Northern Idaho’s tiny woodland caribou herd gets federal proposal for large critical habitat

U.S./B.C. herd of 50 to finally get critical habitat-

Woodland caribou, far more rare than the well known barren ground caribou, have kept a tiny toehold in the United States in the Panhandle of Idaho. Even that sometimes slips and the herd spends its time just to the north in British Columbia. About 600 square miles of the American area is being proposed as “critical habitat” by the U.S. government under the Endangered Species Act.

For those whose tendency is to say of any wild animal, “well if you want to see it, you can just go to Canada,” the woodland caribou is struggling for survival there too. In fact Canada just proposed a captive breeding program for some of the mere 250 woodland caribou that cling to life in the National Parks of Canada in Alberta and British Columbia.  Parks Canada also hopes to use these national parks as a source to restore the caribou to Banff National Park where an avalanche in 2009 took out the last small herd in that famous area.

To survive, woodland caribou need undisturbed inland rain forest where they feed to tree lichens.  That has been vanishing quickly in Canada due to logging and energy development.  Logging increases the number of whitetailed deer.  Of course predators follow the deer into caribou country and kill some of the few caribou opportunistically.

The development of snowmobiles trails and high powered alpine snowmobiles also harm the wintering caribou. The decline in the use of the Idaho portion of the is small herd can be largely blamed on snowmobiles according to the Idaho Conservation League.

Here is an AP story by John Miller on the recent proposal for the American side. After lawsuit, federal agency proposes new caribou habitat protections in Northern Idaho.



  1. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

    They face some pretty serious hurdles to survivor and could certainly benefit from the popular support their fictional cousins Rudolph and the other flying reindeer garner worldwide.

    Several of them, much of the annual recruitment is killed on Canadian roads in British Columbia – certainly something a wildlife friendly overpass or underpass could solve. And they certainly don’t do well in the winter with snowmobiles, particularly groomed trails. In addition to being shy compared to their tundra barren-ground cousins, snowmobile tracks and trails give predators like mountain lions and gray wolves a leg up on them.

    More out of our immediate control is the looming threat of climate change, particularly in the interior temperate rainforests of the NW. Less snowpack means two things putting the mountain caribou at risk of extinction: 1) without a decent snowpack, they won’t be reaching the filamentous lichens that drape what remains of the old-growth forests of Northern ID, NE Washington, and British Columbia in the southern Selkirks.

    2) The snowpack also gives them an advantage in the winter for avoiding predation. Less snow, more successful predators at the expense of a tiny remnant herd of mountain caribou.

    not so cheerful

    Larry Zuckerman

    1. william huard Avatar
      william huard

      Hasn’t the population of this herd stayed around 40 for several years? I thought I saw a story a few years ago about the precarious population level

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Another token trophy head for the Hunter Wall Of Shame. The Woodland Caribou used to range from the Continental Divide all the way to the Cascades, never in great numbers like Elk or even Moose, but a stable population . With the encroachment of newly arrived settlers , land grabbers , rampant uncontrolled grazing , and of course hunting, the Woodland Caribou in the Lower 48 were all but extincted.

    We even had them in Wyoming. The forest on the Idaho-Wyoming border is , in fact, called the Caribou National Forest.

    The remnant Selkirk Caribou are more a fossil population than a viable herd unit. They probably number less than 100 , counting those on both sides of the international border between British Columbia and Idaho.

    What a travesty. And I always remind the hunting community that there once were 10-12 million Elk in the Lower 48 state, ranging in the east from the Berkshire Mountains ( Hills ) of Massachusetts all the way to the Pacific Coast in the west , and they were almost extincted by lead poisoning, too.

    The North American Big Game Conservation Model so touted by the ” hunters” is actually one big guilt trip. It came to late for Woodland Caribou.

    1. Jay Avatar

      Actually people moving into the wild areas caused the demise of more animals than any hunter. The lumber in your house, the toilet paper you use or any other product you use originating from timber is what has hurt the woodland caribou. With the expansion of people altering the boreal landscape, you have an expansion of whitetailed deer. If you did not know this, a parasite in which the white tailed deer is the primary host is what kills more woodland caribou than anything. Old growth forests and their lichens are required for these ungulates and without large tracts of old growth conifer/boreal forests you will not have woodland caribou.

      More harm is done by one tree hugger “back to nature” type of person moving into previously wilderness areas than a dozen hunters. The landscape gets fragmented, edge habitat is created and white tail deer move in. Once that happens all the prohibition of hunting in the world can not save woodland caribou, the brain worm it brought into the area and causes the caribou to die out. Ironically the white tail deer offer a alternate prey base for the wolves and bears in the area causing them to increase and while the caribou get a little respite from predation, in the long run the wolf population grows and turn back to hunting caribou also.

      The woodland caribou is a species that has been declining since the end of the ice age, their habitat has changed and the lichens are not as previlant, so therefor they do not have their natural food as readily. Speicies who are specialists, like the woodland caribou, suffer the most with the slightest alteration of their environment; they can not readily adapt. On the other hand, species that are generalists, like the white tailed deer, adapt and conform to numerous environments and do well.

  3. Jeff Avatar

    I traveled to nothern Maine this summer and read a little about the former herds there. The last died in the 1920s—they tried twice to restart caribou herds in Maine without success. Were these Woodland Caribou too. I always wondered about the orgins of “Caribou National Forest” as a geographical name, but I never heard of Caribou in this region.

    1. aves Avatar

      Yes, those were woodland caribou in Maine too. The efforts to re-establish them failed mainly due to a brainworm carried by white-tailed deer.

    2. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

      However there are different ecotypes of woodland caribou – there used to be caribou right across the northern tier of the US from Maine westward including MI, WI, and MN.

      The Southern Selkirk Mountain caribou are quite unique in that they move up and down the mountains with the snowpack feeding on filamentous lichens – so it is more like a vertical migration. Really quite different than the barren-ground caribou herds that have dramatic horizontal or geographic migrations across the Alaskan and Yukon tundra.

      1. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        My understanding is that the historical range of Caribou was about to the southern boundary of what is now Colorado forming an arc from what is now New York state describing an arc, in the west to the Cascades into BC.

        What is curious is an almost zero account of Caribou from the accounts of early European explores in the “lower 48”

        You would think that Lewis and Clark or certainly the early French trappers would have had some account of them.

  4. aves Avatar

    I suggest replacing the words in the headline from “woodland caribou herd” to “gray wolf pack” to trick more people into paying attention to such a critical issue.

    There’s over 300 comments for “Not enough wolves killed in Montana hunting season…” but only 6 here and that’s part of the problem for the woodland caribou.

    1. WM Avatar

      Maybe if some of the national and regional environmental advocacy groups, and their supporters, would pull their heads out of their respective asses, and concentrate on the true endangered status of these small populations of woodland caribou and the struggles they face, and get away from beating this wolf issue to death, some help for this truly emperiled species could be sought. Unlike wolves, they are not very adaptable. Here is one matter CBD has gotten right.

      [Sorry for the long sentence, but you get the point.]

      1. bret Avatar

        I agree WM , but if you go to WDFW conservation page you will see what the priorities are.

        1. WM Avatar


          I gather you are referring to the WA DFW lack of reference to the caribou, while other species are noted. The big thing, which does not appear on the Conservation tab but is dominant on the state’s recovery effort priority list is the incredible amount of time, money and effort the staff, and now the Commission has put in on this stupid (and likely unsustainable) wolf management plan that they will adopt in a couple of days. The Department has been so consumed by this innane wolf thing, nearly everything else, except marine fish stuff, has taken a back seat. I sure hope they get back to doing the people’s business, instead of Harriet Allen’s wolf plan, which they have absolutely no way of funding, enforcing or defending (when it gets to litigation as I am sure it will) when the state delisting thing approaches plan thresholds.

          I vote woodland caribou any day as a top priority fow WA and have mentioned it several times over the last couple of years on this website as the topic has popped up. The problem is, there is not much real hope for much of a real recovery, without a huge effort (and the looming climate change stuff), as is suggested by Ralph’s introductory comments, as well as some of the papers both BC wildlife folks and WDFW have put together over the years.

          1. bret Avatar

            That was precisely my point WM, you just said it better than I, the caribou used to have a much more prominent place on their page of species of concern/threatened.

            The wolf plan was written in such a way as to stay out of the courts, (my opinion) but I don’t think it will work.

            the WDFW thinks that in the future they will get revenue from a trophy wolf hunt?? just one of the assumptions that went into this. plan

      2. Nancy Avatar

        Yeah I can see it now WM – pull the woodland caribou back from the brink of extinction (in the lower 48) and it won’t take long before you start hearing excuses like – they’re interfering with crops or spending too much time on public lands – “what about our livestock?” Or they’re screwing up my recreational opportunities (snowmobile trails – predator avenues)

        Then…. when they are recovered, the real agenda will kick in – book a trip and bag a woodland caribu – got plenty now to go around!

        Its a ferocious cycle 🙂 “managing” other species, especially when we (mankind) are more than aware of the ulitimate problem – too many fricken humans (7 billion as of the last count) methodically chewing away at wildlife habitat.

        1. Immer Treue Avatar
          Immer Treue

          With Woodland Caribou, is it not all about the habitat? Without suitable habitat, no Woodland Caribou.

          And Nancy, I think you are correct. get the population up so they can be “managed” (hunted). Not meant as anti-hunting. But god forbid the wolves get any…

          1. WM Avatar


            From my earlier readings on these caribou in N ID and N WA, they are not hunted and have not been for quite sometime. The wolves, however, do get their share, in the Canadian part of their range and probably some in the southern Selkirks as well, from my understanding. Although not unnoticeable, wolves have been deemed an acceptable source of losses, though that might be rethought in the future (it is my understanding).

          2. Nancy Avatar

            Yes Immer, “god forbid” which unfortunately is the pathetic reasoning behind so many unfortunate, destructive outcomes around the planet when it comes to other species and their habitat.

    2. JB Avatar


      If you were to poll the people who post here, I suspect the vast majority would support the conservation and even listing of Idaho’s caribou population. There is far more disagreement and politicking regarding wolves. If you don’t like the state’s priorities, instead of writing your representatives about wolves, write them about caribou. 🙂

      1. aves Avatar

        The species is already listed, the article is about critical habitat. And there’s a big gap between what people support in a poll and what they support through action.

        There’s plenty of disagreement and politicking regarding the more critically imperiled woodland caribou (and masked bobwhite, Wyoming toad, etc) but they are all too often ignored or passively supported by even the conservation minded public.

        “Not enough wolves killed in Montana…”:362 comments
        “Northern Idaho’s tiny woodland caribou herd…”: 25 comments
        “Millions of bird deaths in Nevada”: 4 comments

        Never mind the caribou are almost gone from the lower 48 or that man-made death traps are killing millions and millions of birds across the West. They want to kill more gray wolves! OMG!

        I will never excuse nor understand that disconnect.

  5. Elk275 Avatar

    The caribou in the Idaho, Washington and Montana are known as Mountian Caribou not Woodland Caribou. True Woodland caribou are found in Newfoundland which are on the decline, too. I hunted Mountain Caribou in Northern British Colombia in 2003 but was screwed by the outfitter.

    1. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

      some folks think Mountain caribou are a mix between barren-ground and woodland caribou based on their molecular genetics. They think the two got together in the Selkirks as the glacial ice receded about 10,000 years ago.

      Anyway, I think someone could pitch saving these unique creatures, particularly at Christmas time. Think how much time and effort is spent by kids in U.S. and elsewhere enjoying the tales of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and his other flying companions. Since reindeer and caribou are basically the same creatures, except in North America, native people never felt the need to domesticate them – don’t you think thousands of kids would send some change or $$ to help save Rudolph’s wild cousins in ID, WA, and BC? I do – just needs a group pushing their cause.

  6. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue


    As I’ve said before, some of these discussions would be better held around a table over a few beers or libations of one’s choice. Can’t say we would solve the problems, but at times both the passion and humor of comments would be better served.

    This conundrum has been discussed before on this site
    and elsewhere, including by Bob Hayes.

    As in most cases, it’s the habitat. Killing wolves is not the answer. To revisit Nancy’s point, what is the purpose to get the caribou numbers up. I seriously doubt so that people can look at them.

    Same thing in Wisconsin with “reintroduced elk”. Wolves and elk seemed to have done pretty well together throughout Wisconsin history before man intervened. It was man that got rid of the elk, then the wolves. The question is, why did/does Wisconsin reintroduce/want elk after hunting eradicated elk in the first place, if not to eventually have an elk hunting season?

    Not meant as anti-hunting or anti-wolf management, but the wolf becomes a convenient scapegoat wherever they are, even if it is man who has thrown and is throwing the system entirely out of whack.

    Is the desire of the anti-wolf folks to turn the entire continent into one big game farm? If nothing else, CWD won’t allow it.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      +As I’ve said before, some of these discussions would be better held around a table over a few beers or libations of one’s choice+

      I like that idea Immer! Maybe if we got enough people together, the Greenfire Preserve would be available, say next summer?
      Find a couple of mediums, hold a seance and see if we couldn’t get Leopold’s spirit back for a few of the really tough discussions 🙂

      1. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue


        I’d not be adverse to the idea. I’ve got some friends I haven’t seen in Colorado for some time. Would give extra reason for making the trip, and would be interesting to put faces with names. Who knows what could spring forth, as so many of us are on the same wave length. Possibilities such as this fuel great ideas. Just a thought.

        1. Nancy Avatar

          Yeah, just a thought Immer… and your thoughts Ralph?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan