Remaining woodland caribou in U.S. (in Idaho) barely holding on

Tiny herd spends most of its time in British Columbia-

The woodland caribou have been on the endangered species list for a long time, several million dollars have been spent on their conservation. That might sound like a lot, but it is a total over many years. They depend on old growth rain forest, living mostly on lichens that grow on the trees.

Across the South Salmo River in woodland caribou habitat on the Idaho/Washington/B.C. border. View is northward in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area. Copyright Ralph Maughan

The big decline in woodland caribou (not to be confused with the abundant barren ground caribou) in the United States came before the 1960s. Once, they had ranged along the northern border from Washington State to Maine.   The only one of the 48 states that still has them is extreme northern Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains.  Here a herd of about 45 struggles, spending most of its time just over the international border in B.C..  At one time they ranged well south in Idaho, all the way to the Clearwater River, and reports from the 1880s (trapping records) show they thrived despite an abundance of wolves.  By the time the 1950s arrived, the herd was down to about 100 caribou. From there they slowly declined to just 30 animals. This prompted a transplant from further north in B.C.   The net effect was to raise the herd into the mid 40s. In other words, most of the new caribou didn’t make it.

The reasons for the decline are complicated. Unregulated early day hunting and logging of the immense north Idaho rain forests played a key role. Since then some continued logging, road building for timber access and creation of habitat good for mountain lions has played a role. If you visit the country you will find that many of the old logging roads have been closed and have grown in.

Once a population declines to a small level, any number of random events can take them out, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service soldiers on, having recently declared about 370,000 acres in the area “critical habitat.”  This doesn’t mean much on the ground, but does give a legal handle to prevent expansion of snowmobiling, ATVing, and proposals to cut more old growth forest.

Some local people want to give up, having never even seen one of them they don’t see any benefit, but know it might inhibit the creation of areas for their machines to ride. If the herd disappears, that will be it.  The woodland caribou now is in steep decline all over western Canada because of the direct and indirect effects of logging and industrial development which eliminates old growth forest and creates transitional habitat good for deer and their predators, wolves and cougar. These predators kill caribou as well as deer though the caribou provide almost none of their diet due to their present rarity.  The are just no caribou available for a second transplantation into this U.S./British Columbia “South Selkirk” herd.

It will probably be luck and a change in Canadian politics if the woodland caribou survives anywhere.



  1. somsai Avatar

    I remember reading something recently that pointed the finger at logging and whitetail more than wolves and snow machines.

    The caribou living mostly on the lichen high in the branches of old growth during the part of the year when snows are very deep, need old growth to survive.

    Cutting the trees did a few things. Deprived them of food, and provided ideal browse for whitetail. Ordinarily widely dispersed caribou in tall timber are hard for wolves to hunt, too few animals too hard to find not enough easy meat to support wolves, or not many wolves. Whitetail however can be eaten, lots of whitetail can support a lot more wolves than caribou.

    If the caribou provide a once in a while alternative prey for wolves it could have a severe affect on populations. Also wolves can cover much more ground on logging roads.

    Maybe if people had a long history of caribou as pets there would be a large outcry. For an unheard of ungulate, meh. If one were serious about quickly increasing herd size you’d curtail all logging, mining, eliminate all local predators and alternate prey. There are entrenched interest groups who would appose that.

    Another large mammal bites the dust. Part of the reason it’s not good to over use words like extinction.

    Never heard of a “Save the Saola” org.

    1. Salle Avatar

      “Another large mammal bites the dust. Part of the reason it’s not good to over use words like extinction.”


      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

        I thought he made some sense until the end of his comments. Yea, What??

        1. Salle Avatar

          Yeah, almost.

          1. Doryfun Avatar

            Yeah, not.

            “Maybe if people had a long history of caribou as pets there would be a large outcry. For an unheard of ungulate, meh. If one were serious about quickly increasing herd size you’d curtail all logging, mining, eliminate all local predators and alternate prey. There are entrenched interest groups who would appose that.”

            “Another large mammal bites the dust. Part of the reason it’s not good to over use words like extinction.”

            Flippant cavalier, arrogant, condescending, selfish – my world – dominionist – bonehead thinking…the same kind that blazes a trail through new territory mindlessly and leaves a myopic path of exploitation and resource exhaustion. Such haughty attitudes of disregard is mostly indicative of a disengaged appreciation for bio-diversity, community, and tolerance for others.

            Why extinction, endangered species listings, bio-diversity, and tolerance is important:
            (just in case anyone missed this in science class)

            “The loss of a single species can set off a chain reaction affecting many other species. The total impact of extinction is not always apparent, and is difficult to predict, but it is clear that conserving biological diversity is essential for maintaining intact ecosystems.”

            “Unrecognized benefits of maintaining biological diversity are those services we receive when ecosystems function normally. These ecosystem functions include energy fixation, chemical cycling (oxygen production by rainforests), soil generation and maintenance, ground water recharge, water purification, and flood protection. These services are provided to us at no cost. “When we destroy the ability of ecosystems to function naturally we not only lose these free services but all too often have to pay to replace them.”

            “When we destroy the ability of ecosystems to function naturally we not only lose these free services but all too often have to pay to replace them.”

            This last statement pretty much paints a picture of our current status in this country.

            We are good at breaking systems, not so good at fixing them.

          2. Salle Avatar


            I see the raping of the biosphere as something akin to piercing the yolk of a raw egg… once it’s done, you can’t do anything to “fix” it unless you can turn back time and change the action.

            What’s done is done. Even remedial action is not comparable to what existed prior to the violation and damage.

  2. Mike Avatar

    Hunting and poaching were the chief reasons for their decline. Yes, the habitat changes had effects, but the ultimate reduction of their numbers was caused by idiots with guns.

    Same old story.

  3. CodyCoyote Avatar

    The numbers of Woodland Caribou across the border in British Columbia are abyssmal , too. In fact, they fell even further but just happened to bottom out at a slightly higher number.

    Sorry , somsai…we reckless greedy self-serving humans flat out all but extincted the Caribou for no good reason. I’m not ‘overusing’ the term.

    1. Salle Avatar


    2. somsai Avatar

      I was talking about the overuse in other contexts, which I hear all the time. You know, for carnivores that receive the very lowest rating from the IUCN. Not gray squirrels, not gray mice, not gray rats or bats, gray …..

      1. moose Avatar

        “Some say”….its what passes for journalism at Fox News.

  4. Salle Avatar

    I put this on another thread earlier but I will put it here too because I think it’s a good idea.

    I have a suggestion. How about those not familiar with ~ and those who are who could brush-up on it ~ actually read the Endangered Species Act The whole thing. It’s not very long and if you don’t understand the legalese, have a dictionary near by. Take notes, ask questions of others for an opportunity discuss the finer points and how they relate to the topics we discuss here.

    To get to the PDF of the Act:

    Then select “continue…”

    (because I don’t know how to post a pdf file on this blog)

      1. Salle Avatar

        Thanks, Ken.

  5. Salle Avatar

    Trappers, outfitters angered by ‘senseless slaughter’ of wolves

    “It’s another case of humans trying to control nature and in the process nature loses,” they said in their letter.

    1. Salle Avatar

      And another quote from the article:

      “Why are they doing this? Their excuse for this slaughter is to protect the woodland caribou. Why are the caribou numbers so low in the first place? It is because of humans destroying the habitat. The real enemy of caribou are not wolves, it’s industrial development.”

      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

        Once the caribou habitat was destroyed, the fate of the caribou was pretty much sealed.

        White-tailed deer habitat was created by the human disturbance and that brought wolves and probably other predators of the deer, but which also took caribou.

        Talk of restoring woodland, a.k.a., “mountain” caribou habitat is ridiculous because the habitat is old growth forest which can only be created by the right species of trees, of course; but mostly by hundreds of years of time growing and without significant disturbance.

        1. SEAK Mossback Avatar

          I’m not very familiar with the area but it must not have a lot of wildfire (unlike much of the dry west) to have developed into old growth. If logging ceased, and it is like this area, the deer population would drop drastically within about 25-30 years as it enters the stem exclusion stage with even age forest coming up and eliminating the understory. Of course that may not be good for the caribou forage either. The issue here is not so much just old growth, but mixed age. The area around and behind my house was cut extensively around 1900 for timber for the huge gold mines and mills that were built here. However, it is actually pretty good habitat with a good understory because, even though they cut it heavily, they did not have chainsaws and I think used draft horses, so left a lot of smaller trees that became dominants and underwent explosive growth ahead of the new seedlings — which allowed a mixed age effect with light penetration through the canopy to recover over the subsequent decades. Of course, this area does not need replanting to quickly get a thick new evergreen forest. An area where evergreens regenerate slowly without replanting may remain open habitat with lots of forage for deer for a long time.

          1. Barb Avatar

            I spent some time during a summer blister rust season in the Kaniksu National Forest around Priest Lake. It was jokingly called the asbestos forest because it rained a lot and consequently there were few forest fires.

  6. Paul Avatar

    Did I read this right? Trappers and outfitters are against this? Is it because they are mad that they are not doing the killing themselves, or do they really realize how senseless this slaughter is? Maybe these people could teach something to their brethren in the United States. It still doesn’t excuse the brutality that the trappers themselves are a part of, but it is refreshing to hear someone other than wildlife advocates speak out against the senseless slaughter of predators.

    1. Salle Avatar

      Yes, amazing isn’t it?

      I am sure, from the opening paragraph, that it was the poisoning of a trapper’s dogs that brought this to a head. Seems he learned that other domestic animals had also been poisoned.

      I do find it refreshing to hear that even the “harvesters” are pissed too.

      And as Ralph stated above, old growth forest habitat isn’t likely to return, not in our lifetimes, maybe never given the climate change factors. I don’t think most of the damage is reparable or reversible. Once some living organism is dead, it’s dead period.

      1. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue

        poisoned wolves = less money for trappers.

        1. Salle Avatar


          And that too.

  7. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    In a sense, the same thing is happening in MN. Logging is makeing much better white tail deer habitat. Moose can survive in this, but can’t handle brainworm carried by white tails. Throw climate concerns into the mix, and who/what gets the blame? Wolves.

    The thing is wolves were never really removed from that portion of the state, ie moose habitat. So, the 3,000 wolves that have occupied MN have spread from this area. Heck, a moose was in downtown Ely this year.

    1. Mike Avatar

      And a few clowns in Minnesota still want a hunt:

      If you’re concerned about the moose, stop shooting them.But some folks would rather canoe out of the BWCAW with the last moose head perched in the bow than give up their “god given right to hunt and shoot”.

  8. Salle Avatar

    Caribou face precarious prognosis

    “Once found from northeast Washington to Glacier National Park, with additional strongholds in the Great Lakes states and Maine, the last woodland caribou population in the lower 48 states has come to this: four animals spotted during a 3 ½ -hour flight.”

    “People are wondering, “Am I going to lose snowmobiling privileges? Am I going to lose the ability to cut firewood or harvest timber?” said Brian Kelly, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s state supervisor in Boise. “Basically, no. Those (critical habitat) acreages shouldn’t change the activities occurring on the land, because we’re already consulting on caribou habitat.”

    Most of the proposed acreage is within national forests, and some is in a wilderness area. The Forest Service already goes through a formal consultation process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on timber sales and other activities that could affect caribou. Even if caribou weren’t protected, many of the restrictions would remain in place to protect grizzly bears and old-growth habitat, agency officials said. Snowmobile activity in caribou habitat, meanwhile, was restricted by a 2007 court order that remains in effect. In the northern portion of the Selkirks, snowmobilers must stick to 89 miles of formal trails. Cross-country travel is prohibited because caribou avoid areas with snowmobile traffic, studies indicate.”

  9. Salle Avatar

    Snowmobilers threaten caribou herd in southeastern B.C., experts say

    “Snowmobilers buzzing through mountain caribou habitat in southeastern B.C. are giving wolves easier access to the threatened species, a director of the Valhalla Wilderness Society says.”

    This most likely an added factor in the argument against poisoning the wolves for eating the caribou…?

    1. Salle Avatar

      Apparently ~ according to this article ~ a plan to import caribou from northern BC in in the works along with an increase in a protected critical habitat-like zone on the Canadian side of the border in the Purcells.

  10. CodyCoyote Avatar

    I would recommend to those of you who have not been to the Rocky Mountains of southern British Columbia and seen for yourself the unbelievable amount of clearcut logging that has gone on for a long time, that you take to Google Earth and cruise the country up there. Fly over it like a virtual eagle. The main watersheds of the Columbia River and its sister river the Kootenay ( which dips down into NW Montana and Idaho ) have really been carved up by the chainsaws. The Selkirks and especially the Purcell Mountains are found on both sides of the international border. The logging in Montana is bad enough , but in B.C it’s a whole order of magnitude moreso.

    Then you’ll see why the Caribou had nowhere to go.

    If I could post Google Earth .kmz files here to get you steered there, I would.

    1. Salle Avatar

      “The logging in Montana is bad enough , but in B.C it’s a whole order of magnitude moreso.”

      It’s pretty disheartening.

      1. Carl Avatar

        Twenty-five to 30 years ago Voyageur’s National Park, in Minnesota studied the re-introduction of woodland caribou to the park. Woodland caribou were native to Minnesota but disappeared due to habitat changes and increasing whitetail deer. At the time there was no viable population in Minnesota but occasionally woodland caribou would wander into Voyageur’s and BWCA from Canada.
        The BWCA is a million acre wilderness that is well known for canoeing and a stronghold for wolves.
        The caribou that would occasionally move into Minnesota would not survive long because they would get brainworm disease. This disease is carried by whitetail deer but doesn’t kill them. It does kill elk, moose, and caribou. Caribou are especially susceptible to this parasite.
        After completing the study at Voyageur’s NP it was determined that even though the habitat could support caribou the whitetail population that was 4-8 animals per square mile was still to high to allow the caribou to survive. The re-introduction was dropped.

        1. Mike Avatar

          Carl –

          It’s also one of the reasons why the reintroduced moose herd in the U.P. isn’t doing as well as it should. I applaud them for their efforts, but that sea of clearcuts around the McCormick Wilderness makes it impossible.

          By most standards the area is remote, but as a friend of mine once said as we were exploring the backcountry, “man, this would be wilderness if it wasn’t for all these logging roads”. You can’t escape them over there.

    1. JB Avatar

      ““They are not genetically that different,” DeGroot said. “It’s more the way they use the habitat that’s different.””

      Fortunately, genetic differences are not required under DPS policy.


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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