There may be only three mountain caribou left in Washington’s, Idaho’s and British Columbia’s herd — a 75-percent decline since last year.
Mid-March’s intensive three-day winter survey found only cows as well.
“It’s a tough situation for caribou in the South Selkirks,” says Bart George, a wildlife biologist for the Kalispel Tribe in Cusick, north of Spokane.
It marks a new low for a herd challenged by large-scale habitat alterations and new predators, wolves, arriving in the heights.
At one time mountain caribou were as numerous as “bugs,” according to a First Nations man interviewed for Last Stand: The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest, a film that made the rounds in the region last summer.
George says that the three cows, which are fairly young animals of seven years or less, were all captured and given GPS collars.
They were also tested to see if they were pregnant.
Those results just arrived in Vancouver and “hopefully” will be available soon, he says, but if the animals are pregnant, that would mean there may still be a bull or two somewhere out there on the landscape, or at least was last fall.
And if the cows successfully bear calves, the herd could possibly rebuild to six later this spring, George says.
If not, managers may need to supplement with caribou from farther north — though that may also depend on what surveys in the Purcell Mountains turn up.
“We’re not going to just let three animals, especially cows, die in the Selkirks,” George vows.
This winter has been pretty solid in this mountainous country, with snowpack at 150 percent of average — “great for caribou” — but it also buried a maternity pen that was built especially for the cows, rendering it useless for protection from predators.
It’s also too late to safely recapture the cows if they are pregnant, George says.
He plans to intensify his monitoring of the herd with a spotting scope, maybe even drones, in hopes of finding that they had calves.
The collars may also lead them to other caribou that somehow were overlooked during the fixed-wing and helicopter surveys last month.
“We were hoping for 12 again,” George says.
As for why the herd’s numbers dropped so precipitously from a dozen in March 2017, he says it’s possible that other members had been hit by an avalanche or there was a vehicle strike on the main highway through the mountains, though he didn’t hear of one.
“We’re still going to move forward as if there are caribou on the landscape, and go ahead with wolf control actions” on the BC side of the herd’s range, George says.
He notes that there’s a collar on one of Washington’s Salmo Pack, which numbers six and overlaps with the ungulate’s recovery zone.
Though the caribou primarily stay in Canada, the southernmost herd in North America still make occasional forays into Washington and Idaho, according to collar data, George says.
Correction: The Kalispel Tribe’s name and headquarters were incorrect in the original version of this post. They are based in Cusick, not Ione, further north on the Pend Oreille River.