A caribou herd that roams where the borders of Washington, Idaho and British Columbia converge is down to 10 animals, a new low, with the recent death of a mature bull.
The news was confirmed this morning by a tribal biologist after it was announced last night at the premiere of a movie highlighting the precarious state of mountain caribou habitat in the Inland Northwest.
It’s a decline of two animals since last fall, when the herd was featured in a New York Times story, and one since an April survey found 11.
There are now believed to be two yearlings, seven cows — though some could be young males — and one bull left in the South Selkirk band.
Kalispel Tribe biologist Bart George in Ione says the latest one died in a remote area 10 miles north of the Canadian border that required a helicopter to access.
Because of an issue with the mortality signal, the carcass had been pretty well picked over by bears by the time researchers arrived last week, so it’s unclear what led to the animal’s death.
Captured as a 2- or 3-year-old bull, it was one of six South Selkirk caribou collared in 2014 for research. Two others have since been killed by wolves, one by an undetermined predator and a fifth was hit by a vehicle, George says.
Ten is the fewest the herd has ever numbered, though at one time mountain caribou were as numerous as “bugs,” according to a First Nations man interviewed for Last Stand: The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest, which debuted at The Mountaineers building at Sand Point in Seattle last night.
He was speaking about his grandfather’s memories, a time when mountain caribou ranged from the Prince George area of interior BC southeast to the mountains out of Spokane.
Along with providing sustenance for tribes, they were also hunted in Washington — or at least were listed in the 1905 regulations (annual limit one male during a season that ran from mid-September to mid-December).
“The South Selkirk subpopulation was considered abundant and possibly numbered in the hundreds in the late 1800s,” notes a WDFW status review published last year.
Those days are as long gone as some of the habitat for the lichen-eating herbivores that haunt the heights in winter and valleys in spring and fall.
According to the movie, less than 1,500 mountain caribou remain in what’s considered to be the world’s only inland temperate rainforest, which has provided more than a few of the boards that have gone and still go into our decks and homes, and is also subject to wildfires and bug and disease outbreaks.
It’s believed that as logging has opened up the mountains, moose, deer and elk followed and benefited from the new forage, but also drew wolves, as well as cougars and bears into caribou country. Unfamiliar with the threat, they’ve proven easy prey.
The South Selkirk Herd has declined from 51 in 1993, to 41 in 2003, 27 in 2013, 18 in 2014 and 14 in 2015, according to WDFW.
To save the species, BC began a wolf cull, with 20 removed in the herd’s range in the first two years (and hundreds elsewhere); it’s unclear how this past winter’s efforts went.
Wolves can also be hunted in North Idaho, but are off limits in Washington, though the state management plan has a clause that allows for removals “if they are causing a significant reduction in ungulate populations.”
Further north, biologists are also trying maternity penning to boost herd numbers. They’ve shown some success, but also received criticism.
That was certainly the case in Last Stand and afterwards during a question-and-answer session with the producers and others, where it was pointed out that protecting cows and calves at a vulnerable time came with a significant financial cost.
Overall, I found the 35-minute production to be good and fair, and I appreciated that it didn’t shy away from the threat posed by wolves, and that the producers recognized the loggers taking down the old growth were also human. They told a story about how just before one tipped over a big tree, he excitedly called them over to see a toad he’d just spotted.
As another First Nations man noted in the film, there are no good guys and bad guys in this.
Last Stand was directed by Colin Arisman and produced by David Moskowitz, along with coproducers Kim Shelton and Marcus Reynersen.
A trailer is available here, and it’s scheduled to be seen in Vancouver and Victoria tonight and tomorrow night, and Inland Northwest and Southeast BC locations this fall.
The only question is, will the South Selkirk caribou still be around then?
The movie narrator told last night’s audience the herd numbered 12, even as the producers revised that to 10.