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Last stand for America’s rarest mammal

From the Summer 2018 Issue

Photo by David Moskowitz

After devastating loss, tiny caribou band needs help to survive

Since the first explorers and settlers came here, the mountains of northern Idaho have held a small population of mountain caribou—probably the rarest large mammal in the U.S. With their oversize hooves adapted for walking in snow, distinctive antlers and gentle appearance, this subspecies of North American reindeer is rarely seen even by the most ardent outdoorsmen.

The tiny herd that lives in the southern Selkirk Mountains, which roams much of the year north into Canada, has barely clung to survival for years. In 2017, the annual survey counted 11 caribou.

This spring brought even worse news. Aerial surveys counted just three caribou, all cows and none pregnant. Biologists don’t know what may have killed most of the band, but the caribou thrive in the high snowy mountains in winter and some guess that an avalanche could have decimated the herd.

With only three remaining, a story in the New York Times in April reported the caribou as “functionally extinct.”

Not so fast, say local Indian tribes and conservation groups who have been fighting for caribou recovery for years. The groups that form the Mountain Caribou Initiative in late April declared, “it most certainly is not ‘game over.’”

This past winter the Kalispel Tribe had high hopes to begin a maternal penning project, in which pregnant caribou cows would be captured and kept in the security of a 19-acre  enclosure to birth and rear their calves before release back to the wild. That project is still possible for next year, said Mike Lithgow, Kalispel outreach coordinator. However, he noted, as the herd spends much of the year in Canada, wildlife agencies in British Columbia will have to decide how to move forward.

Cheryl Moody, executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, echoes the importance for both Canadian and U.S agencies to sign on to continued recovery efforts. And she wants citizens who share concern to get involved. “We encourage everyone to raise their voices in support of the caribou—in both the U.S. and Canada,” said Moody.

Officials with the lead U.S. agency in caribou recovery give positive signals that the effort is not over.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is an active participant in the conservation and recovery of both the South Selkirk herd and the southern mountain caribou,” said Sarah Levy, USFWS public affairs officer. “The conservation of this species is a binational, collaborative effort, and we are working closely with multiple partners in Idaho, Washington, Canada, and Tribes and First Nations.”

That it is a matter of international significance reflects the history of the woodland caribou. They were once plentiful not just here in Idaho but along the northern tier states of the U.S. In the early 1800s, Maine had as many as 5,000 caribou, but they were reported driven extinct by 1838. In northern Minnesota the species—distinct from the caribou that roam the tundra of Alaska—may have numbered up to 10,000 animals but was considered wiped out after a final lone bull was spotted in the 1940s.

So far, the Idaho herd has avoided that fate—but just barely. “We will not give up hope and we ask others to join us in this,” said Moody.

For further information:

Mountain Caribou Initiative:

Kalispel Tribe:

Kootenai Tribe:

Selkirk Conservation Alliance:

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