A caribou or reindeer photographed in Kebnekaise, Sweden. The species is dwindling in Washington and Idaho.

Caribou Crisis Sparks Familiar Economy-vs.-Environment Debate


There are fewer than 50 woodland caribou left in the lower 48, and the U.S. government is considering drastic measures to save them. According to an Associated Press report, 600 square miles of Idaho and Washington could be designated as "critical habitat" for the caribou.

This plan is meeting resistance; at a recent public hearing in Coolin, Idaho, a crowd described as "200 angry people" made their feelings known. "Please leave northern Idaho alone," said a speaker affiliated with the Tea Party.

The areas affected face a strange contradiction: The conservative population is suspicious of government overreach, yet the land is government-owned. Of the 375,000 acres that would be designated as critical, just 15,000 is privately owned. Critical aspects of the local economy, such as hunting, snowmobiling, and tourism, depend on access to the national park land, and residents worry that regulations or restrictions could be fatal to a tourist draw like snowmobiling, already down 70%. "Snowmobilers don't go where they are not wanted," said Bob Davis, a resort owner and 30-year resident. "These people will ride someplace else."

Caribou, also known as reindeer, aren't only facing tough times in America. The Gorge River herd of Quebec and Labrador, Canada, has declined by an estimated 92%.

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