SALMON, Idaho — A Native American tribe in Idaho has been assigned the task of drafting a plan for saving a tiny band of wild reindeer from extinction in a far corner of the northern Rockies straddling the U.S.-Canadian border, federal wildlife officials said on Friday.
A population of woodland caribou now numbering just 14 in the remote Selkirk Mountains has been at the center of a protracted fight among conservationists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and groups promoting recreational use and logging in the creatures’ alpine habitat.
First listed as an endangered species in 1984, they are the only wild reindeer of their kind left in the Lower 48 states, though they are close cousins of caribou that roam northern Alaska in large herds.
Under a rare agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kootenai Tribe of northern Idaho will receive $35,000 to draft an updated recovery plan for the Selkirk caribou, which rely on old-growth forests in elevations above 4,000 feet for a winter diet of lichens.
Possible recovery measures could range from restoration of habitat fragmented by logging, wildfires and snowmobile trails to control of wolves and other predators, said Kim Garner, chief of recovery for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Boise.
The tribe’s plan will receive input from a number of entities, including state and federal wildlife officials and two Idaho counties that have opposed habitat protections that would curb recreational and commercial activities.
The Kootenai agreement comes after tribal members approached U.S. wildlife managers to voice their interest in the reclusive caribou’s fate, Garner said.
Tribal Chairman Gary Aitken Jr. hailed the partnership as one that “saves costs and achieves conservation more efficiently and effectively.” The tribe has until Aug. 17 to draft the proposal.
A Fish and Wildlife Service proposal in March to downgrade the status of the dwindling herd from endangered to threatened drew opposition from conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity.
Also in March a federal judge ruled the agency violated U.S. law in 2012 by cutting the amount of public land designated as critical reindeer habitat to 30,000 acres, down from 375,000 acres, without sufficient public notice and input.
The center’s Noah Greenwald said the caribou face extinction without stronger habitat safeguards and possible augmentation of the herd. He also said he knew of no other instances of an Indian tribe being put in charge of drafting a recovery plan for an endangered species.