About a decade ago, I spent one lucky summer traipsing through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with six other young women. Towards the end of our trip, caribou began trickling through the valleys. " 'Bou!" we'd point and shout almost every time we glimpsed one. We knew what was coming: Thousands upon thousands would soon pour through the refuge on their way to wintering grounds. Each " 'bou" we saw lent the landscape movement and momentum, and somewhat inexplicably made us otherwise sarcastic teenagers burst with childlike enthusiasm. We knew we were scheduled to be scooped up by a bush plane before the big herds were likely to come through. But we held out hope that, this summer, nature wouldn't run quite on time.
As usual, though, nature had its own plans. We missed the mass migration. I still feel jilted.
The mountain caribou that occupy the Selkirk Mountains are just barely hanging on. Unlike their Alaskan relatives -- a subspecies depressingly dubbed barren-ground caribou -- the Selkirk mountain 'bou summer at high elevations and winter in old-growth forest, where they subsist almost entirely on lichen. As that habitat has been chopped into smaller pieces -- by logging, roads, wildfire -- their numbers have dwindled, and they've become more vulnerable to predators that typically favor ungulates from more wide-open spaces. They were listed as endangered in 1984, and the population has hovered around 40 ever since.
In 2002, environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant the rare ungulates critical habitat. When the agency dithered, environmentalists sued in 2009. In late November, it finally obliged, and proposed just over 375,000 acres of critical habitat in Idaho and Washington. Public comments are being accepted until the end of January.
If it goes through, the feds will have to consider whether activities they permit or help fund will impact the caribou's habitat. But it's not yet clear how the proposal will practically affect management. It could restrict logging and recreation, according to the Spokesman Review, but road closures are already in place in much of the caribou's recovery zone. The critical habitat alone is unlikely to save the caribou. Still, Mike Leahy, who heads up Defenders of Wildlife in the Rocky Mountains, told the Spokesman Review, "To protect endangered animals, we must protect the places they live."
I'm rooting for you 'bou.
Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.
Photo: Selkirk Mountain caribou, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service