Only three caribou remaining in South Selkirks herd

Only three caribou remaining in South Selkirks herd

Conservation Northwest / Apr 16, 2018 / British Columbia, Caribou, Restoring Wildlife

Tragic news for a disappearing Inland Northwest icon

Late last week, biologists from northeast Washington’s Kalispel Tribe of Indians, along with other provincial and federal wildlife managers, shared the tragic news that only three mountain caribou were counted during a survey this spring in the South Selkirk Mountains of southern British Columbia, northeast Washington and northern Idaho. 

A majestic mountain caribou bull in southern British Columbia. Photo: David Moskowitz / Mountain Caribou Initiative

This small, isolated population has declined in recent years due to habitat loss, a lack of connections to other mountain caribou herds, and increased predation due to changes in predator-prey dynamics resulting from the loss of the Inland Temperate Rainforest’s old-growth forest.

Twelve animals were documented in the South Selkirks herd in 2017. In the 2018 survey, all three were females, known as cows. While it’s possible other animals remain on the landscape, biologists say the aerial survey was extensive.

“This is a profoundly sad, but inevitable day for caribou,” said Joe Scott, Conservation Northwest’s International Programs Director. “One could predict it. The science is clear and the map of mountain caribou herds and their habitat tells the story—isolated blobs like islands in a sea of human impacts.”

“It’s devastating that we’ve nearly lost the South Selkirks caribou herd,” says John Bergenske, Wildsight’s Conservation Director, “but what’s worse is that unless we take immediate action to protect all critical mountain caribou habitat, the South Purcells and other southern herds won’t be far behind.

Working with Wildsight, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and other partners in the U.S. and Canada, Conservation Northwest has long been a leader in the fight to save the critically endangered mountain caribou, securing protections for hundreds of thousands of acres of critical habitat and collaborating on programs to raise awareness and advocate for recovery, including the Mountain Caribou Project and Mountain Caribou Initiative.

A map of British Columbia’s caribou populations. The unique southern mountain caribou herds are shown in purple in the lower right. Map: Wildsight. Larger version available here.

A unique ecotype of the woodland caribou subspecies (rangifer tarandus caribou), mountain caribou reside in limited numbers in interior British Columbia, western Alberta, northern Idaho and northeast Washington. Historically, they were also present in northwestern Montana and central Idaho.

The South Selkirk Mountains (South Selkirks) herd of mountain caribou are the world’s southernmost remaining caribou and the only herd that still ranges into the lower 48 states.

A Vanishing Icon

Caribou are tough enough to thrive in the planet’s harshest environments; but not tough enough to survive the fragmentation of the old-growth forests on which they depend for food and security. Triage strategies may be necessary but only forestall the inevitable without addressing the root causes of caribou declines.

“Where do we go from here? Every effort must be made to protect and connect caribou habitat,” says Scott. “This must include the cessation of industrial activities in caribou habitat and a plan for restoring degraded lands through aggressive road closures and the reversal of decades of old-growth conversion to young forests.”

“Otherwise the remaining mountain caribou herds will continue to fall like dominoes – not a proud legacy for future generations. Caribou may be the most iconic indicator of ecosystem health in the habitats they share with hundreds of other species whose well-being depends on those habitats.”

“We’ve know for decades that logging, road-building and uncontrolled recreation in mountain caribou habitat is slowly killing off our caribou herds,” says Eddie Petryshen, Wildsight’s Conservation Coordinator. “Protecting intact habitat in our mountain rainforest ecosystems is the only way to give our southern caribou herds a chance to survive, but our federal and provincial governments have been dragging their feet for years, ignoring the ongoing destruction of mountain caribou habitat.”

Fewer than 250 mountain caribou remain in the Kootenay and Columbia area, mostly found in herds around Revelstoke, and only thirteen caribou were found in the South Purcells herd census last year.

“The federal government has mapped the mountain caribou habitat that is necessary for the species’ survival, but they have only protected portions of it,” says Bergenske. “This tragic loss of all but three caribou in the South Selkirks herd has to be a wake-up call for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to act on her responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to protect all critical habitat right now. This is an emergency and our mountain caribou can’t wait any longer for planning without action.”

A small herd of mountain caribou in British Columbia. Photo: David Moskowitz / Mountain Caribou Initiative

Southern mountain caribou feed exclusively on tree-growing lichen in the winter, and need old growth forests to survive. Caribou are not just extremely sensitive to disturbance from motorized recreation, but packed winter trails in their habitat make them more vulnerable to predators, primarily wolves and cougars.

British Columbia’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan, after more than a decade, has failed to stop the loss of caribou, let alone recover populations. New agreements have recently been reached under Section 11 of the Canadian Species at Risk Act to protect and recover mountain caribou in the Central population group, but are disconcertingly short on concrete action

A maternity penning project near Salmo, British Columbia were also in the works as a “last ditch” method to reduce mortality among the South Selkirks herd. Those efforts are on hold due to deep snow conditions and the unfavorable results of the recent caribou census.

“Not only do we need to protect all critical caribou habitat now, we need to restore degraded and fragmented habitat,” says Bergenske, “and that means the province and the federal government need to put real resources into habitat restoration immediately.”

“We’re not going to just let three animals, especially cows, die in the Selkirks,” vowed Bart George, wildlife biologist with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

Conservation Northwest remains committed to protecting and recovering mountain caribou and their habitat in Washington and British Columbia, and will continue to work with non-profit, tribal and government partners to prevent the local extinction of these endangered Inland Northwest icons.

Read more about the plight of mountain caribou in southern British Columbia in the full statement from our partners at Wildsight. Additional perspective is also available in coverage from The New York Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Company, as well as in the film The Last Stand: The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest.