Only 11 Caribou Left In The Northwest (And Lower 48), Can They Be Saved?

Piles of lichen hang in hammocks in Cheryl Moody's garage in north Idaho.CREDIT: EMILY SCHWING

The last herd of caribou found anywhere in the lower 48 states is in the Pacific Northwest. To be clear, this caribou herd is tiny.

“Today, these are the last 11 that occupy habitat in the Lower 48.”

Biologist Ray Entz directs the wildlife program for the Kalispel Indian tribe.

“So, once these are gone, it’s over for the United States,” he said.

The herd is called the South Selkirk Mountain caribou. They live in a mountain range that stretches across the U.S.-Canada border into northeastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle.

The tiny herd of caribou in the Southern Selkirk Mountains of Idaho is the last 11 caribou that occupy habitat in the lower 48 states. CREDIT STEVE FORREST / U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

The tiny herd of caribou in the Southern Selkirk Mountains of Idaho is the last 11 caribou that occupy habitat in the lower 48 states. CREDIT STEVE FORREST / U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

 

In the winter, these animals head for the mountains and feast on lichen that hangs from tree branches.

Last fall, the Kalispels joined forces with other tribes, wildlife management agencies and conservation groups on both sides of the border to build an 18-acre maternity pen in British Columbia. That’s where between five and eight pregnant caribou will give birth this spring, away from the threat of predators.

The goal is to help the herd grow. The challenge is feeding those pregnant animals once they’re in the pen.

This winter, a group of biologists, tribal members and volunteers are trudging through forests in Idaho and Washington to collect lichen as part of a last-ditch effort to boost the herd’s numbers.

In the garage of Cheryl Moody’s north Idaho home, there’s a row of hammocks hanging from wall to wall. Moody is the executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance.

The hammocks—the kind you’d normally hang between two trees and lounge in with a good book or a beer—are full of stringy, crunchy, dried out, bright, green lichen. It’s exactly the kind mountain caribou love to munch on.

It looks like pea green hair.

“Many people are familiar with this,” Moody said. “People mistake it for moss frequently, but as kids we called it ‘witches hair’ or ‘goat’s beard,’

The lichen that volunteers have collected over the fall and winter will go to feed pregnant caribou this spring, once they are placed in a maternity pen in British Columbia. The pen will provide protection from predators for both the caribou and their calves. CREDIT EMILY SCHWING / NORTHWEST NEWS NETWORK

The lichen that volunteers have collected over the fall and winter will go to feed pregnant caribou this spring, once they are placed in a maternity pen in British Columbia. The pen will provide protection from predators for both the caribou and their calves. CREDIT EMILY SCHWING / NORTHWEST NEWS NETWORK

 

Moody collected the lichen by hand along with other volunteers from tree branches for most of the last year.

“When we use the poles to pull the lichen down off the trees, we get a lot of small sticks, pine needles and other debris,” Moody said.

Lichen is high in protein and nutrients and readily available in the winter when other plants are not. And Ray Entz says pregnant caribou eat tons of it.

“It’s like 38 pounds per day per animal,” he said.

Lichen weighs virtually nothing and this crew has to gather between 150 and 250 pounds of the stuff, hang it, dry and clean it by early March.

“This 250 pounds of lichen is just to sustain those animals over that first 10 days, so they are weaned off of lichen and on to pelletized food,” Entz said. “And then as they are released, the snow melt makes available their regular diet of buds and leaves and things from shrubbery and forbs.”

This is the first year a maternity pen has been used to help the South Selkirk herd. Entz said they are “the most critically endangered mammal species in North America.” That’s why he and other volunteers are trying so hard to save them:

“I don’t care if we fail. If we try everything and anything to recover caribou and they don’t make it, I’m ok with that,” Entz said. “But if we just sit back and let them go, when we had an opportunity to interject and recover the species and we didn’t do it, I can’t live with that.”

If the caribou and their calves do well in the maternity pen this spring, wildlife managers could help boost the herds numbers in future years with caribou from Canada.

For now, people like Cheryl Moody will keep gathering and cleaning lichen, because the last caribou in the contiguous U.S. aren’t gone yet.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network

Related Stories:

In this May 8, 2003, a northern spotted owl sits on a tree branch in the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman, Ore. CREDIT: Don Ryan/AP

Timber Wars Continued: Conservationists Sue To Save Spotted Owl Logging Protections

Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit seeking to preserve protections for 3.4 million acres of northern spotted owl habitat from the US-Canada border to northern California, the latest salvo in a legal battle over logging in federal old-growth forests that are key nesting grounds for the imperiled species. Continue Reading Timber Wars Continued: Conservationists Sue To Save Spotted Owl Logging Protections

Read More »