For mountain caribou, challenges remain

For mountain caribou, challenges remain

Conservation Northwest / May 08, 2014 /

Mountain caribou status downgrade proposed, but challenges remain

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Service) has proposed a change in the status of the Southern Mountain population of woodland caribou (mountain caribou) in response to a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents snowmobile interests in northern Idaho. According to the proposed rule the South Selkirks herd will remain protected under the Endangered Species Act, but their status will be changed from “endangered” to “threatened.”

Though considerable protections remain under the threatened status, downlisting also brings concerns for a limited caribou population constrained by human development.

The Service said the proposed change is due “in part to a broader range and larger additional populations” – essentially that the trans-boundary Selkirks caribou herd is part of a much larger population in the Canadian Selkirks. However, exhaustive science over the past couple decades shows that the South Selkirks herd is not part a much larger caribou population in British Columbia – that the herd is actually isolated from the roughly 17 other herds in the province by human development that has fractured their habitat.

The animals once ranged across the northern continental United States. However, today the woodland caribou in the Lower 48 are limited to only a remote portion of the Selkirk Range in northeastern Washington the northern Idaho panhandle. And 2014 caribou surveys show that the South Selkirks herd is in steep decline, with only 18 animals, down from about 47 five years ago.

“There is no ‘larger additional population’ as far as the South Selkirks herd is concerned without very drastic efforts in BC to reconnect their habitat across their range and supplement all the southern herds with animal transplants from further north – none of which is likely to happen any time soon”, said Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest. “The caribou that the Service has just proposed to downlist to threatened are on their own and as severely endangered as any animal in North America.”

There are between 1500 and 1600 southern mountain caribou in British Columbia across their existing range on the west flanks of the Rocky Mountains. But the BC and Canadian federal governments list the animals as “Endangered”. All the other herds are either in decline or stable but none appear to be increasing according to BC government surveys.

“It’s really too bad that US snowmobile interests don’t come to the table to actually find solutions to caribou declines, like their counterparts in BC,” said Scott. “Many of those folks are rolling up their sleeves, working with biologists, loggers and conservationists to protect and restore the animals to their habitats instead of trying to help them disappear.”

Conservation Northwest has worked with Canadian colleagues including Wildsight on mountain caribou recovery planning in British Columbia for more than a decade. The BC mountain caribou recovery plan has protected more than five million acres of caribou habitat.