While the Cessna 182 circled, Tim Layser used binoculars to peer down into a snowy meadow.
Woodland caribou tracks crossed the glade and led into a grove of trees. But the caribou themselves were elusive.
“They’re down there, the rascals,” said Layser, a wildlife biologist who works for the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. “Why can’t I see them?”
After repeated circling, he spotted the four caribou resting in the snow, brown rectangles against the whiteness. The cream-colored fur around their necks was just visible.
Once found from northeast Washington to Glacier National Park, with additional strongholds in the Great Lakes states and Maine, the last woodland caribou population in the lower 48 states has come to this: four animals spotted during a 3 ½ -hour flight.
Nearly 30 years after their endangered species listing in 1984, woodland caribou’s prognosis remains precarious. The dark, wet forests of the Selkirks represent their last, tiny toehold in the continental United States.
About 46 caribou remain in the South Selkirk herd, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, but nearly all of the animals are in British Columbia. During aerial surveys over the past dozen years, wildlife biologists have counted four or fewer caribou south of the border.
This year was no exception. The four caribou spotted by Layser were about six miles inside the United States.
With so few caribou documented in the United States, some local residents question federal efforts to recover the shy forest dweller. More than $4 million has been spent for that purpose.
“Unless you count the Canadian caribou, we really don’t have a caribou population,” said Lee Pinkerton, a retired Border Patrol agent who lives in Bonners Ferry. “The only caribou being seen are right on the border. Once in a while, they’ll range down in the United States.”
Lee and others argue that the herd is virtually extinct in the lower 48 states and say it’s time to abandon recovery efforts.
But environmental groups aren’t willing to give up on the Selkirk caribou. In 2009, several groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force the agency to designate critical habitat for caribou. In November, the agency proposed listing 375,562 acres as critical caribou habitat in North Idaho and northeast Washington.
The proposal has riled up some residents of Idaho’s Bonner and Boundary counties, where earlier efforts to protect caribou habitat led to unpopular closures of backcountry snowmobiling areas. However, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they don’t expect the habitat designation to lead to further land-use restrictions.
Layser spent 20 years working on caribou issues for the Forest Service before he retired and took a job with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. He acknowledges the steep challenges to recovering caribou but thinks it’s worth the effort.
“If caribou disappear from the Selkirks, we won’t be able to bring them back. Politically, socially, it won’t work,” he said. “And if they do disappear, it won’t be because we couldn’t recover them. It will be because of apathy.”
Caribou once plentiful
On a recent morning, Layser took off from Sandpoint Airport with Dave Parker, owner of Northern Air, who contracts for aerial wildlife surveys. The Cessna headed north toward Canada, flying over the snowy ridges along the Shed Roof Divide.
Fresh snowfall coated the peaks like fondant icing on a wedding cake. Even dainty snowshoe hare tracks were visible from the air.
These austerely beautiful but inhospitable ridges are prime winter caribou habitat. When the snow deepens, the caribou trek up to the high country, using their broad hoofs like snowshoes. Heading to high elevations helps the docile caribou avoid predators, which tend to stay in lower elevations where deer and elk are concentrated.
Layser and Parker, veterans of many wildlife flights, recalled previous caribou sightings. Parker once watched a caribou give birth. The glistening calf slipped out onto a patch of snow and wobbled to its feet.
Through the 1950s, caribou populations in the Selkirks were estimated at 100 animals. Historical numbers were probably much higher, because the caribou’s range extended south to the Clearwater River, Layser said. When he was a graduate student at Washington State University, one of his professors kept a box of scorched bones taken from a fire pit along the Snake River; the campfire was made by wagon-train emigrants who had eaten caribou steaks on the Oregon Trail.
In 1889, a hunter and trapper named H.C. Lindley reported taking 25 caribou and 40 wolves during a single winter at Priest Lake. A year earlier, Teddy Roosevelt reportedly passed through Sandpoint en route to a caribou hunt near Kootenay Lake in British Columbia.
The animals – bigger than deer, but smaller than elk – were staples for the Kalispel and Kootenai tribes. And as recently as 1959, a woodland caribou was spotted within St. Maries’ city limits.
Lichens are main food source
The reasons behind the caribou’s demise are complex. Unrestricted hunting decimated herds during the early 1900s. Caribou reproduce slowly, and calf mortality is high. In more recent decades, fragmented habitat and cougar predation took their toll on the remaining populations.
Caribou haunt old-growth forests: western red cedar and larch at lower elevations, and subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce above 4,000 feet in late winter.
They spend about seven months in the high country, grazing on “old man’s beard” lichens that dangle from tree branches. The lichens grow so slowly that it takes 120- to 140-year-old groves of trees to produce enough forage for caribou.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Forest Service expanded its road network and timber sales, venturing deeper into those old-growth forests. Additional acreage was lost to wildfires, which burned large tracts of the Selkirks about the same time. And, north of the border, Highway 3 was built across Kootenay Pass, further fragmenting habitat and resulting in caribou deaths from vehicle collisions.
Meanwhile, openings from timber harvests created forage for deer, elk and moose populations. As their numbers increased, cougar populations shot up. One cougar, responsible for killing at least three caribou, was named “Mr. Nasty” by biologists. Washington, Idaho and British Columbia eventually liberalized their cougar hunting seasons to reduce cougar predation on caribou.
The big cats are believed to be responsible for the low survival rates of caribou transplanted from British Columbia’s northern herds in the late 1980s and 1990s. The transplants were intended to create two new, self-sustaining herds in Washington and Idaho, but those efforts didn’t succeed.
A total of 103 caribou were transplanted, but the South Selkirk herd experienced a net gain of only 18 animals. The herd grew from 30 caribou to 48 during that time.
Former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig asked for an audit of the caribou recovery program, which spent $4.7 million between 1984 and 1998. In its report, the U.S. General Accounting Office said the caribou recovery program had achieved modest gains. Without the transplants, the South Selkirk herd probably wouldn’t exist, the audit concluded.
Additional transplants aren’t being considered, and even if the U.S. had the desire, British Columbia might not have animals to spare. The province’s herds have dropped from 2,500 to 1,700 caribou in the past 15 years, said Chris Ritchie, a manager for B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. The figures are for the same ecotype of caribou found in the South Selkirk herd, which are sometimes called “mountain caribou” in Canada.
When an avalanche wiped out Banff National Park’s tiny herd of five caribou three years ago, biologists didn’t think the northern herds had surplus caribou to restock the park. Instead, Parks Canada is working with a captive breeding program at the Calgary Zoo.
Locals skeptical of recovery efforts
Recent meetings on the proposed critical caribou habitat have drawn large audiences. Liz Sloot, who chairs Boundary County’s tea party movement, was one of a crowd of 100-plus people who attended a meeting in Bonners Ferry, a heavily timber-dependent community near the Canadian border.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to spend about $366,000 on the critical habitat designation, including $45,000 for a study of potential economic impacts. A final decision on critical habitat is expected later this year.
“It’s a waste of my taxpayer dollars for them to be doing this,” Sloot said. “The caribou aren’t here, they’re in British Columbia. If they’re an endangered species, that’s British Columbia’s problem, not ours.”
Sloot has never seen a caribou in Boundary County, but Mike Ripatti has. About 20 years ago, the cattle rancher spotted a caribou on the old Boundary Creek Road. It was radio-collared, so it might have been a transplant, and it was ambling north.
“That caribou looked like it was headed back to Canada,” Ripatti said.
Ripatti wonders how the critical habitat designation will affect his ability to run cattle on a federal grazing allotment that his family has leased since the 1930s. “First it was the grizzly, now it’s the caribou,” Ripatti said. What bothers him about federal efforts to protect endangered species are “the road closures and the anti-logging sentiment,” he said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said they anticipate few, if any, changes in activities as a result of designating critical habitat.
People are wondering, “Am I going to lose snowmobiling privileges? Am I going to lose the ability to cut firewood or harvest timber?” said Brian Kelly, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s state supervisor in Boise. “Basically, no. Those (critical habitat) acreages shouldn’t change the activities occurring on the land, because we’re already consulting on caribou habitat.”
Most of the proposed acreage is within national forests, and some is in a wilderness area. The Forest Service already goes through a formal consultation process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on timber sales and other activities that could affect caribou. Even if caribou weren’t protected, many of the restrictions would remain in place to protect grizzly bears and old-growth habitat, agency officials said. Snowmobile activity in caribou habitat, meanwhile, was restricted by a 2007 court order that remains in effect. In the northern portion of the Selkirks, snowmobilers must stick to 89 miles of formal trails. Cross-country travel is prohibited because caribou avoid areas with snowmobile traffic, studies indicate.
Through designating critical habitat, “we’re looking at what caribou would need if we could get them back, the amount of habitat and the type of habitat,” Kelly said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that the South Selkirk herd is primarily in British Columbia, said Susan Burch, a branch chief with the agency in Boise.
“But it does exist here in the United States and … this is the last remaining caribou in the lower 48,” she said. “These are considered some of the most endangered mammals in the U.S.”
Since caribou are hard to see, biologists aren’t entirely sure how many members of the South Selkirk herd are in the U.S., she said: “It could be four, it could be 10.”
After woodland caribou disappeared from Maine, efforts were made to reintroduce them, but the transplants weren’t successful.
“Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” Burch said.
‘Just doing what they do’
As the Cessna headed north during the aerial survey, it crossed briefly into British Columbia. Hollows in the snow indicated where the Cutoff Peak wolf pack had bedded down.
The wolves were hidden in the trees, but their presence is a new factor on the landscape. If the South Selkirk herd is to recover, Layser said careful monitoring of wolf and cougar populations will be required, along with ongoing protections for old-growth habitat. The proposed critical habitat represents less than 1 percent of the caribou’s historic range in the Northwest, he said.
As the Cessna flew over the ridges, he and Parker, the pilot, looked for more caribou tracks punched through the snow. But the only sightings that day were the four caribou about six miles from the international border.
Parker wondered if the small group would be back next year, perhaps with calves.
“Winter is a peaceful time for caribou,” he said. “They’re just doing what they do. All of this controversy is because of where they lay their heads.”