More grim news about the last herd of mountain caribou known to frequent the Lower 48: Pregnancy tests on the remaining three females all came back negative.
That means the subpopulation of North America’s southernmost caribou is dangerously close to becoming extirpated from Washington and Idaho.
The news has left wildlife biologists wondering what to do next.
“We don’t really know,” said Bart George with the Kalispel Tribe north of Spokane. “We’re trying to figure that out, talking to our Canadian counterparts.”
The only three members of the South Selkirk Herd seen during a three-day March survey, biological samples were taken from the cows during capture and collar operations, and George had been hopeful that they’d been bred the previous fall.
But the negative results now suggest that the other animals all died between late winter 2017’s count of 11 and last October’s and November’s rut.
“I don’t know where we would’ve missed them,” George said of this year’s search.
He points to changed predator-prey dynamics in the heights where the caribou feed on lichen that grows on old-growth timber, which is being logged, opening up browse for deer, moose and elk, which brought up bears, cougars and increasingly, wolves.
George said that the three South Selkirk females are otherwise in their prime breeding years.
“They should have been bred” if there was another bull in the area, he said.
It’s now bitterly ironic, but last fall a maternity pen was constructed specifically for these females to be able to rear calves in a predator-proof enclosure.
Another recent survey found just four mountain caribou in the South Purcell herd, which roams near Kimberley, BC, about 40 miles north of the international border.
George said it’s possible that that quartet — all bulls — could end up together with the South Selkirk trio.
Recent news coverage of the dramatic decline in the herd focused on the word extinction, but that’s not really the correct term.
“If this herd is extirpated, it’s a pretty significant range constriction for southern mountain caribou,” said George.
But he’s still not ready to give up hope.
“We’re still going to be managing caribou one way or another. We’re going to do our best for this herd and try getting caribou back on the landscape,” he said.