Mountain caribou are considered one of the most endangered large mammals in North America. Loss of old-growth habitat to logging and other development have reduced caribou numbers to roughly 1,900 animals across North America. The South Selkirk Mountains herd of woodland caribou, the world’s southernmost remaining caribou, occupy a transboundary range from SE British Columbia into NE Washington and NW Idaho. Just 12 mountain caribou remain in the South Selkirk herd (two are new calves this year), they survive on lichen from old-growth trees during the winter. These Northwest natives have steadily declined from a herd of 47 animals in 2007 due to human activity, predation and automobile collisions on Highway 3.
Red-listed in Canada and protected in the U.S. as an endangered species, mountain caribou are vulnerable and continuing to decline in number. Protection from snowmobiles in the Selkirks and an important new recovery plan is being developed. The recovery plan has some additional challenges due to the international coordination required, and issues related to the listing of just the South Selkirk Mountain Subpopulation vs. the whole Distinct Population Segment. Simply put, caribou in this subspecies predominantly eat their winter lichen diet from trees and move upslope in the winter, while other population segments located in Canada and Alaska eat ground lichens, allowing them to move to areas with less snow (typically lower elevations). This means that animals outside of the Distinct Population Segment can’t be transplanted to augment the Selkirk herd because they won’t survive.
On the bright side of the equation, David Moskowitz, a documentary film maker, wildlife photographer, and writer, has also been hugely helpful in gaining more national press and attention to their plight. The 2008 acquisition of the Darkwoods Property by the Nature Conservancy in Canada includes much of the area where the remaining South Selkirk herd currently finds refuge.
The Kootenai Tribe and US Fish & Wildlife Service are spearheading the recovery plan process and are working two sections of the document simultaneously to expedite development, the scientific update and the recovery action plan.