When a caribou herd numbers just 11 animals, every calf counts. That’s the motivation of government, conservation groups and Indigenous groups in Canada and the United States trying to save a critically endangered, globally unique subpopulation of woodland caribou in the southern Rocky Mountains and Columbia Mountains.
Known as mountain caribou, these animals once roamed the forests of southern British Columbia, northeastern Washington and northwestern Idaho by the thousands, spending summer and winter high on the mountains and spring and fall at lower elevations, feeding on tree lichens. But increasing logging, agriculture and backcountry recreation have driven competing species, such as moose, and new predators, namely wolves and mountain lions, into the area. As a result, mountain caribou are today fragmented into an estimated 18 small herds. Some, such as the South Selkirk and South Purcell groups, have fewer than 15 animals.
“These guys are on the brink,” says David Moskowitz, a wildlife biologist and photographer who began tracking and studying the species in 2015 and launched the Mountain Caribou Initiative that year to call attention to the plight of the South Selkirk herd and other mountain caribou.
“They’re not going to be able to recover without some serious attention in helping their calves survive,” says Moskowitz. “Some translocation of other mountain caribou to help with genetics is also going to be important, but on their own, their chances of survival are pretty dim.”
To improve those prospects, the Kalispel Tribe in Washington and the Kootenai Tribe in Idaho teamed up last fall with wildlife officials from both states and the B.C. government to construct a maternal pen in the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Darkwoods Conservation Area, which protects large tracts of the old-growth forest the caribou rely on for food. Although almost four metres of snow this winter rendered the pen useless — the caribou could have walked over it — the plan is to use the pen in spring 2019. At that point, pregnant females from the South Selkirk herd will be net-captured by helicopter and spend three to four months in the eight-hectare enclosure, surrounded by a six-metre-high fence. There, they’ll give birth to and nurture their calves, free from predators, before being released later in the summer. A similar project near Revelstoke, B.C., has been credited with stabilizing the Columbia North caribou herd, which currently numbers about 150 animals.
Moskowitz thinks the project may be the South Selkirk herd’s last chance for survival, but he’s encouraged by the cooperation he's seen. “Seeing private conservation, government and First Nations working together for something that’s conservation-oriented and culturally relevant is a hopeful story.”
Ultimately, though, without concerted, cross-border efforts to preserve and reconnect the caribou's forest habitat, the animals will continue to face the same pressures that have brought them to the brink, Moskowitz says.
“Humans have changed this landscape to make it more suitable for creatures other than caribou, and unless we allow this ecosystem to return to something like what it was historically, they have a rough road ahead of them.”