“Most people don't realize that there are caribou in the lower 48 states,” says wildlife biologist Tim Layser, “and that they are the most endangered population of large mammals in the country. Once spread throughout the West, they all disappeared within a single lifetime.”
In an attempt to save the species, a cooperative effort between the University of Idaho, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Fish and Wildlife re-introduced the caribou into the remote Selkirk Range above Priest Lake in the northern Idaho Panhandle, one of the country's wildest habitats, where endangered lynx, wolf and grizzly still roam freely.
“Our scientific team now tracks, monitors and analyzes the health of the wide-ranging herd,” says John Almack of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We fit 24 animals with radio collars to follow their movements and we also fly over and follow their tracks to take a census.”
The survival of the herd is at a crisis point. In the last census, conducted at the end of March, the count was 32—16 less than the last census—a devastating result. A certain number of animals will fall to predation by mountain lions and grizzlies, but the reasons for such a sizable drop are not clear. Ironically, only two with radio collars were lost.
“The tremendous increase in snowmobile use into the high country also affects the herd,” says Mark Sprengel, forest program director for the Selkirk-Priest Basin Association (SPBA), an environmental activist group that works with the Caribou Recovery scientific team and obtains grants for the typically under-funded project. “Caribou are skittish. Noise and harassment could force them out of prime habitat into marginal areas.”
The 32-animal herd would not be considered in a sustainable state until it reaches at least 50. “But when you lose a few out of the 50, the drop seems to be irreversible,” says Layser. What can be done? If this herd—the only one in the United States—is to survive, he says, “it needs to be augmented now. Females from the outside need to be brought in to strengthen the gene pool and raise the herd to a sustainable number. It may be our only hope.”