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Northwest's Remaining Reindeer Butt Heads With Snowmobilers

U.S. Fish & Wildlife

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho - The last herds of reindeer in the continental United States are found in the Northwest. But even here, there aren't very many left. 

Next week , federal wildlife authorities are expected to designate the animal's high-elevation stomping grounds as protected “critical habitat.” The move has riled another winter visitor to the area –- snowmobilers.

Reindeer — or caribou — used to be found along the northern tier of the U.S., from Washington, to Maine. But that is changing according to Bryon Holt, a biologist with U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

“All that we have left now are the ones that utilize a little bit of habitat in the extreme northeastern part of Washington state and the extreme northern Idaho panhandle.”

Holt says these caribou, found in the Selkirk Mountains, are a subcategory of the woodland subspecies of caribou. That particular animal is dwindling in Canada, and even fewer make it across the border.

But advocates for snowmobilers don’t buy the subspecies distinction.

“There are literally thousands of them, just north of the border,” says Mike Nielsen, a county commissioner in Bonner County, Idaho.

Nielsen says the local economy has already been hurt by restrictions on snowmobiling on federal land due to the caribou's endangered status. The county has joined the Idaho State Snowmobile Association in a lawsuit aimed at delisting the caribou.

On the Web:

Caribou species profile (US Fish & Wildlife Service)