The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is stepping up efforts to save the last wild caribou herd in the Lower 48 states.
The tribe has contracted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to write a draft recovery plan for the South Selkirk herd, which migrates through the alpine forests of North Idaho, northeastern Washington and southern British Columbia.
Only 14 caribou remain in the herd, which survives on lichen from old-growth trees during the winter. With the caribou numbers shrinking, the tribe wanted to move quickly on a plan that brings together recent scientific studies and strategies for increasing herd size.
Caribou have been important to the Kootenai Tribe for centuries, said Gary Aitken, the tribe’s chairman.
“They were once a very treasured food source. Stories from our elders describe caribou as the tastiest meat,” Aitken said. “They’re also part of our spiritual heritage.”
The South Selkirk caribou are federally protected as an endangered species. But past management efforts have been controversial, resulting in unpopular closures of winter snowmobiling areas. Many agency actions have been challenged in court.
The Kootenai Tribe has a reputation for bringing together opposing sides on divisive issues. In recent years, the tribe has won local support for rebuilding sturgeon populations in the Kootenai River and restoring forest landscapes.
“We have the framework to do this,” Aitken said. “We’ve already built the relationships.”
Dan Dining, a Boundary County commissioner, praised the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for giving the tribe a leadership role on caribou.
“We’ve always felt that local knowledge is extremely important in this process,” Dining said. “When a federal agency allows and accepts input from a community, the recovery plan is going to be better for everyone.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is providing a $35,000 technical assistance grant to the Kootenai Tribe, which will develop the draft recovery plan with input from state and federal agencies, other tribes, the B.C. government, and Bonner and Boundary counties.
Tribal biologists hope to have the draft plan out late next year. It will be reviewed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and will go through the normal process for public participation.
“The Kootenai Tribe is very committed to caribou recovery,” said Kim Garner, who works on endangered species issues for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’re grateful for their commitment and the commitment of other partners.”
Agency officials are hopeful the tribe’s work will build momentum for caribou restoration efforts, she said. Previous agency documents refer to a long-term goal of 125 animals in the herd, but the agency will work with the tribe on setting new goals, officials said.
Caribou are members of the deer family. Their stocky bodies are covered with hollow hair that insulates them against the cold, and their dinner-plate-size hooves function like snowshoes.
The South Selkirk herd has behavioral traits that set them apart from other caribou. When the winter snows set in, they head to inhospitable ridge tops, where they spend the winter eating lichen that grows on trees. Other caribou stay in the valleys.
Caribou have low reproduction rates, which makes their recovery more challenging, said Norm Merz, a wildlife biologist for the tribe. Habitat changes and predators also complicate restoration efforts.
Over the past decades, wildfires and logging have reduced old-growth habitat. Deer, elk and moose have moved into reforested areas that were once the domain of caribou. Cougars and wolves have followed. Last year, two South Selkirk caribou were killed by predators. One was killed by a wolf; the other was a suspected wolf-kill.
Winter recreation, including backcountry skiing and snowmobiling, also affects caribou survival.
But other wildlife species have recovered from the brink of extinction, Merz said.
“Think of the bison in the last century,” he said. “They were down to a handful of animals,” but number in the thousands today.
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