Tag Archives: mountain caribou

None Of Last 3 South Selkirk Caribou Were Pregnant

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.

A FEMALE MOUNTAIN CARIBOU STANDS IN A MEADOW AT JASPER NATIONAL PARK, IN CANADA. (THOMAS HARTMANN, WIKIMEDIA, CREATIVE COMMONS 4.0 INTERNATIONAL)

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.

Only 3 South Selkirk Caribou Left, Intensive Survey Finds

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.

RECENT SURVEYS FOUND NO BULLS IN THE SOUTH SELKIRK HERD. (USFWS)

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.

WA-ID-BC Border Caribou Herd Down To 10; New Film Highlights Plight

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.

A SIGN ON A LOGGING ROAD IN 2003 ADVISES HUNTERS IN FAR NORTHERN IDAHO’S GRIZZLY AND MOUNTAIN CARIBOU COUNTRY TO BE SURE OF THEIR TARGETS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

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.

New calves could have been born since — along with last year’s pair, there was one in 2015 and 2014 — but other herd members without telemetry could have also died as well. 

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).

WASHINGTON’S 1905 HUNTING AND FISHING REGULATIONS, CERTAINLY SOMEWHAT SMALLER THAN TODAY’S TWO PAMPHLETS. (DAN CHRISTENSEN)

“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.