What are believed to be the last two mountain caribou in the herd that haunts the rugged Washington-Idaho-British Columbia borderlands will be captured and relocated north this winter.
It’s a desperate last-gasp bid that will see the pair of cows join the final four members of another herd — three bulls and a female — in a pen near Revelstoke, 100 miles north of the international boundary.
That means that caribou are leaving the Northwest U.S., possibly forever.
“They are functionally extirpated already,” provincial wildlife biologist Leo Degroot told the CBC. “Two females on their own have no future. And in the Purcells, three bulls and a cow, are functionally extirpated as well.”
South Selkirk caribou have been dwindling for decades and had shrunk to 18 in 2015 when Canada launched a wolf cull; 12 in 2016, when their plight caught the attention of the New York Times; 10 in June 2017 when a film on them was released; and just three cows this past April.
The species has been affected by major habitat changes in the heights they roam, feeding on lichen.
Logging the old growth opened up the country, bringing deer, moose and elk higher up the mountains, with bears, cougars and wolves close behind, and caribou proved to be easy prey for the predators.
Biologist Bart George with the Kalispel Tribe says that the third South Selkirk cow was killed by a cougar this past summer.
The Kalispels have been working with Canadian counterparts to track the herd and last spring, when results showed that none of the last three cows were pregnant, George vowed to “do our best for this herd and try getting caribou back on the landscape.”
Now that possibility seems more and more remote.
Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest said that “today’s news marks the end of a tragic era,” but also said his organization and others on either side of the border were either.
“At this juncture, wildlife managers must pursue all possible options to ensure southern mountain caribou don’t disappear for good,” he said.
George says there have been some sightings around Kootenay Pass, but those are unsubstantiated. Exhaustive flights last winter found only the three.