Caribou have been disappearing from the lower-48 states for the past century.
PHOTO: ALAN D. CAREY
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."