The Extinction of the Mountain Caribou

Mountain Caribou Buck, South Selkirk Range. Photo: Steve Forrest/USFWS

Mountain Caribou Buck, South Selkirk Range. Photo: Steve Forrest/USFWS

The last two Mountain Caribou in Idaho were live captured last year and transported to Canada. The Mountain Caribou are now extinct in Idaho.

Don’t confuse the Mountain Caribou – a subpopulation of the Woodland Caribou – with Barren Lands Caribou, the big herds on the North Slope of Alaska. Mountain Caribou are an ecotype, a genetically distinct geographic variety, a population or race within the species Rangifer tarandus, a genotypically adapted to specific environmental conditions. In this case, it is a subspecies adapted to the alpine regions like Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains, dependent on old forest mosses and lichens for survival six months or more of the years. It’s bigger and bulkier than the more familiar Alaska caribou subspecies.

It was loss of those mosses and lichens, in substantial part, that led to the extinction of Idaho’s Woodland Caribou. Industrial forestry, especially clearcutting; the corridors created by high-tension power lines and highways; harassment, intentional and unintentional, by snow machiners; climate change and its impact on alpine habitats; there’s no shortage of villains and mistakes. We can’t save the caribou; it’s too late. But we can draw lessons.

To some extent, it was the interaction of human impacts that killed the caribou. Maybe forest thinning wouldn’t have had as much of an impact if wolves hadn’t been re-introduced in the Selkirk Mountains. Maybe the wolves wouldn’t have had such a serious impact if the roads and power line cuts hadn’t created inadvertent hunting zones. Maybe the power lines wouldn’t have had such an impact if snow machines didn’t hotrod along them frightening the caribou and forcing them to waste precious energy running away. Maybe the unusually snowy winter  of 2015-2016 had an outsized impact on the few remaining animals. Maybe we’ll never know for sure.

Idaho’s Mountain Caribou went through the whole Endangered Species Act drill. There was a recovery plan. New animals from Canada were introduced. It didn’t work, likely because of the extensive habitat alteration and human disruptions.

So the chief lesson to be drawn from the loss of the Mountain Caribou is that we cannot permit further habitat alteration. We cannot wait until the threat multiply, and the populations are catastrophically low, to try and save a species. We cannot wait until it is too late.