Male caribou in Alaska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
BOISE (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot use Canadian land to claim that it's providing enough habitat for endangered caribou, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said Fish and Wildlife must reopen its final rule for designated caribou habitat for public comment.
The Center for Biological Diversity led a lawsuit filed by several environmental groups against the federal agency, challenging its 2012 final rule designating more than 30,000 acres in Washington and Idaho as critical habitat for the southern Selkirk Mountains population of woodland caribou, also known as the Selkirk Mountain Caribou.
The species was listed as endangered in 1983.
The groups claim Fish and Wildlife modified the criteria in a 2002 draft final rule that would have designated some 227,000 acres as critical caribou habitat. The new criteria raised the base habitat elevation from 4,000 to 5,000 feet and did not designate any unpopulated areas.
Of greatest concern was that the agency also revised the geographic area of occupied habitat, using Canada's habitat designation as justification to drastically reduce the designated habitat in the United States to only 30,010 acres. The groups say the significantly reduced area will not allow for full recovery of the species in the United States.
They sued under the Administrative Procedure Act, alleging violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Fish and Wildlife claims that its decisions and actions fully complied with the "applicable standards and requirements of the ESA."
But Lodge found that Fish and Wildlife skipped an important part of the process by not opening up the process for public comment.
"The final rule reveals that the FWS made a fundamental and dramatic change in reasoning based on materials not previously discussed or cited in the proposed rule," Lodge wrote in a 26-page order. "Recognizing that the caribou are occupying more land in Canada is one thing. Relying on protected Canadian lands as a basis for overhauling the amount of occupied habitat proposed for designation in the U.S. was a new and unanticipated line of logic, which the public did not have an opportunity to review and comment on."
He ordered the agency to cure the deficiency.
"The court finds that the FWS failed to provide the public with the requisite opportunity to review and comment on the final rule," Lodge wrote. "As such, the court will remand this matter to the FWS for it to cure the procedural error in regards to affording the necessary public comment period and consider anew the critical habitat designation in light of those comments."
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