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Lower 48's last herd of caribou fighting for survival - while snowmobiles & cougars prowl

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January 23, 2006  Last updated 12:57 a.m. PT

Last herd of caribou fighting for survival


SANDPOINT, Idaho -- In the frozen Selkirk Mountains near the Canadian 
border, the last tiny herd of caribou in the Lower 48 states is fighting 
for survival.

The less than three dozen remaining animals struggle with starvation, an 
increase of predators and, more recently, powerful snowmobiles that roar 
through their winter range.

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, whose members have been branded domestic 
terrorists by some snowmobilers. "I think these people are capable of 
extreme acts."

Critics contend snowmobiles disturb caribou during the winter, when they 
are already 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. Herds numbering in the hundreds of thousands still roam 
in Alaska.

Of the estimated 34 caribou in the south Selkirk herd, only three were 
spotted on the U.S. side of the border last winter.

That means the animals may be a lost cause in the area, said snowmobiler 
Tom Holman.

He says logging, wildfires and competition from other species caused the 
caribou decline, and the economic boost provided by snowmobilers to the 
tourist-dependent region should not be sacrificed.

"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 Spokane, Wash., banned 
snowmobile trail grooming for the rest of the season. Although the order 
did not prohibit snowmobiling, ungroomed trails quickly become rough and 

The conservation alliance had sued the U.S 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 50,000 acres of snowmobile play areas within 
the recovery area.

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, which have exploded in numbers. In turn, 
the population of predators, such as mountain lions, has increased.

"These predators find the caribou and they are easy prey," Sprengel said.

In Canada, the government has reached agreements with snowmobile clubs 
in that province to stay out of caribou habitat, Leo DeGroot of the 
British Columbia Ministry of the Environment said.

Similar efforts in the U.S. have failed, Holman said, because 
environmentalists want to completely remove combustion engines from the 

"We can't make ourselves extinct," he said.

The raw emotions involved were revealed in a recent op-ed piece by 
Holman in the Priest River Times newspaper, when he called 
environmentalists domestic terrorists.

"Bonner and Boundary County have been victimized by domestic terrorism," 
Holman wrote, "and the areas will feel the financial pains as the winter 
season continues."

Holman does not see his article as hostile. "It was honest," he said.

But the words worry Sprengel.

"If you call people terrorists, it makes it easy for a nut to take out 
the enemy for God and country," Sprengel said.


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