The woodland caribou is the most imperiled large mammal in the United States -- there are three of them left.

A coalition of conservation groups charged yesterday in a lawsuit that the federal government has failed to protect the tiny herd, which has sought refuge in Canada from increased snowmobile traffic.

The endangered caribou, whose population began declining in the late 1800s and dropped to about 30 in the 1990s before reaching three in 2000, belong to a herd that ranges in northern Idaho, northwestern Washington and British Columbia. Although half their habitat is in the United States, the animals now spend almost all their time in Canada, where more than 1,700 woodland caribou live.

"Over the past five years, we have witnessed the near extinction of the woodland caribou in North America," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife. "Indeed, we're only down to three animals in the U.S., largely due to the government's mismanagement of snowmobile traffic in areas vital to the animal's survival."

Administration officials declined to comment on the matter, citing the pending lawsuit.

Blind voters in Vermont -- there are about 3,000 -- will have a new way to cast their votes in local, state and federal elections beginning next year.

The state is purchasing a system that will enable blind and visually impaired voters to register their votes on paper ballots using touch-tone telephones at polling places, according to Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz. Vermont will pay $525,000 to buy the system and software as well as $110,000 each year for maintenance, licensing and reprogramming.

Under the new system, a poll worker uses a designated telephone to call the system and gives the phone to the voter, who hears a computer read the ballot over the phone. The voter uses the telephone key pad to make selections, and the system then prints out a paper ballot that can be read by a machine or a person. The ballot is automatically scanned and played back for the voter, who can decide to cast the ballot or discard it and vote again.

The system meets the mandate of the federal Help America Vote Act, which requires states to expand the accessibility of their polling places by 2006. Vermont has received $16 million under the federal voting act to make improvements to its voting system.

-- Juliet Eilperin and Christopher Lee