The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently finalized protection of Southern Mountain caribou as endangered. However, none remain in the lower 48 states.
The three remaining caribou, known as the Gray Ghosts, were removed earlier this year to a maternity pen north of Revelstoke, making them locally extinct in the U.S.
“This protection should have happened a long time ago,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a senior attorney for the Centre of Biological Diversity in the U.S.
While caribou in Idaho, Washington and Montana were designated as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1982, it was not until 2014 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined they were part of a larger population known as Southern Mountain caribou.
|Trappers, loggers, snowmobilers, environmentalists, politicians and business owners provided feedback on the provincial caribou draft plan last spring. More than 800 people attended the open house at the Community Centre in Revelstoke. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)|
The ruling on Oct. 1 protects the entire population as endangered. The decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed a lawsuit challenging the previous critical habitat designation for the species.
While the service proposed protecting more than 375,000 acres in 2011 for caribou, it settled on 30,100, roughly 92 per cent less.
“It was insufficient. Caribou have large home ranges,” said Santarsiere.
This month’s ruling did not increase the amount of protected habitat.
“For these species to return to the western U.S., more habitat has to be protected,” she continued.
However, classifying Southern Mountain Caribou as endangered signifies that the U.S and Canada will have to work together to protect the species.
Santarsiere said it appears previously that the two countries worked more or less separately trying to protect caribou, although the species spanned the border.
Miel Corbett, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote via email that the U.S. will try to work with Canada to help protect caribou.
When Black Press reached out to the B.C. government, they replied by email that “the designation in the U.S. does not impact British Columbia”.
Last January, the three relocated caribou were moved to a pen north of Revelstoke.
They were the last remaining of a herd that numbered as much as 50 in 2009, known as the South Selkirk herd, which spanned the border between Canada and the U.S.
The Canadian government estimates there to be approximately 6,000 Southern Mountain caribou in total, between 15 herds across the Columbia Mountains and parts of the western Rocky Mountains.
According to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development wolves are the leading cause of caribou mortality, with about 40 per cent of investigated adult caribou deaths relating to wolves.
The B.C. government also states that the forestry sector has a significant impact on caribou habitat and causes fragmentation.
Bart George, a wildlife biologist for the Kalispel Tribe, who worked extensively with the Gray Ghosts, said the relocated caribou are “doing well”.
|Grace, an orphaned calf who called the Revelstoke maternity pen for the last year and a half, takes her first steps into the wild. The caribou in the background is one of the five caribou from the now locally extinct south Selkirk and Purcell herds. (Photo by Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development)|
The animals were released, along with the resident calf Grace, from the pen last spring.
George said the Gray Ghosts had “mothered up to Grace”.
Grace is named after a mountain where her mother came from. Her mother died last year and Grace was alone in the pen until the Gray Ghosts arrived.
George said it will be very difficult for caribou to return to the contiguous U.S. He continued there is not enough political will for caribou recovery.
“On both sides of the border.”
He added that it will be an uphill battle to protect the species.
“I hope one day they can return.”
However, he noted that it will be virtually impossible for them to return without human intervention.
Canada’s Species at Risk Act lists Southern Mountain Caribou as threatened. Last spring, the province released a draft caribou plan, but has yet to finalize it.
In the lower 48 states, caribou once roamed from New England to the Upper Midwest and the northern Rocky Mountains.