By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - In a far corner of the northern Rockies dwells a dwindling band of reindeer so few in number they could hardly pull a sleigh, and environmentalists say a government plan to safeguard the elusive creatures' habitat offers them little hope.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday unveiled a final version of its habitat-protection rules for the last U.S. woodland caribou, popularly known as wild reindeer, that reduces the amount of land the government plans to set aside for the endangered animal by more than 90 percent.
The agency had proposed designating 375,000 acres of old-growth forests in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington state as critical habitat for the caribou, restricting commercial development and other human activities there.
But the final designation, which goes into effect on December 28, scales back that designation to 30,000 acres. Just 27 woodland caribou are known to exist in the Selkirk Mountains, which straddle the U.S.-Canadian border, but only four were counted this winter on the U.S. side.
The Selkirk reindeer, close cousins of the caribou that inhabit Alaska, were first listed as an endangered species in the 1980s.
The reduction from the original critical habitat proposal came after Idaho's Republican leaders and groups promoting the use of public lands for motorized recreation and commercial operations objected to protections they said would limit such activities as logging, hunting and snowmobiling.
Bryon Holt, a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency's downsizing was based on a revised lower estimate of occupied habitat by a much-reduced herd.
Conservationists decried the decision and said they were considering a lawsuit to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to save the Selkirk reindeer from likely extinction.
"It's the rarest animal in this country and the Fish and Wildlife service is just writing it off," said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council in Spokane, Washington.
It is unknown how many of the reclusive woodland mammals once inhabited the high country of Idaho, Washington and British Columbia, but their numbers had dwindled to 30 when they were formally added to the federal endangered species list in 1984.
Unlike other types of caribou, some of which live in Alaska, the Selkirk herd inhabits elevations above 4,000 feet and rely on old-growth forests for lichen, a chief source of food, and protection from predators.
The greatest threat to survival of the animal is fragmentation of its territory by logging, wildfires, road-building and recreation trails, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)