By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - U.S. wildlife managers on Tuesday sought further public comment on whether to reclassify woodland caribou that have all but disappeared from their natural range in the lower 48 states as threatened, a downgrade from their current status of endangered.
A tiny population of caribou, also known as wild reindeer, inhabits parts of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington state in the remote Selkirk Mountains that straddle the U.S.-Canadian border.
Threatened by activities such as logging and snowmobiling, as well as predation by wolves and mountain lions, their number was estimated at 14 this year, from 17 last year, said biologist Byron Holt of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal agency last year proposed changing the protections for the reclusive caribou.
It said on Tuesday it was obliged to reopen the proposal to public comment until April 23 after Canada decided recently to classify the animals, which criss-cross the border, on its territory as endangered, an upgrade from a previous classification of threatened.
The action came a day after a U.S. judge in Idaho found the agency violated federal law in 2012 when it cut the amount of public land designated as critical reindeer habitat to 30,000 acres, from 375,00 acres, without sufficient public notice and input.
The finding by the court, which ordered the agency to restart the public review process, stemmed from a legal challenge filed in 2013 by the Center for Biological Diversity and five other conservation groups.
The question of whether commercial and recreational activities should be restricted in areas the caribou depend on has become a flashpoint for groups such as the BlueRibbon Coalition, a national nonprofit in Idaho that promotes off-road vehicle and other forms of motorized recreation, and the Pacific Legal Foundation, which advocates for limited government.
Holt said the remaining caribou can be saved from extinction, but it may require measures such as killing wolves.
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for Biological Diversity, disagreed.
"The highest priority is augmenting the herd with more animals and protecting their habitat from snowmobiles," he said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Ken Wills)