It’s probably difficult to know this with absolute certainty, but it seems the last wild caribou in the contiguous United States has left the building. Two weeks ago, in the Selkirk Mountains just over the US/Canada border, biologists captured the caribou, a female, thought to be the only surviving member of a herd that once frequently roamed the northern US, crossing into Canada at times. The caribou was sequestered for a short time in a holding pen, and will soon be set free to join a large, healthy herd in British Columbia.
The Selkirk herd this caribou once belonged to was enormous and ranged throughout Idaho, Washington, and BC. It was at least 50 head in size a decade ago, but in recent years, biologists warily watched a rapid decline in the herd’s numbers. Human encroachment in the form of logging, hunting, and recreation gradually split the herd into smaller and smaller groups, make them more vulnerable.
By 2016, the herd’s numbers were down to 12 individuals and last spring, only three remained—all female.
“We’ve really jeopardized their habitat over the last 30 to 40 years through unsustainable rates of logging,” Mark Hebblewhite, a Canadian wildlife biologist at the University of Montana, told The Guardian. “It’s all about habitat. You can do everything you want; you can kill wolves, you can kill invasive predators, you can kill species like moose … but without habitat what you’re doing is just buying time.”
Though this last Selkirk caribou will be re-introduced to the wild, along with several members of other herds that have also been wiped out, nobody knows what the ultimate fate of caribou is in BC and the rest of the Pacific Northwest. These caribou are evolved to live in forested mountainsides and increasing habitat loss will likely continue. Some conservationists argue against removing threatened animals like caribou, even if it’s in the best interest for the species because once a threatened animal is removed its habitat, it becomes easier for outside groups to lobby against that habitat’s protection. Thus, more forested land can be exposed to logging, which encroaches on an animal’s habitat. A vicious circle.
It’s also a circle that can continually grow larger, gobbling up other species in its destructive wake. If protections are lifted for caribou habitat because there are no longer any caribou there, entire ecosystems can be threatened. The protections extend to any other animal in that area.
While this is the last wild caribou in the US, Canadian herds are also being devastated by habitat loss. Some 70 percent of caribou herds in Canada are in decline, with some herds losing as many as 60 percent of their numbers inside a decade.