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The Rarest Mammal
Like ghosts, the last of America’s woodland caribou haunt the snowy mountains along the Canadian border with Idaho and northern Washington State. The herd that spends much of its time in British Columbia totals just 1,900, and is declining largely due to the logging of its forest habitat. In the United States the caribou numbers just 41, making it the rarest mammal in the Lower 48. In recent winters as few as two or three individuals have visited the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, leading scientists to consider the woodland caribou the most endangered large mammal in the United States.

Since 1984 these elklike ungulates have been protected under the Endangered Species Act, but national and local conservation groups complain that the federal government still lacks an adequate recovery plan. In 2006, for the second year in a row, a coalition of environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, sued the U.S. Forest Service to keep snowmobiles off 300,000 acres of federal land identified as crucial habitat for woodland caribou. In September Robert Whaley, a U.S. District Court judge, issued a 31-page ruling that declared “snowmobiling within the caribou recovery area presents a definitive threat to the future harm of caribou.” Then, two months later, after closing the entire area, Whaley modified his ruling and approved a U.S. Forest Service plan that allows snowmobiles access to critical portions of the recovery zone.

Motorized vehicles force caribou to move around, causing them to burn calories they very much need in the deep of winter. Snowmobiles can also displace the animals from the most productive habitat and block migratory pathways. 

Caribou, which are closely related to the European reindeer, can weigh up to 500 pounds and stand more than four feet tall at the shoulder. Unfortunately, they are also among the least prolific breeders of the ungulate order, and it can take up to four years for them to reach sexual maturity.

Attorney Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West, who represents the conservation groups that filed suit, says she was surprised by Judge Whaley’s about-face. “This is a definite setback from the earlier ruling,” says Rule. “Considering that there are not many caribou left, we would have hoped that the government would do everything it can to protect the animals and the habitat.”—Dan Oko

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