By Kristin Butler (originally published by Indian Country Media Network)
In 2009, on Kootenai tribal territory in the Idaho Panhandle, the last remaining caribou in the contiguous United States took a severe drop from 46 down to 12 animals. Those same dozen caribou continue to roam the Selkirk mountain range near the Canadian border.
RELATED: Caribou Is the Canary in the Coal Mine
A recent article in The New York Times illustrates the severity of the situation, referring to the species as “America’s gray ghosts.”
Last year, the Kootenai Tribe began leading efforts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners — the states of Idaho and Washington, British Columbia, the U.S. Forest Service, the Kalispel Tribe, and the Ktunaxa Nation — to devise a plan to save the Selkirk caribou from extinction.
“Seven years ago, we weren’t having this discussion. We had 46 animals, they were reproducing, and things were going good. And then the population fell off a cliff,” Norm Merz, wildlife biologist for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, told Indian Country Today Media Network.
Merz largely attributes that drop to heavy predation by wolves and cougars. Caribou face another chief disadvantage: they’re slow reproductive creatures.
Whereas other hoofed mammals called ungulates, including deer, elk and moose, generally reproduce during their second year of life, caribou aren’t typically reproductive until their third year. And caribou only produce one calf.
“A species with low reproduction has to compensate by having longevity in the adults,” Merz said. “With caribou, what we’re seeing in the Selkirks and actually throughout most of southern British Columbia is our animals are succumbing to predation, and so they’re not living as long, and they don’t reproduce fast, and therefore the population is declining.”
Shortly after birth, caribou calves struggle to their feet and begin following their mothers. Despite their early mobility, many quickly meet their death due to predators or natural causes, according to a report by the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks.
The Kootenai Tribe plans to implement maternal penning, “in which we would capture the females in the herd and bring them into a predator-free enclosure around March. That would allow them to calve, get their calves good and strong, and sometime around July or after we would release them back into the wild.”
The operation would be modeled on several successful pilot projects tested in British Columbia and in the Peace River region near Alberta, home to the Little Smoky caribou herd.
But the most effective method of caribou protection has been wolf management. “Since British Columbia implemented the wolf management in caribou habitat, we haven’t documented any additional wolf mortalities,” Merz said.
Canadian government sharpshooters are eliminating wolves that invade caribou habitat from helicopters. Just 19 wolves have been killed in the Selkirk mountain range thus far. Merz stresses that wolves are only shot when caribou fatalities are a risk.
“British Columbia is tracking animals” with GPS-equipped radio collars, he said. “So they’re monitored and not removed. The animals that move into caribou habitat that pose a threat are removed. It’s not an ‘every wolf is bad’ situation. It’s: ‘We’ve got to try and limit mortality of caribou, and this is one way we can do it.’”
Unlike the caribou herds that migrate across the barren Alaskan tundra, southern mountain caribou live in small, localized groups, Merz explained. They stick to high terrain, dense with old-growth forest, which offers heavier lichen loads, and the trees intercept snow. Perhaps most importantly, the thick woods allow caribou to avoid predators — most commonly wolves, cougars, bears and wolverines — that generally prey on other ungulates that live in areas with younger forests or clearings.
“They don’t migrate, other than some elevational migration during different seasons,” Merz said. “They pretty much stay in the same general vicinity.”
Thus, it’s a particularly vicious cycle when their caribou country is devastated. Logging, mining and resource extraction are common ways man destroys caribou habitat.
The below video of Selkirk caribou on Kootenai tribal territory by Bryce Comer with Conservation Northwest explains the interrelated issues.
“When the habitat is modified through logging or large-scale forest fires, you’re talking 150 years for that to regenerate to provide caribou habitat,” Merz said. “And in that 150 years, while it’s re-growing into caribou habitat, it’s providing for deer, elk and moose along the way, which is drawing predators into the higher [elevated caribou] country.”
Despite extreme challenges, Merz remains an optimist that revival efforts will prove successful. “I think it’s very possible to get to a self-sustaining population, but it’s going to take work, it’s going to take effort, and it’s going to take money. But I think it’s possible, and I think it’s realistic to think so.”