Nearly a year after the last caribou that occasionally roamed into the Lower 48 were relocated farther north, the federal government is beefing up protections for the elusive ungulates.
And while the federal change hardly assures that caribou will make a comeback in their southern range after being decimated by logging, predation and climate change, it may set the stage for a second act.
“I’m hopeful that it maintains the adequate protections for the habitat in the Selkirks so one of these days, when there is an appetite for restoration, our area is considered,” said Bart George, a wildlife biologist for the Kalispel Tribe.
Since 1983, the southern Selkirk herd has been a federally endangered species in North Idaho, northeastern Washington and southern Canada. However, that protection was limited in its geographic scope. Conservationists and biologists argued the entire southern caribou population, which included 17 separate herds and fewer than than 1,200 individual animals extending deep into Canada, should be listed.
Tuesday’s ruling by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will be published in the Federal Register Wednesday, extends protections to that larger population.
The change was prompted, in part, by a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Spokane-based Lands Council in July against Fish and Wildlife for failing to respond to a 2015 court order.
“Now that protections have been expanded, they are going to have to look at a new geographic template for how to protect caribou,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Hopefully, that would include some management changes on the ground that would protect woodland caribou habitat in Washington and North Idaho so that caribou could potentially return.”
Unlike northern woodland caribou, southern caribou don’t migrate. Instead, during the winter they seek out higher elevations using their large hooves to walk atop snow and eat lichen off old-growth trees.
“They’re the only caribou that actually go up in elevation in the winter,” said Joe Scott, the international programs director with Conservation Northwest.
This behavioral adaptation allows the southern caribou to live in a landscape fragmented by roads, towns and clear cuts.
“They’ve learned to cope with these more marginal, more challenging habitats,” Scott said.
In contrast, northern caribou seek out wind-blown ridges where the forage is more easily accessed, Scott said. When northern caribou have been transplanted south in the past, they have struggled because they don’t know where to look for food.
The federal rule acknowledges those differences, which is one reason Scott said he was “pleasantly surprised” to hear Tuesday’s news.
“They acknowledge the value of these peripheral populations,” he said.
However, what tangible changes will come from the ruling aren’t clear.
“I don’t know what to expect from this administration,” Scott said, noting that President Donald Trump’s administration has rolled back many environmental protections. “This ruling is very positive and very encouraging, but then comes the need for action. All the rulings on earth aren’t going to save a species. They need commitment of resources and they need action.”
Even with a commitment of resources and action, success is hardly assured. In the 1990s and in 2012, there were expensive multiagency and multinational efforts to transplant caribou into the Selkirk Mountains of Washington and Idaho.
The population peaked at 46 animals in 2009 and was climbing at that time, according to George of the Kalispel Tribe. But by the spring of 2018 only three animals, all female, were left in the South Selkirk herd, according to aerial surveys. In January, the sole surviving member of the herd was captured and moved north to Revelstoke, B.C.
The reasons for the decline are varied and interconnected.
Logging has destroyed their food source while development has fragmented populations.
At the same time, caribou populations suffered with the recovery of wolves in Canada and the U.S. Caribou’s primary defense from predation is the ability to go into areas predators can’t. But the vast network of roads in Canada and the U.S. has given wolves easier access to the caribou’s remote alpine refuges.
Climate change has also fueled reductions in snowpack, making it harder for caribou to avoid the canines.
Additionally, snowmobiling and other increased winter backcountry uses stress the animals.
Those sweeping, landscape level issues can’t be tackled by a single group or government agency.
Miel Corbett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy assistant regional director, said in an email that the “caribou will benefit from a bi-national conservation effort.”
“This effort will help the species by generating timely attention, resources and partnerships directed toward conserving southern mountain caribou in both Canada and the U.S.,” she wrote.
It could also strengthen habitat protections as the Fish and Wildlife Service drafts a new, broader recovery plan.
The ruling also designates 30,000 acres in Pend Orielle and Boundary counties as protected critical habitat.
Many believe that is not enough habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designation of more than 375,000 acres in Idaho and Washington in 2011. But in a 2012 reversal, the agency designated only about 30,000 acres for the animals, saying that caribou primarily reside in Canada and that conservation efforts there were sufficient.
“We’re glad that they designated critical habitat at least and finalized that designation,” Santarsiere said. “But it’s certainly insufficient, I think, to protect the habitat that caribou need to return.”
The rule could also have political consequences across the border. In Canada, the southern caribou are listed as threatened, not endangered.
“It places more pressure on Canada to do that up-listing,” said Candace Batycki, a program director at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “I think that it shows a commitment on the part of the U.S. to recover these animals back down south of the border and that puts more pressure on Canada to protect habitat north of the line.”