Two woodland caribou, a reclusive and critically endangered animal, were spotted in northwest Montana this month.
The two caribou spotted in northwest Montana are not part of South Selkirk herd. Instead, the animals are likely members of the Purcell Herds, which roam farther east, said Leo Degroot, a wildlife biologist in British Columbia who has worked with caribou for the past 15 years.
Last week Canadian officials decided to move the six surviving caribou that still occasionally venture into the Idaho and Washington farther north.
“We did not know they were up here,” said Dillon Tabish, a spokesperson for MFWP. “They didn’t have radio collars on them.”
The two caribou – a bull and a cow – were first spotted by a hunter and area residents. The hunter took a photo and sent it to a MFWP biologist who confirmed that it was in fact a caribou.
“It’s 110 percent caribou,” Tabish said.
While the news is good, it’s not necessarily a sign of a larger trend.
“I guess to be optimistic I’d like to think that maybe there are a whole bunch more that moved outside of our census area and we missed them,” Degroot said. “But I would say that would be very optimistic. That’s likely not the case.”
Instead, he said the two caribou likely are a one-off and not indicative of a larger miscount.
Neil Anderson, the MFWP Region 1 wildlife manager said the two animals likely came south from Canada. Anderson and others are working with Canadian biologists to determine what the next steps are, although Anderson said it’s likely officials will do nothing.
In April, an aerial survey of the South Selkirk Mountain caribou herd found only three surviving members, all female. Over the summer one of those animals was killed by a cougar.
In 2009 that herd had nearly 50 members.
Habitat loss due to old-growth logging has led to increasing elk and deer numbers which in turn led to more predators such as cougars and wolves, said Mark Hebblewhite, a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana who has studied caribou for two decades.
“The short term solution is often short term predator control,” he said.
But, the underlying cause of the decline is the destruction of habitat.
Once Canadian officials move the surviving members of the South Selkirk Mountain caribou herd and the Purcell Herd they hope to breed the animals in captivity at a pen north of Revelstoke, British Columbia, deep in the Canadian brush, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported Friday.
The sighting in Montana is the first confirmed caribou sighting since 2012, Tabish said.
“Right now everyone is marveling at it,” he said. “It’s a pretty neat moment for Montana. These sightings are few and far between unfortunately.”