by Kevin Taylor
Extinction. The finality of the word gives it drama, power, as if a terrible swift sword is at work. But there is a reality to extinction that can seem almost banal. The last herd of mountain caribou in the United States may be headed that way on muffled hooves instead of being dragged, kicking and screaming, in a frenzy of attention as flashbulbs pop and microphones are thrust in their muzzles.
"You're headed over the edge, big fella... tell us what you're thinking!"
The truth of extinction has come slowly, as an afterthought over decades of logging and play, as we have changed the forests to suit our own purposes. And these caribou, which have adapted to survive winter by eating lichen off of old-growth trees, can't live there as easily any more.
Rangifer tarandus caribou, also known as woodland caribou, a member of the reindeer family, once ranged in northern-tier states from here to Maine. Now they are down to about 2,300, mostly in British Columbia, with an estimated 30 or 34 in the Selkirks, some two hours northeast of Spokane.
It is an animal few of us have ever seen and, unlike grizzly bears or wolves, it does not stir our imagination. Because of its low profile, recovery efforts have been so poorly funded that it is like trying to save a species with duct tape and string.
On Friday, representatives of the various state, federal and Canadian agencies -- known as the International Mountain Caribou Technical Committee (IMCTC) -- will meet at Washington State University's Riverpoint Campus just east of downtown Spokane, to hear about the latest wrinkles and research in the effort to keep this caribou herd from dying out.
Members of the Lands Council, a Spokane-based conservation group, will also be on hand wearing caribou costumes -- one for each animal believed to be in the herd (yes, it's a small group) -- petitioning that land in the caribou recovery area be designated as critical habitat. This is a mechanism that would allow land use to be managed more aggressively in favor of the caribou by limiting logging and winter activities (such as snowmobiling and backcountry skiing, which uses helicopters or snow cats for access).
Just as extinction doesn't arrive on the edge of a flaming sword, saving critical habitat is not the single magic shield that will stave it off.
"There are five or six factors, each taking a little bite out of the cookie," says Guy Bailey of northern Idaho's Selkirk Conservation Alliance. "No one factor, individually, is enough to crash the herd, but with animals that don't reproduce faster than the rate at which members are lost by predation or old age or accidental death, you simply don't have a herd growing fast enough to keep up with its losses."
That makes habitat protection a priority. The better the habitat, the better the chances of survival, Bailey says.
While they agree habitat protection is important, wildlife and research biologists involved in the recovery effort say there are so few caribou that habitat is not the most critical issue.
"The herd is so small now that even if the habitat was perfect and there were no cougars, the caribou could still go," says Don Katnik, a research biologist at WSU and chair of the IMCTC.
"They have a low reproductive rate even in the best of conditions," says Tim Bertram, a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service.
So a more immediate focus for the biologists is to increase the number of caribou either through transplants or a captive-breeding program. Several speakers at Friday's IMCTC meeting will address aspects of what is called augmentation. None of the reports promises to be especially cheerful.
In the past, the Selkirk herd was
augmented by transplants of
mountain caribou from herds in British
Columbia -- 113 animals were released here in six different years -- but the Canadians have refused to allow such transplants since 1998, citing the high mortality rate.
Biologists here say that without such transplants, the Selkirk herd would have already vanished. And they say more are needed -- not just for raw numbers but also because many of the existing animals are nearing the end of their typical life spans. The herd needs more caribou cows of reproductive age.
In recent years, the mountain caribou populations in Canada have either become unstable or are in serious decline -- one herd in the nearby Purcell Mountains has nose-dived from an estimated 75-100 animals six years ago to fewer than 20 today -- and the Canadian government last year "red-listed" the caribou. This is similar to the endangered status given the mountain caribou here in the United States.
One might think that red-listing could pave the way toward greater cooperation between the two countries to save the caribou. The political realities, however, are different.
"How do you make an endangered species recovery plan work when the only source of animals is from another endangered population? That's a real challenge," says Jon Almack, a biologist with the Washington Department of Wildlife.
Red-listing has restricted logging, the No. 1 industry in British Columbia, Almack noted, "And obviously it would not sit well with the logging industry when you turn around and say we're going to take 20 animals and give them to the Yanks. They'd say if the herds are that healthy, why do we have restrictions? So there are political concerns."
A proposal for a captive breeding facility near Vancouver, B.C. -- funded by a wealthy eccentric -- was seen as a way around this dilemma. But that effort appears to have crumpled with the stock market. The facility was deemed to be too small, and it recently lost its staff veterinarian, so it's officially on hold. Unofficially, people involved say the recovery itself may well be extinct.
So the nets of hope are cast in wider circles. The University of Alberta's Keri Zitlau will speak Friday about her research into genetic similarities between the mountain caribou and another woodland subspecies, the northern caribou.
Northern caribou are different than the barren-ground caribou that populate the Arctic. However, they appear to be genetically similar to mountain caribou -- or close enough to make transplanting a possibility.
But this raises another question. "If you bring down northern caribou and mix them with mountain caribou, can you still say they are threatened?" WSU's Katnik asks.
Katnik will speak on his studies into
what has been a real threat to the
Selkirk herd -- being eaten by cougars.
This is a habitat-related issue. As we have logged the forest and thinned the old-growth canopy, we have made it a more attractive place for white-tailed deer, which feed on emerging vegetation. The whitetails, in turn, have brought more cougars. And cougars -- especially the infamous No. 653 who was shot and killed two years ago -- sometimes find caribou to be an easy meal.
Katnik's study -- tracking both radio-collared caribou and radio-collared cougars -- appears to show that cougars do not especially target caribou, it's just that with a herd so small it's another little nudge closer to the edge whenever a caribou is lost to one of the big cats.
"At this point, the population can't overcome what we would consider a normal level of predation," Almack says.
In a situation like this, he adds, transplanting animals -- not just once or twice, but over perhaps 10 years -- is the only way to push the herd far enough away from the brink so that everyone can take a deep breath and begin to address other issues, such as habitat conditions, fertility rates and predation.
"The problem is we don't know what is preventing the herd from increasing. It could be something as simple as there aren't enough pregnant females or that calves aren't surviving. It could be a whole host of things," Almack says.
"I think we have to address all three problems," Katnik says. "One, you have to manage the forest properly. Two, you have to bring more animals in. Three, if you go bring in new caribou you might need to focus on more drastic measures for predators -- like taking cats out of the Kootenay Pass area.''
Bertram, who is now something of a Forest Service bigwig, working on lynx recovery efforts out of the agency's regional office in Missoula, was involved with the Selkirk caribou herd since recovery efforts began in the late-1970s. He still has an interest in the animals.
"It's been a tough row to hoe with the caribou. I hope we don't give up the ship," Bertram says. "Even if there was more money, caribou recovery is a small part on the scale of all endangered species. So it becomes, largely, a political decision -- are we going to do something here or not? I guess you have to call a spade a spade. Some people argue with me and say we have done a lot and the herd hasn't grown and we should stop. I say no."
The International Mountain Caribou Technical Committee meets on Friday, Dec. 7, from 11 am- 4 pm at WSU's Riverpoint Campus in the Phase I Classroom Building, room 117. Call: 838-4912.