Caribou worldwide share similar features – branching antlers, stocky bodies covered with hollow hair that insulates against the cold, and snowshoe-like hooves.
Herds across North America and northern Europe all belong to a single species, Rangifer tarandus.
But caribou in the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho, northeast Washington and interior British Columbia have a trait that sets them apart from other caribou. When the winter snow sets in, they head to inhospitable ridge tops, where they spend the winter eating lichens that grow on 250-year-old Engelmann spruce trees. Other caribou stay in the valleys.
Because of that unusual behavior, the South Selkirk herd deserves protection as a distinct population under the Endangered Species Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said Wednesday at a Sandpoint open house.
“This is the last, remnant caribou herd in the Lower 48. It has unique behavioral traits that we’d hate to lose from the landscape,” said Bryon Holt, a fish and wildlife biologist supervisor.
Only 18 caribou were counted in the South Selkirk herd last winter, down from estimates of 46 a couple of years ago. But federal protections for the cross-border herd have generated years of controversy, particularly from snowmobile groups. They’ve lost access to popular ridges to avoid displacing caribou, whose food is scarce and fat reserves are low in the winter.
Two years ago, the Pacific Legal Foundation of Sacramento challenged the herd’s ESA listing on behalf of Bonner County and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association. Foundation attorneys argued that healthy caribou populations exist in Alaska and Canada, making it unnecessary to protect the South Selkirk herd.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reaffirmed the herd’s ESA protections in May. Officials agreed that the South Selkirk herd is part of a larger population of about 1,660 caribou scattered throughout the mountains of interior British Columbia. But those animals are also in trouble, Holt said. Despite the B.C. government’s efforts to protect caribou habitat in recent years, caribou numbers have shrunk by a third.
However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed changing the South Selkirk’s ESA designation from “endangered” to “threatened.”
Nothing would change in terms of caribou management, though the downgrade could give the agency more flexibility in the future, Holt said. A final decision on the proposal is expected next May.
Jonathan Wood, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, said Bonner County and the snowmobile association still question whether federal ESA protections should apply to the South Selkirk herd. His clients also want the Fish and Wildlife Service to study the cost of protecting caribou.
“Snowmobile trail closures associated with the caribou are having a really critical impact on the region,” Wood said.
In 2012, the snowmobile association released a study that estimated the cost of protecting caribou habitat in North Idaho at $26 million over seven years, with winter tourism in Priest Lake’s resort community taking the biggest hit.
“There’s a lot going on with caribou except for recovery,” countered John Robison, the Idaho Conservation League’s public lands director.
None of the debate gets the Fish and Wildlife Service closer to its stated recovery goal of 125 animals in the South Selkirk herd, he said.
“Caribou is a big-game species that we value,” Robison said. “The U.S. has some of the best remaining habitat. We don’t want to rely on Canada to save the species.”
Caribou recovery is complicated by wide-scale landscape changes, Holt said. Wildfires and logging have taken out old-growth forests. Deer, elk and moose have moved into reforested areas that were once the domain of caribou, and predators followed them. Past efforts to grow the South Selkirk herd through transplanted caribou were hampered by cougar predation. Winter recreation, including backcountry skiing, also affects caribou survival, Holt said.
In March, biologists captured six caribou in the South Selkirk herd, outfitting each with a GPS collar. Through satellite tracking, researchers will get a better understanding of how caribou use the landscape and what kills them.
This is the first effort to collar caribou in the herd since the 1990s, Holt said. Researchers are looking for information that will improve the South Selkirk herd’s long odds for survival.