Attempts are floundering to revive Idaho’s endangered woodland caribou, the rarest mammal in the lower 48 states, biologists say.
About 60 of the animals were transplanted from Canada into the Selkirk Mountains around Bonners Ferry and Priest Lake in 1987.
A recent survey of the herd shows only about 13 caribou remain in the 1,000 acres of protected habitat.
“The bottom line is the herd in the United States is not doing very well,” said Wayne Wakkinen, a research biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
At first biologists thought the caribou were migrating back into British Columbia. A herd of 39 animals there remains fairly strong.
By tracking some of the radio-collared caribou, Wakkinen said he discovered the animals in Idaho are not moving, but falling to predators like mountain lions.
Just three weeks ago, Wakkinen found a dead female caribou and her calf.
“The mountain lions are starting to ding away at the caribou and the mortality rate is exceeding the birth rate,” Wakkinen said.
That’s prompted the caribou recovery team to consider bringing another 60 to 75 animals in from British Columbia to bolster the dwindling herd.
This time the caribou would be relocated to the Washington side of the Selkirks.
“It’s too early to say the Idaho project didn’t work and why bother with saving the caribou,” said Suzanne Audet, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s going to take a long time and some long-term management to get the herds back, just like it took a long time for them to become endangered.”
Biologists say the caribou need older forests to survive because in winter the higher canopies catch some of the snow and allow them to keep foraging closer to the ground. Years of logging and wildfires have destroyed some of that prime old growth habitat in Idaho.
“There is no quick fix. It’s going to take a long-term commitment, and one of my real concerns is if that commitment is there,” Wakkinen said. “Unless we can move the forest to an older-age structure, the future of the caribou doesn’t look good.”
The caribou habitat is now supporting an abundance of whitetail deer. The deer have drawn more mountain lions to the area, prompting more attacks on the caribou.
Wildlife officials did expand the mountain lion hunting season and have considered trapping and killing some of the big cats. But Wakkinen said that is not a good solution to the problem.
“Politically and socially it would be a hard sell to go in and kill a bunch of mountain lions,” he said. “The best thing to do is let the forest age.”
That could mean tougher restrictions on timber sales and cutbacks in recreational access to the Selkirks. That won’t sit well with loggers, snowmobilers or Boundary County residents.
Some complained last year when snowmobiles were banned from certain caribou wintering areas. A few years ago, a coalition of county residents even petitioned to have the caribou taken off the endangered species list.
“In light of a program that has not been a resounding success, some are saying if the area can’t support caribou let’s just forget about it,” Wakkinen said.
“But to me it’s an ethical question. Should we not care about a native species just because they get in our way? That may be the feeling on a local level, but I think the American public has decided as a whole that it’s worth the effort to have animals like the caribou.”
If the caribou recovery team does decide to transplant more animals into the Selkirks, Audet said it would not happen for at least a year. An environmental study would have to be done and public hearings held. Officials in British Columbia would also have to agree to give up some of its healthy herd.
“We think it’s an appropriate effort to pursue at this time, but there are still lots of hoops to go through,” Audet said.
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