A battle is raging between preserving wildlife and a way life. US Fish and Wildlife wants to designate nearly 400,000 acres in Idaho and Washington as critical habitat for the Woodland Caribou. Many are concerned it will have a crippling effect on the local economy.
Second generation logger Tom Foust says the key to his survival is logging. It's a way of life, venturing into the forest, spending hours on end harvesting timber, supporting families and a community.
"Everyone one of those guys over there have a family here. Their kids have grown up and gone through the school system. It's small America. It's rural," Foust said.
But the way of life Foust and his fellow loggers depend on for their survival is being threatened by the Southern Selkrik Mountain Caribou, an animal that's endangered itself.
There are only around 45 left, traveling back and forth between British Columbia, North Idaho and Washington.
"There are very few caribou. That's why this animal is in danger. That's why it needs our protection. That's why it needs our management," Byron Holt with US Fish and Wildlife said.
This type of caribou was listed endangered in 1983. They stand at around four feet tall and about six feet long. Over the years, they suffered from logging, wildfires and road development. Now Fish and Wildlife is proposing designating a critical habitat that has met fierce resistance in North Idaho.
"I think they're going to find that the power of the people is much strong than the people in power," Bonner County Commissioner Mike Nielsen said.
The situation is pitting wildlife against the local economy.
"Oh here we go again," Foust said.
The proposed critical habitat spans around 375,000 acres touching Boundary and Bonner County in Idaho and Pend Oreille County in Washington. It's important to protect large contiguous old-growth forest where the caribou food, lichen, grows. Caribou also need large areas to survive so predators can't find them.
Fish and Wildlife says restricting vehicles and snowmobiling in certain areas is also crucial. Opponents, however, say recreational activities help drive this economy.
"This is the major winter activity in that area. People come up spend the night and buy gas, buy meals as well as ride and enjoy the outdoors as well as wee a lot of wildlife. This will go away," Commissioner Nielsen said/
Nielsen wants to protect the jobs and income in his county. He's worried protecting the caribou will mean threatening snowmobile trails.
"We the county have to get a permit from the state and the federal government, US Forest Service, in order to snowmobile groom those trails for snow mobile riders. That could easily be prohibited. That's the biggest fear and threat for the people that live in that area," he said.
But Fish and Wildlife says that's not their intention at all.
"The places that people can snowmobile today with the restrictions that are currently in place are the places they can snowmobile tomorrow if critical habitat is designated," Holt said.
"I understand folks' angst with this proposed designation because they see it as another federal regulation that's being imposed on their ability to access their land. But in this case it really is a redundant regulation."
In fact, much of the forest is already protected. For years, loggers have faced some restrictions within old growth forest. Fish and Wildlife doesn't expect any more restrictions because of the critical habitat but the problem is many people are just not willing to trust them.
"The folks from Bonners Ferry to Priest Lake, I've attended both meetings are very, very upset with this," Commissioner Nielsen said.
Right now, land within the recovery zone is protected from 4,500 feet and higher. Under the proposed critical habitat, that could drop to 4,000 feet. This could potentially impact loggers because of different boundaries. Fish and Wildlife says a lot of old growth is already off limits by the US Forest Service.
"I just don't believe that. It will impact us. Any time you take out, now that you are looking at 375,000 acres or what ever the number is in the end. It' is going to impact us," logger Ton Foust said.
So if Fish and Wildlife says there shouldn't be many changes, why even propose a critical habitat?
"The law requires to do that. This is a provision that's embedded within the Endangered Species Act," Byron Holt said.
Fish and Wildlife could have designated this habitat back in the 1980s but didn't, out of fear hunters would find and poach the caribou. By 2002 conservation leagues started demanding the designation.