Mountain Caribou

The South Selkirks mountain caribou: endangered icons and the world’s southernmost caribou herd

Read our latest update on mountain caribou here, or check out this detailed coverage from British Columbia blog The Narwhal

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

Mountain caribou are nearing local extinction and badly depend on ESA protections. Photo: David Moskowitz

Conservation Northwest has long been a leading organization in the fight to save the critically endangered caribou of the Inland Northwest.

Learn about the collaborative Mountain Caribou Project, an effort we’ve long been involved in with Wildsight and other partners. We’re also supporting a new effort, the Mountain Caribou Initiative, to raise awareness about these important creatures.


News on mountain caribou

Mountain caribou gone from contiguous United States

In early 2019, the last remaining southern mountain caribou from the South Selkirks and Purcell herds were captured and put into maternity pens. Losses of old forest habitat, fragmentation from roads and human development, disturbance from winter motorized recreation, and changes in predator-prey dynamics leading to increased predation on caribou by wolves and cougars all contributed to the loss of these “gray ghosts” from the Inland Northwest.

We supported this move in hopes these animals will survive and reproduce—and provide the offspring to eventually restore the South Selkirks herd. We call on the U.S. and Canadian federal governments and the province of British Columbia to significantly increase protections for the old forest habitat that mountain caribou need, including a moratorium on destruction of critical caribou habitat.

A majestic caribou bull in the Selkirk Mountains. Photo: USFWS

“This is what extinction looks like, and it must be a wake-up call for wildlife and habitat managers in both Canada and the United States,” said Joe Scott, Conservation Northwest International Programs Director and a member of B.C.’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Progress Board. “While it comes as no surprise given the long decline of the only caribou herds that still roamed into northeast Washington and northern Idaho, today’s news marks the tragic end of an era.”

“We’re not giving up on mountain caribou, and neither are the many thousands of Canadians and Americans passionate about these endangered icons and the inland temperate rainforest they call home,” said Scott. “At this juncture, wildlife managers must pursue all possible options to ensure southern mountain caribou don’t disappear for good.”

Last Stand – The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest

We’re proud to be a sponsor of this new documentary film from the Mountain Caribou Initiative. Last Stand: The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest is a cinematic journey into the tragically threatened world of endangered mountain caribou, their home in the world’s largest remaining inland temperate rainforest, and the critical human choices that will ultimately decide the fate of this stunning ecosystem.

Last Stand (Trailer) – The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest on Vimeo

Critically endangered

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.
These Northwest natives are greatly isolated by major highways and human development, and have steadily declined from an estimated 47 animals in 2007.  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.

Red-listed in Canada and protected in the U.S. as an endangered species, mountain caribou are vulnerable and few in number. However, at the request of snowmobile groups, a downlisting of the Selkirks caribou to “Threatened” status has been proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the request of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and other groups, the agency is arguing that these caribou are connected to a larger population in Canada and don’t require the Endangered listing. This is completely contrary to a considerable body of science generated over the past three decades! This risky move is being actively opposed by Conservation Northwest and many other conservation groups.

More on mountain caribou and our work to save them

Resilient but not invulnerable

Mountain caribou are considered one of the most endangered large mammals in North America. Loss of old-growth habitat to logging and other development have removed old growth and reduced caribou numbers to roughly 1,900 animals across North America.

In British Columbia, logging, road building and motorized recreation are still caribou’s chief threats. Caribou rely in winter on arboreal lichens which develop only in old-growth forests. The continuing proliferation of motorized recreation in winter, such as snowmobiling, stresses caribou during a season when their health is weakest. This can force caribou into poorer habitat, where predation and avalanche risks are higher and nutrition sources marginal.

More on woodland caribou

Though their appearance is similar, the woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) of central Canada and the northwestern United States differ from the the other caribou subspecies of Alaska, northern Canada and northern Europe and Asia.

A mountain caribou peers out through the forest. Hart Range, British Columbia. Photo: David Moskowitz / Mountain Caribou Initiative

Woodland caribou in British Columbia, western Alberta, northeastern Washington and northern Idaho are a unique ecotype of caribou distinguished from other woodland caribou by their winter diet consisting almost exclusively of arboreal lichens. This trait allows them to inhabit the deep-snow areas in the Selkirk Mountains above 4,000 ft, and these caribou are often referred to as “mountain caribou” or “deep-snow caribou”.

The more northerly caribou include three subspecies in North America; the Porcupine caribou (R. t. granti), the barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus), and the Peary caribou (R. t. pearyi). Woodland caribou do not make the great migrations common among some of these other caribou subspecies, nor do they live in such great numbers, even during historical times.

Caribou in Europe and Asia are also called reindeer, and numerous subspecies exist there from Norway to Mongolia and Siberia.

Mountain caribou facts

  • While barren-ground caribou migrate long distances seasonally, woodland caribou live within the same mountains and forests. To find food and escape predators, they climb high into the mountains in summer and descend into old growth forests during the chilly winter months.
  • Amazingly, in winter woodland caribou depend absolutely upon arboreal, or tree, lichens as their main source of food. Barren-ground caribou eat lichens that grow on the open ground.
  • Huge hooves keep woodland caribou “afloat” over deep snowpacks, giving them the “step-up” to browse tree lichens growing from the lowest branches of old-growth trees. Tree lichens thrive in the moist, internal air within the forest canopies of the inland temperate rainforest.
Marcus Reynerson inspects a shed mountain caribou antler found in high elevation rainforest in the Columbia Mountains of BC. Photo: David Moskowitz