Selkirk caribou are quietly going extinct

The last herd of caribou in the Lower 48 has dwindled to just three animals.

 

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is senior program director for Resource Media in Kalispell, Montana.


To steal a line from the poet T.S. Eliot: This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper. Worse yet, extinction comes without even a whimper, only a click and a yawn.

The end of the line seems imminent for the last caribou of the Lower 48. Woodland caribou once roamed the forested northern tier from Maine to Michigan to Washington state, as they had for centuries. One herd has struggled for decades along the border of Washington, Idaho and British Columbia, in the Selkirk Mountain Range. Although I have seen the distinctive footprints of these caribou, I never caught up with any of them on the hoof.

Mountain caribou are almost gone from the Selkirk Mountains, where Idaho, Washington and British Columbia meet.

Now, my chances may soon be over. Biologists recently completed their winter survey of these animals and found only three individuals in the Selkirks. This is down from nearly 50 a decade ago. All three caribou are female. You don’t need a degree in biology to know how this story ends.

Even if those animals happen to be pregnant, the outlook is grim, said biologist Bart George, who works for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. 

“We are all in mourning,” George told me.

The southern population of mountain caribou in British Columbia, Alberta, Washington and Idaho is in a tailspin. The Selkirks are one of perhaps 15 mountain ranges that face similar problems, though some are not quite as dire.

I’ve been writing about these caribou for 30 years and reading about them my entire life. In my business — conservation and journalism — I write about extinction frequently. But it’s usually an abstract concept, something that could happen in the future, or has already happened in the past. This is happening now, on our watch.

Mountain caribou are uniquely adapted to life in snowy mountains. They thrive so well in harsh winter climates that they migrate up the mountains in the winter, surviving on certain types of lichen that hang from low tree branches. It’s a precarious way to make a living, though, and it doesn’t take much to impact their survival.

Caribou get killed by cars and poachers and cougars and wolves. But these are tiny nicks in the population compared to the slashing wounds of the large-scale clear-cut logging that has swept over British Columbia, Idaho and Washington since the 1960s. I don’t intend to point fingers; I print words on pulp, live in a wooden house and have friends and neighbors who make a living cutting and milling trees. But clear-cuts are killing the caribou. It’s just a fact.

The Selkirk Mountains are home to the last herd of caribou in the Lower 48, which has dwindled to just three members.

I believe that people have a right to log trees, but also a responsibility not to push our fellow beings into oblivion. That was the idea behind the Endangered Species Act. Extinction can be a natural process, but not when it’s driven by human greed and consumption. The Endangered Species Act is sometimes described as the “emergency room” of conservation. Unfortunately, critical care appears to be coming too little and too late for our caribou.

I could tell you all about how humanity’s fate is tied to our natural world, how healthy forests are crucial for clean water and “ecosystem services.” But forget all that. I’ll just say this: Caribou have a right to be here, and our nation is poorer without them. Extinction doesn’t always come about with a meteor strike from outer space. It’s usually a slower process — a trickle of bad news that comes gradually to a stop.

The fate of Selkirk mountain caribou isn’t unique. Today, there are less than 100 bighorn sheep left in the Teton Range near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There are about 75 resident orca whales in Puget Sound off Seattle. When population numbers get this low, conservation gets expensive, and the odds of survival grow increasingly long.

The Endangered Species Act is important, but the way out of this cycle is to not end up relying on it so heavily in the first place — to keep the land and water and wildlife healthy enough to not need the emergency room. For that, we need to acknowledge that wildlife habitat has a value, whether we are weighing it against cheap oil and a policy of “energy dominance,” or the growth of another foothills subdivision, or just the price of a two-by-four at the lumberyard.

Only a tiny handful of U.S. news outlets have even mentioned the crisis of the Selkirk caribou. I guess extinction in our time cannot compete against the latest tweetstorm from Hollywood or Washington, D.C. There is only a whimper, or maybe a few tears. I want to believe that America can do better than that. For the sake of our grandchildren, I hope I am right.

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