Amer­ica’s wild rein­deer have qui­etly gone ex­tinct in the Lower 48 states

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Karin Brulliard WASH­ING­TON POST

This year, in the dead of win­ter, Amer­ica’s wild rein­deer went ex­tinct in the con­tigu­ous United States.

After years of dwin­dling, the last re­main­ing herd of cari­bou known to roam be­tween Canada and the Pa­cific North­west states of Idaho and Wash­ing­ton was down to just one known mem­ber. In Jan­uary, wildlife man­agers in Bri­tish Columbia cap­tured the fe­male and put her in a pen, where they hope she will have a bet­ter shot at sur­vival than alone in the snowy wilder­ness.

“It was the right move,” said Ray Entz, direc­tor of wildlife and ter­res­trial re­sources for the Kal­ispel Tribe in Wash­ing­ton, which has par­tic­i­pated in the in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to con­serve the South Selkirk herd, named for the steep moun­tains it in­hab­ited. “That an­i­mal was not go­ing to sur­vive.”

For the fore­see­able fu­ture, the cap­ture put an end to the Selkirk herd in the wild, which was al­ready what bi­ol­o­gists con­sider “func­tion­ally ex­tir­pated.” The herd was one of 15 iso­lated sub­pop­u­la­tions of a broader group known as south­ern moun­tain cari­bou, which, as their name in­di­cates, live in dif­fer­ent land­scape from the ro­bust north­ern tundra herds. All 15 are shrink­ing, mostly be­cause of hu­man de­vel­op­ment that fa­tally al­tered their habi­tat.

Cari­bou once also pop­u­lated north­ern New Eng­land and up­per parts of Great Lakes states. But their range steadily con­tracted north­ward. In 1983, when fewer than 30 mem­bers re­mained, the Selkirk herd was added to the en­dan­gered species list.

The Selkirk pop­u­la­tion was up to al­most 50 in 2009, but since then it has been “go­ing down, down, down,” said Leo DeG­root, a gov­ern­ment wildlife bi­ol­o­gist in Bri­tish Columbia. An an­nual cen­sus found just three an­i­mals in 2018. “They have no fu­ture with one, two or three an­i­mals.”

Even be­fore the re­cent cap­ture, the Selkirk cari­bou seemed to have given up on the Amer­i­can por­tion of their range. No U.S. sight­ings had been con­firmed since 2012, though ra­dio col­lar data in­di­cated one en­tered Wash­ing­ton in late 2014, ac­cord­ing to a man­age­ment plan by a mul­ti­a­gency, in­ter­na­tional group that stud­ies the pop­u­la­tion.

“They don’t call them the gray ghost for noth­ing,” Entz said, us­ing a nick­name for the an­i­mals, which have al­ways been elu­sive.

The moun­tain cari­bou live in in­land tem­per­ate rain forests and move in the win­ter to higher el­e­va­tions in search of what they sur­vive the sea­son on: furry ar­bo­real lichen hang­ing from old-growth trees. Their mas­sive hoofs – “pie plate or din­ner plate, that’s not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion,” Entz said – func­tion as snow­shoes as they tra­verse the slopes.

Of­fi­cially, pre­da­tion by wolves and moun­tain lions were the main cause of the herd’s col­lapse. But it started with hu­mans, DeG­root said.

The for­est has been frag­mented over decades by log­ging, roads, power lines and, in Canada, oil ex­plo­ration and min­ing. Smaller fo­liage that grew back in its place at­tracted moose, deer and elk, and they, in turn, drew preda­tors. The preda­tors make their liv­ing off the plen­ti­ful new­com­ers, DeG­root said, but the cari­bou be­came “by­catch.”

“The cari­bou are just a more vul­ner­a­ble species. They don’t kick hard like a moose. They’re not as skit­tish as a deer. They never have twins,” DeG­root said. “So with these changes, they’re the ones that pay the price.”

Cana­dian wildlife man­agers de­cided to cap­ture the fi­nal Selkirk cari­bou after de­ter­min­ing that one of the three counted last year – all of which wore ra­dio col­lars – had been killed by preda­tors, and the other had been miss­ing for months and was likely dead. After the fe­male was caught in a net shot from a he­li­copter, bi­ol­o­gists se­dated and trans­ported her to a ma­ter­nity pen near Revel­stoke, B.C.

The pens are typ­i­cally used as tem­po­rary cari­bou ob­stet­rics wards and nurs­eries. Be­cause new­borns are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to preda­tors, man­agers move preg­nant fe­males to the en­clo­sures, where they are fed un­til the calves are more than a month old.

The Revel­stoke pen now holds the Selkirk cari­bou and three oth­ers – a calf that was born there and re­turned after its mother was killed, and two from an­other dwin­dling south­ern moun­tain herd. The plan is to cap­ture a fe­male from a nearby herd who will get to know the other refugees and then, when man­agers re­lease them all at once, lead them into her habi­tat.

Entz said the Kal­ispel Tribe, which his­tor­i­cally de­pended on Selkirk cari­bou as a meat source, want them back in the Lower 48. “I am res­o­lute about the re­turn of that species,” Entz said. “It’s too easy to say, ‘Well, they’re not here, let’s quit.’ That’s not the tribe’s per­spec­tive.”

Con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions echo that. Last month, the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity and two other groups an­nounced plans to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice for fail­ing to des­ig­nate pro­tected cari­bou habi­tat in north­ern Idaho and north­east Wash­ing­ton. The agency in 2011 pro­posed set­ting aside more than 375,000 acres, but after op­po­si­tion from snow­mo­bil­ers and oth­ers, it cut that down to about 30,000 acres. A fed­eral court later or­dered Fish and Wildlife to re­con­sider, but the agency has not is­sued a de­ci­sion.

Cari­bou may be gone from the con­tigu­ous United States, but pro­tect­ing their for­mer range could pro­vide “a fight­ing chance,” for their re­turn, said An­drea San­tar­siere, an at­tor­ney for the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity. “With­out habi­tat pro­tec­tions, the chances of us see­ing cari­bou in the Lower 48 again is pretty slim.”

Getty Im­ages file photo

Cari­bou graze in the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. After years of dwin­dling, wildlife man­agers say the last re­main­ing herd of cari­bou known to roam in the Pa­cific North­west states of Idaho and Wash­ing­ton is gone.

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