period also allows individuals to make suggestions as to what critical habitat should be designated. There are some who question any federal government action and who will not be concerned with science or the law. There are many more community members, however, who are genuinely trying to understand the law, science and policy surrounding the designation and what it may mean for their future.
As this legal process is underway, what is not helpful is a limited focus on conflict between the extremes of the environmental debate. Most people care deeply about the caribou and would love to have a healthy subpopulation once again in the Selkirk Mountains. Most people also care deeply about preserving access to areas of the National Forests for recreation, conservation and other purposes.
The Kootenai Tribe and its citizens are part of this majority. We are working with our federal, state and provincial government partners and the community to restore a healthy subpopulation of woodland caribou. We also fight to ensure access to Kootenai Territory for Treaty reserved hunting, fishing and gathering and for cultural and religious practices. For while the land may be owned by the United States, it is still part of Kootenai Territory and the Kootenai Tribe has rights, interests and responsibilities on that land.
So, what next?
Good science is needed to make a proper critical habitat designation. The USFWS has put forth its draft proposal. It is now time for the Tribal and State fish and wildlife co-managers, in this case the Kootenai Tribal Fish and Wildlife Department and Idaho Department of Fish and Game, to study USFWS's science and come to our own conclusions.
The Kootenai Tribe is analyzing the USFWS draft proposal and will work with the agency, government-to-government, until (hopefully) we can come to a mutual agreement on critical habitat designation that meets the law and is based on sound science.
We know that our State partners at IDFG are doing the same. Through the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative and other efforts, the Tribe and the State hope to also educate the Tribal and non-Tribal community on our legal and scientific conclusions. We can thereby empower the public to comment on the USFWS draft proposal from a position of knowledge and strength.
What we ask of the media now is to step back and let the process work. If you must report on the issue, report on the law and the facts. Do not yet again create a conflict between economics and environment, because if you do in the end the caribou are what will be hurt the most.