- Associated Press - Saturday, April 16, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Federal officials are seeking public comments on a plan to designate 30,000 acres of critical habitat for the last remaining herd of mountain caribou in the Lower 48 states.

It’s the second attempt by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after a federal judge rejected the same plan that reduced critical habitat in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington state from about 375,000 acres to 30,000.

The federal agency is taking written comments through May 19.

The agency said the area was reduced in size after it became apparent the caribou at the time of listing occupied the smaller area based on public comments.

“Few caribou have been observed in the U.S. in annual surveys,” said Kim Garner, chief of endangered species classification and recovery for Fish and Wildlife in Idaho. “When they are observed, they are close to the Canadian border.”

The herd in the lower 48 has been the focus of lawsuits by conservation groups who want more protections and other groups who contend the protected status limits use of the mountains and forests by humans for activities such as recreation and resource extraction.

The herd is thought to number fewer than 30 animals but interacts with a much larger herd on the Canadian side of the Selkirk Mountains.

The Center for Biological Diversity was one of the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit that led to the previous plan being rejected. The Center’s Noah Greenwald said the group would likely take legal action again if the 30,000 acres is approved.

“By reducing it to 30,000 acres they’re basically saying that they’re excepting defeat and giving up on recovery of caribou,” Greenwald said.

Fish and Wildlife in 2011 initially proposed 375,000 acres of critical habitat. Following 150 days of public involvement and meetings, the agency in 2012 reduced the area to 30,000 acres in Idaho’s Boundary County and Washington state’s Pend Oreille County.

Six environmental groups sued, and the federal court in 2015 ruled Fish and Wildlife hadn’t given the public an opportunity to review or comment on the plan.

The herd in the lower 48 is a transboundary herd that also moves into Canada and is currently listed as endangered, Garner said. However, Fish and Wildlife has proposed it be included with another 14 herds in Canada with that entire population listed as threatened.

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