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Posts Tagged ‘mountain caribou’

We think of caribou as being an arctic species. We know all about the vast herds of Alaska and the barren lands of Canada, but the truth of their range once came much deeper to the south.

South of those famous barren ground caribou are those caribou that inhabit the boreal forest, the great taiga that runs across the northern tier of Eurasia and North America. There are many herds of caribou in the North American stretch of this forest, and these caribou are often called “woodland caribou” to differentiate them from the arctic herds.

But woodland caribou were not always restrained to the boreal forest. They came into what are called the “mixed woodlands” that lie in transition between the boreal forests and the widespread temperate forests of mid-latitude North America. Caribou ranged through virtually all of Canada and also into the northern tier of states. They were found in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and northeastern New York State. They also ranged through northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin. the UP of Michigan, and the northern tip of the LP of Michigan.

Those herds of northern New England, New York and the Great Lakes states have disappeared long ago. The last of these southern herds ranged down into Idaho, Montana, and eastern Washington State.

These herds, too, dwindled away until only a single herd existed in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, Eastern Washington, and British Columbia. For most of my life, the last herd of woodland caribou to wander down into the Lower 48 were of this South Selkirk herd.

Over the past few years, the caribou in this herd have dwindled down. , These caribou live in an inland rainforest, where they specialize in eating tree lichens grow only in this old growth forest. Logging and road-building have destroyed much of the good lichen-growing habitat, and snow mobiles disturb the caribou from their grounds. Wolves, which have recolonized the area, have also been blamed for reduced the caribou herds.

This spring, the entire herd had been reduced to just three individuals, all cows. And now, just one exists. This single cow was just recently captured, and British Columbia has placed her in a breeding facility in hopes of getting her genes into captive caribou that could potentially be reintroduced to the wild.

Attempts have been made to bring woodland caribou to the Selkirks to add genetic diversity, but caribou from other areas are not as well-adapted to the Selkirk forests.

Caribou are much like sheep raised in traditional ways in England and Scotland. The sheep of Scotland and Northern England have been running their ranges for centuries. They know the best grazing at the right time of the year, and they do not typically leave the ranges to which they have been so adapted. Such sheep are called “hefted” to the land, and if environmental or agricultural policy in the UK were to close down traditional sheep grazing, the sheep would ultimately lose their knowledge about living on the land. Enclosing sheep make them lose much of their historical sheep know-how.

The end of this South Selkirk herd ends much of the caribou know-how to these inland temperate rainforests. The remaining cow has been placed with a similarly “hefted” herd of caribou from another mountain range in British Columbia, called the Purcell. These caribou are very similar to those of the Selkirk Mountains, and if this cow mixes well with these caribou, then there may be hope of someday restoring them to these mountains.

But as it stands right now, we have no more caribou in the Lower 48. Gone from Maine, Michigan, and now Idaho, their grunts will not be heard in our northern tier for a long time.

Maybe never.

As someone who does support wolf recovery as much as possible, I was always open to some limited wolf controls in the region where these caribou ranged. Wolves would not have made much a difference had the rainforests of the Selkirks remained largely intact, but the downfall of the original old growth forests made wolf predation an adversity the caribou couldn’t handle.

So the wolves will do fine as avatars of wilderness. But the caribou have slipped off into the misty fogs of history, perhaps never to return again.

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