Canadian wildlife officials discovered a female calf among the remnants of the Purcell herd near Kimberley, British Columbia, last week.
The surprise is a spot of good news in the otherwise bleak landscape of caribou recovery.
In January, Canadian officials relocated the sole surviving member of the South Selkirk herd and two members of the Purcell herd farther north to a maternal pen near Revelstoke, B.C. The South Selkirk was the only remaining herd that occasionally crossed into the United States.
At that time, they were unable to capture three caribou from the Purcell herd. Two refused to come out from under a tree. Biologists believed the three remaining animals were male.
But last week, they discovered that one of three remaining caribou was actually a female calf, said Leo Degroot, a wildlife biologist in British Columbia.
Flying in a helicopter biologist took “some high-quality photos of its rear end.”
Officials hope to move the female calf north to the pen near Revelstoke. The calf is hanging out with a young male caribou. The third male caribou is much older and does not interact with the other two caribou.
“He’s been by himself for ages,” Degroot said. “A lot of times old males will do that. They prefer to be alone.”
As soon as possible, Degroot said, the female calf will be relocated north and join the three caribou that were moved in January plus a young female calf, Grace, whose mother was killed by wolves.
Biologists will also attempt to move the young male, but the older male won’t be relocated.
“As I think I mentioned before, just moving males there is not that biologically important,” Degroot said. “But for females, it’s quite important biologically.”
The caribou near Revelstoke are being held in a 20-acre maternal pen. Eventually, they will be released into the wild with the hope that they integrate with the Columbia North herd.
The species has been in decline for decades in its southern ranges. In the spring, aerial surveys found only three animals left in the South Selkirk herd, all female. In 2017, there were about a dozen of the endangered animals.
Of the three caribou found in the spring, one was killed by a cougar and the second’s collar malfunctioned.
The decline is blamed on habitat degradation from old-growth logging, climate change and increased predation from wolves and cougars.
Multiple efforts over the years have tried to revive the struggling species, including an expensive multiagency and multinational effort to transplant caribou into the Idaho and Washington Selkirk Mountains in the 1990s and in 2012.
Two caribou, a bull and a calf, were spotted in Montana in November. Degroot said they haven’t been seen since.
“We haven’t heard anymore about that,” he said.
Mountain caribou, unlike tundra caribou, use their wide feet to walk on top of deep snowpack. That allows them to reach lichen growing high on old-growth trees.
The South Selkirk herd ranged through the high country along the crest of the Selkirks near the international border. The remaining 14 or so herds are all in Canada.
It’s estimated that fewer than 1,400 mountain caribou are left in North America. At one point, scientists believe caribou roamed as far south as the Salmon River in Idaho.
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