The Disappearing Woodland Caribou of North America

Learn about the desperate efforts to save the few endangered woodland caribou that remained in the lower-48 states in 1986.
By David Petersen
January/February 1986
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Caribou have been disappearing from the lower-48 states for the past century.
PHOTO: ALAN D. CAREY
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Here's a thought to chew on: If you were a wild ungulate attempting to earn a wintertime living off barren, snow-blanketed terrain, what the heck would you eat? Think about it: There'd be no summertime grasses, sedges, or forbs to graze, and no brush to browse; nothing in sight but snow, ice, and cold, cold rocks.

Give up? Well, woodland caribou — the wild Ungula­ta in question — can't afford to give up, so they eat those scaly little symbiotic relation­ships between algae and fungi that we know as lichens. In the far north of Canada and Alaska, the Barren Ground subspecies paws down through the snow to reach its dinner (from which trait comes the name caribou, meaning "shoveler" in the Micmac Indian tongue), or gnaws lichens from the faces of exposed rocks.

Life is a bit easier for the woodland caribou subspecies, which inhabits the meteorologically more moderate, mature conifer forests extending from southern Canada down into the northwestern U.S. These animals have only to nibble at the arboreal lichen that hangs like cotton candy from the limbs of subalpine fir and old-growth Engelmann spruce. In this case, deep snow — it accumu­lates to a depth of up to 20 feet in some areas — is actually an aid to the caribou, since it serves as a step-ladder allowing them to har­vest high-hung lichens that would, in less se­vere weather, be out of reach.

The caribou (Rangifer tarandus) — the same species is known in Europe as the reindeer — came to North America via the Bering Land Bridge less than a million years ago. Exceed­ed in size only by its cousins the moose and elk, the caribou is the third-largest member of the Cervidae (deer) family, with the wood­land caribou (the largest of several subspecies) averaging 85 inches nose to tail, standing some 55 inches at the shoulders, and weigh­ing up to 400 pounds.

The caribou is unique among deer in that both sexes carry antlers, though the headgear of the bulls is larger, heavier, and more or­nate than that worn by the cows. A mature bull caribou's antlers are palmated (having tips that are broad and flat, roughly resem­bling a human hand with the fingers spread), with the main beams stretching to a maxi­mum length of 60 inches or so. But the most interesting and unusual characteristic of a bull caribou's antlers is the "shovel" — a broad, vertically palmated secondary beam that grows forward and down over the animal's brow, often extending as far forward as the tip of the nose.

In order for caribou to stay afloat as they move across deep snow and traverse the wet, spongy tundra that forms the Barren Ground species' summer range, nature has provided the animals with elongated dewclaws and out­sized, almost perfectly round hooves. Caribou are strong and intrepid swimmers, often plunging into the open ocean, where they ride high in the water and employ their broad hooves as paddles to propel them swiftly to offshore islands.

Hydro Quebec's Effect on North American Caribou Migration

But in spite of their remarkable seaworthi­ness, in late September of 1984, nearly 10,000 Canadian Barren Ground caribou were drowned when they became trapped in a disastrous coincidence of natural rhythms and technology-gone-awry. On or about the 25th of the month, the caribou's irresistible migrating instincts led them to attempt a crossing of Quebec's Caniapiscau River — just as that river was raging at its highest-ever-recorded level, because of an ill-­planned "venting" of an upstream reservoir managed by Hydro-Quebec, a government­-owned utility.

When the local Inuits — Canadian Indians whose social and economic weal, indeed very existence, have long depended on the caribou — arrived a few days later to begin clearing the banks of the receding river of its rotting mammalian flotsam, they counted the swollen and broken bodies of 9,864 caribou, the majority dead, but some still suffering the ter­minal agony of their injuries.

You may well have heard about that inci­dent, since it was prime meat for the nation­al news media (an old journalism saw reminds us of the paradox that "bad news makes good news"). But for all of its horror appeal and media attention — and in no way am I attempt­ing to play down the tragedy of the event­ —­ the loss of those 9,864 Barren Ground caribou from the 300,000-strong George River herd (the world's largest) is insignificant in com­parison to the magnitude of the caribou di­saster taking place right now in the Selkirk Mountains of the northwestern United States... a disaster which, because of its subtle rather than abrupt and dramatic progress, has been largely ignored by the major media.

Disappearing Woodland Caribou

I'm talking about the steady and accelerat­ing decline in the numbers of the last few — very last and very few — native wild caribou surviving in the contiguous 48 states... a population so tenuous and elusive that it has twice been declared extinct. Nonetheless, a few members of the unique mountain ecotype (race) of the woodland caribou subspecies are, at this very moment, feeding, sleeping, or in­souciantly chewing cud somewhere in the few hundred square miles of their Selkirk Moun­tain turf.  

Not much more than half a century ago, small herds of mountain caribou could be found scattered across many of our northern border states, east coast to west. But by the 1930s — because of unregulated shooting and habitat destruction via forest fires, commer­cial timbering, roading, and development­ —­ the animals had been extirpated from all but the most remote and pristine mountainous areas of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and northwestern Montana.

Today, even though an occasional caribou sighting is still reported in Montana — the most recent verified sighting (of two ani­mals) occurred in the Porcupine Creek area of the upper Yaak River in 1981 — and though an interagency group (The Montana Caribou Ecology Proj­ect, based in Kalis­pell) has been formed to study the possibili­ty that a resident herd of mountain caribou can still be accredited to the Big Sky state, and in spite of the fact that the woodland car­ibou technically is rec­ognized as a member of the wild ungulate community of Mon­tana, the official opin­ion (as voiced by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the U.S. Forest Service) is that Montana does not presently host a resident caribou population.

Rather, the occasional caribou sightings perhaps should be chalked up to the likeli­hood that small herds of the highly mobile animals make periodic swings south of the Canadian border, where they — or their tracks or other spoor — are sometimes spotted and reported. Nonetheless, a petition was recently submitted recommending that, just in case, the questionable Montana caribou population be given official protection as an endangered species (joining the Selkirk herd of Idaho and Washington, which received this status per­manently in 1984).

The Selkirk herd, on the other hand, iscon­sidered a resident south-of-the-border popu­lation — even though its mere 20-odd members comprise only a tiny fragment of the total 2,000-or-so North American mountain cari­bou (the other 99 percent of which make their home in British Columbia), and even though the herd regularly crosses the Canadian-U.S. border in its migratory wanderings.

As recently as 1950, the Selkirk herd num­bered 100 to 200 animals strong. But an aer­ial survey conducted in 1983 tallied only 26 caribou over the same range. In 1984 the number had risen to 28... only to drop back to 27 in 1985. And worse, this lone lower-48 caribou herd is now being steadily whittled down through poaching, accidental shooting (when overanxious and under-informed hunt­ers mistake caribou for elk or deer), relent­less habitat reduction (through timbering and residential development), road kills (since 1963, a paved, east-west highway — B.C. Highway 3 — has bisected the herd's range just north of the Idaho-Canada border), and a poor calf survival rate (possibly a result of inbreed­ing, since no new animals have been able to migrate south to genetically revitalize the geo­graphically isolated Selkirk herd in years).

Woodland Caribou Preservation

In the past half century, we've seen feder­al and state fish and game departments co­operate with private conservation and hunting and fishing organizations to bring about some remarkable comebacks of species that had been all but wiped out during the first three decades of the twentieth century (deer and wild turkey are prime examples). Can the same be done for the mountain caribou?

Perhaps. For one thing, the best caribou habitat in the northern Rockies is also prime grizzly bear habitat-and since preserving the seriously threatened lower-48 grizzly is currently much in favor with the American pub­lic, the mountain caribou is likely to gain coattail benefits from any habitat-preservation efforts made primarily for the big bear.

But steps are also being taken specifically in behalf of the Selkirk caribou. For exam­ple, the U.S. Forest Service is closely moni­toring the caribou situation in the primary-­habitat state of Idaho, and attempting to modify its timbering operations in areas that are critical to the survival of the animals (though many people concerned with the wel­fare of America's wildlife feel that when it comes to timber sales, the USFS is still far too often far too anxious).

Additionally, an effort is underway to edu­cate both the public in general and hunters in particular concerning the appearance, range, and needs of the Selkirk caribou. This is being undertaken through a mini media blitz consisting of newspaper articles, posters, warning signs and even videotape presenta­tions. Further, rewards are being offered for information about caribou shootings. Paral­lel efforts in British Columbia — whose moun­tain caribou population, though much larger than ours, is also de­clining — have includ­ed closing a part of the herd's range to all hunting, as well as prohibiting vehicular traffic on several key forest access roads.

But the single most promising effort to conserve and even re­plenish the Selkirk caribou herd is an am­bitious program being undertaken jointly by the University of Ida­ho, the Idaho Depart­ment of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the B.C. Fish and Wildlife Branch, and the B.C. Ministry of Forests. This program would transplant mountain caribou from Brit­ish Columbia to an area of choice, but pres­ently unoccupied, habitat northwest of Bon­ner's Ferry, Idaho.

The transplant, tentatively set to have be­gun in November of 1985 (it's October as I write this), is scheduled to take place at the rate of six to 12 caribou per year for three consecutive years, with the relocated animals being radio-collared and monitored for at least two years after release, and protected through intensive public education efforts backed by extensive law enforcement.

According to Gregg Servheen, a research biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the transplant program holds the potential to "double the caribou population in the Selkirks in three years, introduce new genes, and guard against a catastrophic reduc­tion of the tiny band of caribou in the Selkirks."

Let us hope that these preservation efforts, singly and in concert, work both quickly and well. Otherwise, the lower-48 caribou is likely to remain the most endangered large mam­mal we barely have... until someday it too could be lost forever, yet another flesh-and-­blood sacrifice to the graven gods of unre­strained human population increase, unneces­sary economic growth, and the general de­struction of nature that we euphemize and even glorify with the high-sounding term "progress." 


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