Where have all the caribou gone?
Idaho’s last surviving caribou was trapped in a net and carried by helicopter from the Selkirk Mountains north into Canada on Jan. 14.
The British Columbia Ministry of Forests’s capture ended more than 35 years of conservation aimed at preserving the mountain caribou — the most endangered species in the United States. No longer will these remnants of woodland caribou, which once roamed throughout the Northern U.S., climb to the highest elevations of Idaho’s only rainforest.
This is what extinction looks like.
“It kind of happened with a whimper,” said Gregg Servheen, Idaho Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Coordinator. “It’s not for lack of trying.”
The capture of the lone female, along with two others, from the Purcell Mountains north of Bonners Ferry was the final act of an ecological drama that had many characters. The woodland caribou once lived as far south as the Salmon River, biologists said.
Many causes for endangerment
Forests were cut and burned. Deer that thrive in the brush that was left over moved in, carrying a parasite known as a brainworm. That all but wiped out the caribou. Those that survived the parasite — and civilization — were the ones that lived in the higher elevations.
The mountain caribou adapted by using their large, plate-like hooves as snowshoes to travel through 10 feet of snow or more to eat the boreal lichens that grew on the bark of the trees. When deer and elk moved down to the valleys in winter, the caribou went up.
Even in the high country, the caribou were threatened by people. One hunter killed 25 in the winter of 1888-89, according to historian Paul Flinn. Loggers punched roads into the Selkirks in the 1950s, and the caribou were rediscovered.
But prior to the 1980s, few biologists and animal groups advocated for what was recognized as the southernmost population of woodland caribou in North America.
In the emergency room
Servheen came to Idaho directly from graduate school to study the mountain caribou that had just been protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1983. He spent the next eight years following the existing herd, then about 26 animals, to learn about their needs, their habitats and what it would take for them to survive in the Selkirk ecosystem on the border with Washington state and British Columbia.
He and his boss, biologist Mike Scott, spent weeks capturing the caribou to place radio collars on them and to directly observe their behavior. They were able to get to within several feet of them without the fear and flight they saw with deer and other wild animals.
“They were completely approachable,” Servheen said. “We would be right in among them.”
They learned that the caribou summered in clear-cut areas and that their early winter habitat was being logged and fragmented with roads and power lines. To the timber companies, and their workers and loggers in surrounding communities, their research was viewed as a threat to the local economy already going through a painful transition.
“You’d walk by a guy and he’d say, ‘Hey, I shot a caribou,’” Servheen said. “There was a lot of conflict.”
An intervention in the Selkirks
Beginning in 1987, he worked with a team from the US. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the state of Washington and British Columbia to transplant caribou from British Columbia into the Selkirks in Idaho and Washington. Biologists released 60 caribou total between 1987 and 1990 to improve the herd’s genetics and jumpstart recovery.
Along with the transplant program, Fish and Game sponsored an “Adopt a Caribou” program for schoolchildren around the state. Classes were assigned a caribou and tracked its movement on a map. Kathie Hilliard, then a fifth-grade teacher at Lake Hazel School, had her students color the radio collar. They named their caribou Hazel.
Hilliard, of Boise, who retired after 32 years of teaching at Lake Hazel, integrated the project into all facets of learning. Students would calculate how far Hazel had traveled and how far she might go during the next month.
“It was a lot of our day,” Hilliard said. “It was math, science, writing research and social studies.”
Chipping away at what was left
The Forest Service dramatically cut back logging on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Canadian border, but the logging, road-building and even power line siting projects fragmented the habitat even more in British Columbia. Civilization was marching into the mountains, and the ecosystem that protected the caribou unraveled.
As the clear-cuts grew back, they attracted deer. Mountain lions and wolves followed and preyed on the caribou, which doesn’t kick as hard as a moose and didn’t have the flight response of deer.
But as late as 2009, the Selkirk population stood at 46 animals. And it was growing. Then three packs of wolves moved in and set up shop where the caribou lived, said Chip Corsi, Fish and Game regional supervisor in Coeur d’Alene.
British Columbia began shooting the wolves from the air to save the caribou, attracting strong protests from animal rights groups. Corsi gave the Canadians permission to fly into Idaho if necessary, but they never did.
“For me, it truly is a bummer,” Corsi said. “We had some responsibility as others did. But I don’t know what we would do differently.”
In March 2018, biologists could find only three remaining caribou cows in the Selkirks, said Leo DeGroot, a biologist for British Columbia Ministry of Forestry. One was killed by a mountain lion, and the collar on another stopped transmitting.
“We assumed it died,” he said.
They took the remaining female and the two others captured in the Purcells north of the town of Revelstoke to a pen, where they will hold the animals before releasing them to another herd of mountain caribou farther north.
DeGroot takes issue with the word extinction to describe what happened to the Selkirk herd.
“Extinction is when there’s none of the species left on the planet,” he said. “The proper term is extirpation.”
But Servheen said the loss is greater than that for him.
“These caribou were a native species of Idaho,” he said. “We’ve lost a native species.”
What happens next?
About 1,200 mountain caribou remain in British Columbia, and DeGroot said the government there, along with the help of others, may again try to transplant caribou into the Selkirks. But limitations remain. The government is keeping old-growth forest protection in place, but it is removing restrictions on snowmobiles and others motorized travel into now unoccupied caribou habitat.
A lawsuit by environmental groups in the U.S. 12 years ago got a judicial decision to ban snowmobiling in caribou habitat until the Forest Service does a study on the impacts on caribou. Sandra Mitchell, the Idaho State Snowmobile Association’s director of public lands, said the new reality should resolve the dispute.
“The issue is if there are no caribou, if they are extinct, then the answer is snowmobiles do not impact them,” Mitchell said.
But three environmental groups want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to complete its designation of critical habitat for caribou, as well as stronger protections for the time in the future when they might be reintroduced. Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the federal government needs to make the ecosystem “caribou friendly.”
But local residents in North Idaho have never embraced the caribou in part because of perceived impacts on the local economy. When snowmobiling was closed in caribou habitat, winter business in the area tanked, said Craig Hill, owner of Hill’s Resort on Priest Lake, even though few snowmobilers could actually get to the places that caribou were.
Having caribou in his backyard never attracted visitors like other wildlife, the giant trees and the crystal-clear lake.
“I’ve never seen a caribou in my life,” Hill said. “I never even saw tracks.”
Idaho and federal officials have had some success with captive breeding programs for species like the California condor and Snake River sockeye salmon. But both programs have been extremely expensive. And the scale of management changes needed to get the species to sustainability is huge, said Timothy Male, director of the Sand County Foundation’s Environmental Policy Innovation Center.
“When we are facing 20 to 50 percent of biodiversity loss, it’s really hard to justify intervention for a population of a species,” he said. “But we do that when people care.”
Climate change also may prevent the caribou’s return.
“Maybe we have a new reality and caribou aren’t coming back, and we can do something else there,” the Snowmobile Association’s Mitchell said.
Servheen hopes the lesson of the caribou is not lost on the people of one of the fastest-growing states in the nation.
“I watched this happen in a mere 30 to 35 years,” Servheen said. “What species are we going to be saying this about 35 years from now?”