America’s Most Endangered Mammal
Mountain caribou are the most endangered mammal in the country. Over the last 20 years, the population in the United States has plummeted. At last count, only 3 caribou remain in the Selkirk Mountains between Sandpoint, ID, and Nelson, British Columbia. There are other populations of mountain caribou remaining in British Columbia, but these populations are dwindling as well due to habitat fragmentation and associate impacts. We’re on the brink of losing this subspecies forever.
Unique Life Cycle
Mountain caribou have a unique life cycle completely different from the plains caribou farther north. This subspecies is adapted to mountainous country where old growth forests can still be found. Mountain caribou migrate up into the high country in winter and stand on the snowpack to reach arboreal lichens, their main food source.
Emergency efforts are underway to save the herd from disappearing altogether. One option is to transplant some caribou from other populations into Idaho, but this is controversial as no population has “surplus” caribou. If this strategy is still an option, the Kootenai and Kalispel Tribes have constructed a maternal pen where pregnant females and calves can be held until the calves reach an age where they can successfully defend themselves in the wild. During the summer of 2018, ICL stands ready to recruit volunteers to aid in the collection of arboreal lichens that will be used to feed caribou during penning.
A Path Toward Recovery
The current U.S. recovery plan was written in the 1990s and clearly failed to protect this species. Because the only functional populations now remain in Canada, the fate of this subspecies will largely be determined by the Canadian government’s new recovery plan which is still in development. The Kootenai Tribe is leading the effort to update the U.S. recovery plan for mountain caribou which will have to build on the measures that the Canadian government is willing to take. ICL is tracking this process and will be involved in the development of the new plan.