Last Chance for American Caribou

With numbers dwindling to around 34 animals, the South Selkirk mountain caribou herd is getting close to disappearing forever.

The South Selkirk caribou herd is dwindling, and new human disturbances threaten the remaining 34 animals. These are the last wild caribou to visit the continental U.S.© Northern Images/Wayne Sawchuk

Living in the rugged, mountainous landscapes of the Idaho Panhandle, northeastern Washington and British Columbia, the trans-boundary caribou are the last wild examples of their species to visit the continental United States. The South Selkirk population is one of about 13 herds that are remnants of a rapidly disappearing population that once spanned much of the northern U.S. A 2004 census reports a total of 1,669 mountain caribou, down from about 2,500 in the mid-1980s.

Mike Bader, a consultant for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, says old-growth forests and lichen that caribou depend on have been threatened by human disturbance such as new roads, timber harvests and recreation. "We simply have not protected enough habitat for them," Bader says.

The herd lives in and around the Caribou Recovery Zone, an area set aside by the federal government when the species was listed as endangered in 1984. At that time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) drafted the Selkirk Caribou Recovery Plan, which collared and transplanted caribou into Washington from Canadian herds and monitored their survival, says Jon Almack, a USFWS research biologist who has worked with the herd for nine years.

Almack says the most recent transplant of 43 caribou did not result in a self-sufficient population, with most animals dying from poachers, predators and unhealthy habitat. More than half of the 2,200 square-mile recovery zone is in British Columbia, under a provincial administration that supports increased logging in recovery zones, making it difficult to maintain stable habitats, he says.

"It is very, very difficult to bring any species back from the brink of extinction," says Almack. "This population could be down to 20 and we won’t have a chance in hell to bring them back again." With such low survival rates, British Columbia’s First Nations tribes are reluctant to send more caribou, curbing such efforts for now, says Almack.

Joe Scott, the international programs director for the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, which joins seven other Canadian and American conservation groups in the Mountain Caribou Project, says, "Every loss of one of these animals is a loss to all of us as stewards of this planet. And when we lose a piece of the natural world, we impoverish ourselves."