Transplanting woodland caribou in North Idaho and Eastern Washington appears to be a tremendous failure.
What animals the cougars haven’t eaten have died on the highways. Or have wandered back to Canada.
Sixty woodland caribou - the rarest mammal in the continental United States - were captured in British Columbia and released in the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho from 1987 to 1990.
Still, between 60 and 75 more caribou are going to be brought to the Washington side of the Selkirk Mountains over the next three years, beginning with 20, perhaps by late this month.
Considering Idaho’s problems, and the controversy involving the Endangered Species Act, some people question why state and federal agencies don’t take a hint and abandon an obvious failure.
Others, however, question why state and federal agencies don’t take a hint and abandon an obvious failure.
That’s always been strongly expressed in Boundary County, where someone shot an arrow into the “Caribou Country” billboard last spring. And local legend says that a politician running for national office once held up a bullet and told a crowd “this is for the last caribou.”
Not everyone is so blunt. County Commissioner Merle Dinning says it’s simply a waste of money. “If the caribou had wanted to be here, they would be here all along,” Dinning said.
His father, a logger, told stories of seeing caribou up in the Selkirks, licking the grease off logging equipment. The animals slowly disappeared, although no one hunted them, he said.
Dinning also wonders how Canadian herds will fare as they are depleted to fill the ranks down here.
Officials across the border in Pend Oreille County are equally unenthused.
“The transplant doesn’t bother me so much,” said County Commissioner Mike Hanson. “It’s the land potentially being locked off more and more.
“Since we’re a resource-based economy, if more is set aside, it’s tougher for people to find the resources to make a living.”
Woodland caribou - a cousin to the more plentiful barren ground caribou of northern Canada and Alaska - were found in old growth forests of far northern states as late as 1970. Logging old-growth forests, in combination with forest fires and overhunting, drove the animal to extinction.
When the animal hit the endangered species list in 1984, the only caribou seen in the United States were part of a small herd from the British Columbia side of the Selkirks that occasionally wandered over the border. So reintroduction began.
Despite the negative feelings among county commissioners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Wildlife say they aren’t finding much opposition. People are pushing to bring back caribou, agency officials say.
The price of earlier caribou recovery efforts in Idaho wasn’t available. The coming transfer will cost $500,000.
This spring’s transplant could be delayed until next year if the U.S. Department of Agriculture orders a 90-day quarantine of the incoming animals, said Madonna Luers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The quarantine alone will be hard on the animals. If it happens this spring, the quarantine period will include calving time, an additional stress.
Meanwhile, no one tries to dress up Idaho’s dismal caribou numbers. Biologists and caribou advocates don’t think, however, that those figures spell failure.
“It took many, many decades for caribou to reach endangered status. It will take a long time for them to recover,” Luers said.
The rebound is slow partly because female caribou don’t bear young until they are 3 years old and then only one fawn at a time, she said. Deer, conversely, can reproduce as yearlings and often have twins.
Wayne Melquist, who deals with endangered wildlife for the Idaho Fish and Game, agrees the low survival rate in Idaho makes it “easy to say ‘forget it.”’ “It would be just as easy to say ‘let’s build one less jet fighter,”’ Melquist said. “If you took all of that money, put it in an interest-bearing account, you could sustain these programs into perpetuity.”
Attempts to establish pheasants in the United States failed the first four or five times, added Wayne Wakkinen, a biologist for the Idaho Fish and Game. “I don’t think we expect success the first time we do anything.”
There are caribou in Idaho where there weren’t before, and those animals are reproducing, Wakkinen said. Some important lessons have been learned that will help re-establish caribou in Washington.
One lesson is the problem of mountain lions, attracted to the area by exploding numbers of white-tail deer. Dealing with mountain lions is biologically and politically difficult, everyone agrees, but at least the problem is on the radar screen.
Another lesson: Caribou were attracted to the salt used on Highway 3 in Canada in the winter. So British Columbia started hanging salt licks in nearby trees about five years ago and that appears to have reduced caribou deaths due to motorists.
Washington may have an advantage. The Salmo-Priest Basin Wilderness area and other roadless areas mean more secure habitat, scientists say.
Returning caribou to northeastern Washington provides insurance for the species in case something happens to the fragile populations in Idaho and British Columbia, scientists argue. It doesn’t mean locking up more land.
Most of the caribou recovery area in the Colville National Forest was set aside years ago, said Suzanne Audet of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At most, some snowmobiling areas may be temporarily closed to protect wintering areas.
There are timber sales on the Sullivan Lake Ranger District in the name of improving caribou habitat, points out Mike Peterson of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council.
Instead of locking up land for caribou, “it looks like they are opening up land, formerly closed for grizzly bears, for caribou,” Peterson said.
Finally, not doing anything about caribou raises larger questions, said Luers. “When we start drawing a line, what’s next - bald eagles?”
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