Ghost of the Selkirks fading fast

by Kevin Taylor

The last herd of mountain caribou in the United States and the people trying to save the herd have developed uncannily similar survival strategies: They both subsist for long stretches on very little of what they need.

For the caribou, it's food. For the biologists, researchers and conservation group members, it's money.

Mountain caribou, a subspecies of the woodland caribou, are well adapted to survive winter in the snow-laden forests of Western North America. They have platter-sized hooves that carry them over deep snows to elevations above 6,000 feet, where, out of reach of most predators, they spend months eating nothing but lichen on trees.

It's a trait that has helped an estimated 30 to 34 caribou hang on in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho, northeastern Washington and southeastern British Columbia, where they have been listed as an endangered species since 1984. Woodland caribou once ranged Northern tier states from Washington to Maine, but this small herd is all that's left in the U.S. - and most of the herd spends most of its time just north of the Canadian border.

Not too long ago, the herd's prospects looked fairly bright. During the 1990s, scientists transplanted caribou from other regions of Canada, increasing the Selkirk herd to some 70 animals from a low of about 20. But in 1998, British Columbia's wildlife ministry suspended the program. That decision, combined with a shrinking budget, pressure from the timber industry to drop the program, and the natural hazards of living in some of the most difficult terrain in North America, spells trouble for the creature known as the Ghost of the Selkirks.

In December 2001, biologists and conservationists gathered in Spokane, Wash., to reassess the caribou's situation. The participants couldn't help sounding pessimistic: "This effort, I don't want to say it's floundering, but nothing is clear-cut," said Suzanne Audet, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist based in Spokane.

"When you get down to 30 animals ... there are so many problems to overcome. With many species, 30 is considered extinction," said Jon Almack, senior wildlife biologist with the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We need transplants and we need captive rearing, and neither of those is in the works for us."

Failed transplants

When the woodland caribou recovery effort got under way in the 1980s, scientists thought they could count on transplants from the north to push the Selkirk herd over the hump. But after allowing the capture and release of 103 caribou, British Columbia suspended the program, citing concerns about the high mortality rate of transplanted animals. In some of the release years, nearly half of the radio-collared transplants didn't survive their first summers. Biologists were told there would be no more transplants until they found what was killing the caribou and figured out how to deal with it.

Suspicion fell on increased cougar populations. A just-completed four-year study concluded that cougar do kill caribou, but only incidentally, as the animals cross paths. Washington State University researcher Don Katnik said in December that he found no evidence of "yeti cats" stalking caribou at high elevations. But his study did confirm that cougar have multiplied in the Selkirks. Clear-cuts have made the forest more attractive to white-tailed deer, which feed on emerging vegetation, and the cats have followed the deer to higher-than-usual elevations, right into caribou country.

Predators aren't the only problem. Mountain caribou need old-growth forests to survive. Logging has decreased the caribou's historic range and has created younger, more open forests. Scientists say it takes 50 years for a tree to support lichen, and another 50 years before there's enough lichen to support a caribou.

Caribou also reproduce quite slowly. Mothers produce one calf every two or three years, and are not terribly protective of their young, says Washington Fish and Wildlife's Almack. The transplants remaining in the herd, about half of the 30 to 34, are believed to be nearing the end of their typical 12-year life spans.

Even the terrain poses a threat: Several Selkirk caribou die each year in avalanches or falls.

"At such low numbers, even losing one or two animals is significant," says Forest Service biologist Tim Bertram.

Where's the money?

As the Selkirk herd has diminished, so have the funds for its recovery. Suzanne Audet says the Fish and Wildlife Service now disburses $215,000 to Washington and Idaho agencies in what are known as Section 6 grants, down from $270,000 just four years ago. And not all of that is used for caribou. Idaho Fish and Game, for example, currently gets $120,000 in Section 6 grants, but only spends a quarter to a third of that on caribou, Audet said. The rest goes to grizzly bear recovery work in the Selkirks.

Private funding has helped fill in some of the funding needs. The Selkirk Conservation Alliance has raised $30,000 in the last two years to help fund caribou recovery work - including payment for such research basics as radio telemetry flights. Without that contribution, fieldwork would have come to a standstill, Almack said.

Even such a modest program has come under attack from some Western politicians. In 1998, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, asked the General Accounting Office to audit the Selkirk recovery effort, citing a lack of clear progress. But the audit, released in May of 1999, generally praised the effort for making modest gains despite a small budget. It was not widely circulated. Last summer, a Canadian timber group sent a wish list of sorts to the new industry-friendly Liberal Party government in B.C. Number 16 on the list was a request to give up on mountain caribou and lift logging restrictions.

Despite such overt opposition, biologists and conservationists still hope to turn things around for the Selkirk herd. Their top goal is to reinvigorate the Canadian transplant program, but new roadblocks keep materializing.

Last year, the British Columbia government officially recognized that its own caribou populations are imperiled and that any transplants now are likely to go to Canadian herds. And the ambiguous results of the cougar predation study don't give biologists a clear way to satisfy the B.C. government's concerns about predation.

Guy Woods, a B.C. provincial biologist based in Nelson, B.C., is organizing a spring transplant of 20 caribou for a diminishing herd in Canada's Purcell Mountains, just north of the Selkirks. Transplanted caribou would come from the Itcha-Ilgachuz herd, a fairly robust population of 2,000 caribou in central British Columbia.

In Spokane last December, U.S. biologists asked Woods if it was possible to get 40 caribou and drop off 20 in the Selkirks.

But, "the fact is, I haven't had anyone phone up from the States and say, "we have funding," Woods said, two weeks after the meeting.

And saving the Selkirk herd comes down to money, Almack says. "If we don't look like we're in it for the long haul, Canada is not going to give us more animals."

In February, caribou activists received more grim news when the B.C. government cancelled this spring's Purcell Mountains transplant.

As another deep winter arrives, the Ghost of the Selkirks - at least the few that remain - have climbed to their old haunts to wait it out on almost nothing at all.

 

Kevin Taylor writes from Spokane, Washington.

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