On an unusually cold and rainy July day 18 years ago, a friend of mine and I took a hike to Beehive Lake in Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains. We almost bagged our plans due to the foul weather. Perhaps it was fate that convinced us otherwise because that hike was a transformative experience. That was the day that I saw an animal I had never seen before. Standing near the shore of the lake was a four-legged ungulate. As I ran through the list of deer, elk, and moose in my mind, I realized that this member of the deer family was not one of the usual suspects. There could be only one possible answer: We had stumbled upon a caribou.
I knew the answer because I had read stories about the "gray ghosts" of the Selkirks in the morning paper. Mountain caribou are not like their cousins in the far north. During the winter months they move to high elevations where they feed exclusively on the lichens that hang from old growth spruce and fir trees. This is a strategy they employ to evade predators, who otherwise tend to follow their prey to lower elevations when the snow pack in the high mountains begins to build up.
Mountain caribou used to inhabit an extensive geographic area that extended as far south as Idaho’s Selway River. Over time, mountain caribou have been relegated to small, isolated herds, the most southern of which lives in the transboundary region of the Selkirk Mountains between Sandpoint and Nelson, British Columbia. At last count, there are only three female caribou left in the Selkirks. Without any males left to court the ladies, this herd is functionally extinct.
The next closest herd faces a similarly dire situation. The Purcell herd near Cranbrook, B.C., consists of one male and one female caribou. Desperate times call for desperate measures: Biologists have decided to round up the remaining caribou from the Selkirk and Purcell herds and enter them into a captive breeding program near Revelstoke, B.C. Biologists hope to breed caribou in captivity and restock the Selkirk and Purcell herds in the future.
I know that it can be hard to find hope for caribou when the situation has become so perilous, but perhaps it is these kinds of circumstances that will bring about success. The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Kalispel Tribe have stepped up to lead the way as they draft a new recovery plan.
I think that the tribes’ biologists have the right attitude. They are not willing to accept failure without trying to do everything they can to save caribou. I applaud them for stepping up and having the right attitude.
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