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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Advocates hope Caribou, now absent from the Lower 48, make a comeback

By Jordan Tolley-Turner The Spokesman-Review

Mountain caribou, also known as the “Gray Ghost,” once roamed the mountains of the Northwest with a vast range including western Montana, down into Central Idaho, British Columbia to the north and Washington’s Kettle Range to the west.

They were also found in the mountains surrounding Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, but the southern Selkirk Mountains in the northeast corner of Washington and the Idaho Panhandle were their stronghold in the United States.

Since 2019, the “Gray Ghosts” have been gone from their southern range, although some in the United States hope Canadian efforts may return caribou to the U.S.

From deep snow to fish filled rivers, ancient cedars and the perfect equilibrium of biodiversity, the Selkirk ecosystem spent countless years as a model for striking, pristine wilderness.

As the years went by and the West saw the environment drastically changed by human activity, the species found itself in a gradual decline. Eventually, the south Selkirk and Purcell herds were the only remaining groups of caribou in the U.S. and southern British Columbia.

The southern Selkirk and Purcell herds had been in peril for decades, their numbers increasing momentarily then declining precipitously, according to David Moskowitz, author of “Caribou Rainforest: From Heartbreak to Hope” and producer of the film “Last Stand: The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest.” Eventually, both herds only had about a dozen animals, and one winter about half of those individuals simply disappeared.

“By the time they got down to about six animals, the herds were functionally extinct,” Moskowitz said.

B.C. wildlife officials captured the remaining females from the herds and moved them north into a herd with more prospect for survival in January 2019, and the last bulls were left.

Now the mountain caribou is extirpated from the United States, listed as a species at risk of extinction by the British Columbian government and also listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Amongst the western red cedars and western hemlocks of the inland temperate rainforest for which the southern Selkirk range is famous, the Kalispel Tribe also found their stronghold.

According to Kalispel Tribe biologist Bart George, the caribou were not a primary food source, but when the elusive creatures were found it was a chance for a surplus of food, hides and antlers. But the animals are much more than a past opportunity; there’s a culture within them.

“The caribou going away, you know the tribe’s going to remain without the caribou, but the mountains they’re a little different, they lost some of their magic losing a charismatic species like that,” George said.

Is recovery possible?

The Kalispel Tribe was a driving force for caribou recovery in the southern Selkirks.

Now that the herd that roamed those mountains is gone, the tribe is focused on the central Selkirk herd and the efforts in British Columbia that are the last chances these striking icons of the Pacific Northwest have to return home.

There are several reasons for the animal’s decline.

Roads wind throughout the high mountains that once protected caribou from predators allowing wolves to travel to higher elevations.

Recreation, primarily snowmobiling, stresses the caribou and can displace them from where they find food in the tougher months of the year.

Although some agreements are in place to decrease snowmobile and caribou interactions and there are a few roadless areas such as the Salmo-Priest Wilderness in Northeast Washington, Moskowitz says that without more management and restoration the animals will only continue to struggle.

Logging is another factor, and perhaps their most complicated adversary.

Besides tree lichen being the caribou’s primary winter food and logging being a huge factor in habitat loss, even if the caribou stay in a wild landscape such as the Salmo-Priest Wilderness in the northeast corner of Washington, any nearby logging hurts them.

“The thing about mountain caribou is they have these really wide ranges and then they are sensitive to ecological conditions not just in the place they live, but in the place adjacent to where they live,” Moskowitz said. “So the Salmo-Priest Wilderness is great caribou habitat, but if the landscape around the Salmo-Priest is heavily logged and it produces a lot of deer and elk and moose, then it produces a lot of predators.”

Moskowitz said laws have been floated for decades that would protect caribou, but the goal of protecting sufficient habitat at the heart of the law isn’t met.

“There is a huge amount of land, theoretically, protected for mountain caribou in British Columbia, but whenever they add more protection one thing that never happens is the amount of logging that is going on goes down.” Moskowitz said. “British Columbia does a great job with accounting; moving numbers around and like, ‘Oh, we’re protecting this and we’re logging here, now we’re protecting there and we’re logging here.’ At the end of the day, through several decades of caribou conservation, they have managed to continue the basic land use practices that cause the problem to begin with and are continuing to make it worse.”

Moskowitz said this may appease industrial interest, but the caribou and the land they call home continue to be treated like amenities; the same treatment that led to their extinction in the United States.

A changing climate doesn’t help

Climate change is also a major contributor to the mountain caribou’s decline.

Caribou are adapted to cold temperatures, deep snow in the winter and relatively moderate temperatures in the summer. Mountain caribou, unlike many other species that migrate to lower elevations during the winter months, travel to higher elevations instead. This survival strategy depends on deep snow to give them access to their main source of food during the winter, tree lichen.

Climate change is also affecting the forest structures they rely on during the rest of the year and the warming climate is encouraging competing species such as deer, elk and moose to travel to places they didn’t previously go. This leads predators following other prey to the caribou as well.

In hopes of buying caribou time, Canadian officials have started killing wolves, a controversial management decisions.

Wolves are the primary species targeted, but mountain lions are also killed in some places to help the caribou, especially young calves, live long enough to have a shot at increasing their numbers.

“It’s a very fickle conversation to have from a conservation perspective,” Moskowitz said.

Why does it matter?

Mountain caribou, commonly described as “a canary in a coal mine,” are animals that rely on their ecosystem to be heathy; and their disappearance are an indication of the unstableness the ecosystems of the Northwest face, including the Idaho Selkirks.

“Mountain caribou are an indicator species,” Moskowitz said. “If you have mountain caribou in the inland temperate rainforest and the mountains of the interior here, that means there’s a whole lot of ecological processes that are working right because they depend on all of these different facets of the ecosystem to survive.

“And when mountain caribou populations are in decline or disappearing, it tells you that there are significant ecological conservation problems.”

Not giving up

This is just another reason the Kalispel Tribe has fought for the mountain caribou and continues to, even with the species absent from the southern Selkirks, as focus has shifted to the closest population of mountain caribou, the central Selkirk herd.

Although 1,150 square miles of habitat is protected for the herd, it has been steadily decreasing and more fragmentated as time goes on.

As of 2020, there are 27 individuals in the herd, only one of those being a calf.

That’s why during fall 2020, the Arrow Lakes Caribou Society (ALCS) of Nakusp, British Columbia, finished construction of a maternity pen, a project that has shown to be successful with other herds in B.C.

In March or April, pregnant female caribou are captured by helicopter and placed in the forested enclosure where they are monitored 24/7. They will give birth in June, and the cows and their new calves will be kept in the pen until July when the calves are strong enough to keep up with their mothers in the wild. Then they are released back into their habitat.

“ALCS is confident that, by combining maternity penning with other recovery actions, the central Selkirk population can recover and hopefully have an increasing population trend in the future,” ALCS coordinator Erin McLeod said.

With the central Selkirk herd potentially being the last chance to bringing the mountain caribou back to the United States, the Kalispel Tribe has donated to the ALCS and shown its full support as well as hopes to continue to support them through “fundraising, outreach, and boots-on-the-ground conservation work,” George said in a Facebook post made by the ALCS.

The first caribou are expected to be brought into the pen in late March or early April .

Another possible option for reintroduction to the U.S. may be on the horizon for mountain caribou.

“There is, theoretically, going to be a captive breeding program in which they actually have caribou in captivity specifically with the intent of breeding them to produce more caribou to eventually return to the wild,” Moskowitz said.

The project isn’t fully funded (and would cost roughly $7.8 million), but according to George there has been a major push for the long-term project in Canadian government.

“If caribou were ever to come back to the lower 48, it would be through that program,” Moskowitz added.

With a recent agreement that British Columbia, the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations signed to support conservation efforts and protect land for the herd in their traditional territory, it’s clear that those who feel a true calling to preserve heritage, a representation of untouched wilderness and a piece of our mountains aren’t letting the Gray Ghost go away without a fight.

“It’s going be a long road, it’s going be an extensive road, but I think that there is hope,” George said.

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