SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Environmental groups said Wednesday they plan to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to prevent the recent loss of the last herd of mountain caribou in the Lower 48 states.
The handful of remaining animals were relocated into Canada last November, ending decades of efforts to save the southern Selkirk Mountains herd, which were located in a remote part of northern Idaho and Washington state.
The lawsuit would seek to blame the Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to designate protected habitat for the animals.
"Fish and Wildlife Service officials sat on their hands for decades while the last wild caribou in the lower 48 states went extinct," said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue along with Defenders of Wildlife and The Lands Council.
The environmental groups want to establish protected caribou habitat as part of an effort to return the animals in the United States. "With the right protections in place we can bring them back," said Jason Rylander, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.
Mountain caribou, also known as reindeer, are sometimes called Grey Ghosts because of how rarely they are seen. They once roamed a broad area of the Lower 48, including the northern Rockies in Washington, Idaho and Montana, the upper Midwest and the northeast.
Mountain caribou have hooves the size of dinner plates that act like snowshoes. The animals can survive all winter eating lichens found on the branches of old-growth trees.
But their habitat was increasingly fragmented by roads and other development over the decades. Plus, the increased popularity of snowmobiles meant more people infringed on the caribou's alpine habitat.
By 1983, when they were first protected under the Endangered Species Act, caribou were limited to just the northern Rockies and declining fast.
In the 1990s the Fish and Wildlife Service expanded the Selkirk herd by bringing caribou down from Canada, which helped the population grow to more than 100 animals.
But the effort was eventually abandoned and the Selkirk herd went into decline. The movement of wolves into their habitat in 2009 speeded the decline.
In 2011, the FWS proposed designating more than 375,000 acres of critical habitat for caribou in Idaho and Washington.
But the next year, the agency approved a designation that included only about 30,000 acres of habitat.
This massive cut in critical habitat was successfully challenged by the environmental groups, but the FWS has yet to issue a new proposal.
Biologists hope to breed the few survivors of the southern Selkirk herd, held in captivity north of Revelstoke, British Columbia, and that eventually those animals will enter the United States.