America’s Gray Ghosts: The Disappearing Caribou
By JIM ROBBINS OCT. 3, 2016
At last count, there were about 1,354 mountain caribou in 15 subgroups in southern British Columbia.CreditDavid Moskowitz
BONNERS FERRY, Idaho — The only caribou left in the contiguous United States are here in northern Idaho where they number about a dozen and live deep in the forests of the jagged Selkirk Mountains, near the Canadian border. Because they are so rarely seen, the caribou — America’s version of reindeer — are known as gray ghosts.
They may very soon become real ghosts: These animals are among the most endangered species in the lower 48 states.
“Right now, predation is the biggest problem, primarily wolves and cougars,” said Norm Merz, a wildlife biologist with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, which has contracted with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to create a plan to revive the population. Not that long ago, hundreds of the animals lived in the United States.
Part of the problem is that the Selkirk herd is international. The caribou can be found in the snowy old-growth forests of Idaho and extreme northeast Washington, but spend about 90 percent of their time in southern Canada. The threat to the animals there is so serious that Canadian government sharpshooters began killing wolves from helicopters. In the Selkirk Mountains, they have killed just 19 so far.
Widespread wolf culls further north in Alberta are credited with saving theLittle Smoky caribou herd in the Peace River region. But the price was high: About 1,000 wolves were killed over a decade.
The Selkirk herd is not the only one so greatly imperiled. At last count, there were some 1,354 mountain caribou in 15 subgroups in southern British Columbia. Ten years ago, there were thousands. Today, all are in steep decline and listed as endangered in Canada, primarily because of wolves.
Wolf predation, though, is a symptom of a much bigger and far more difficult problem. The fundamental cause of the caribou decline is the unanticipated ecological consequences of development.
Behind a mountain caribou in B.C., a clear-cut section of forest. Habitat destruction from logging, mining and resource extraction activities threaten the animals. CreditDavid Moskowitz
The steep mountain forests where the caribou dwell are part of an inland temperate rain forest, a unique ecosystem characterized by frequent precipitation and the only one inland. The centuries-old cedar and hemlock trees, and the lodgepole and whitebark pi
For decades, the forest has been fragmented by clear-cutting, road building, oil development and mining. Where the forest has grown back, it is dominated by willows and other small trees favored by moose, deer and elk.
In 2009, wolf numbers began surging in southern British Columbia, northern Idaho and northeastern Washington, drawn to the abundant prey. The population of mountain caribou dived, including the Selkirk herd, which then numbered about 50.
Wolves focus primarily on moose and deer, but in the last two years, wolves have killed two caribou in the Selkirks; cougars killed another one. Yet another was killed by a car on Highway 3 in Canada, where salt on the road lures wildlife.
Canadian government hunters have killed entire wolf packs in the caribou’s range to keep the species from extinction. Government experts and some environmentalists say the wolf populations can easily withstand such aggressive hunting; some research suggests the culling actually stimulates wolves to reproduce more.
A large bull mountain caribou in late fall in British Columbia, Canada. Known as gray ghosts, the animals are among the most endangered species in the continental United States. CreditDavid Moskowitz
Drastic measures to protect the mountain caribou have also led to “maternity penning” — pregnant caribou are moved into a fenced enclosure that keeps predators out until the calves are old enough to fend for themselves and, hopefully, escape the wolves.
There are many other caribou around the polar region, among them the famous herds of tundra caribou that thunder across the Arctic. But the caribou at risk in southern British Columbia and northern Idaho are the last known to climb the wintry peaks of the Rocky Mountains in search of dangling strands of lichen called Old Man’s Beard.
Deep-snow caribou are burly, muscular ungulates, in shades of gray, white and dark brown, with unusually large antlers sweeping backward. They weigh as much as 600 pounds and have hooves the size of dinner plates, specially adapted keep them atop the many feet of snow at these elevations, where there are no predators.
Protection for the caribou is controversial in the United States partly because snowmobilers want to ride on the public lands that were to have been set aside for the endangered species. In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to set aside more than 375,000 acres of critical habitat for the caribou. Opposition to the plan forced officials to reduce that to some 30,000 acres.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of the Idaho Snowmobile Association, has petitioned the federal government to have the 12 remaining animals delisted as endangered on the grounds that there are others in Canada and that these are not genetically distinct.
But the Selkirk population is cut off from the hundreds of relatives farther north, primarily by roads, environmentalists say. Restrictions on snowmobile use and development in caribou habitat, they add, should be more rigorously enforced.
“It seems to me the U.S. federal and state governments have written off caribou,” said Joe Scott, the director of international programs atConservation Northwest, an environmental group in Washington State. “If you are serious about protecting and restoring caribou, why are you shrinking their habitat down to the size of a postage stamp?”
As it stands, the Selkirk herd will not survive, and biologists say augmentation of the population is desperately needed. But with caribou in steep decline throughout their range, officials elsewhere don’t want to give up animals.
And mountain caribou in the northern part of British Columbia simply don’t know how to travel to the high country to find lichen. When British Columbia caribou were exported to another endangered herd in the 1980s, 18 of the 19 animals died.
Biologists who work with the Kalispel and Kootenai Native American tribes are concerned that the caribou will disappear before they can act, and urge more aggressive support from the public and agencies.
“Wolves and grizzly bears suck up a lot of the money,” said Bart George, a biologist with the Kalispel tribe. “Where is the support for this charismatic species?”
Correction: October 3, 2016
An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to the Selkirk herd. They are the only caribou left in the contiguous United States, not the continental United States.