Why Not Caribou and Why Not Now?

By Cindy Stites

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘caribou’? If you're a seasoned hunter, a specific image may come to mind: the tan hair, the long antlers, the comically large hooves. The average American or even the fledgling hunter, however, may not have a visual reference. They might envision a reindeer, but only after they have seen a picture for reference. They might not know if it’s an animal that still exists in 2020. Maybe they only exist at the North Pole with Santa? That is where all the reindeer live, right?

There are fifteen recognized caribou (Rangifer tarandus) subspecies around the globe, and they can be found in North America, Europe, and Asia. They weigh up to 600 pounds. They run 50 mph. Their antlers grow up to one inch per day, and they are the only species of deer in which both males and females grow antlers.  So how is it that we have reached a point where few people know what a caribou is? And worse yet, how have we allowed these animals to completely disappear from the landscape of the contiguous United States?

Photo by Barry Whitehill

In January 2019, the last mountain caribou living in the lower 48 was relocated to British Columbia, Canada. The remaining female was the only survivor of the Selkirk Herd, a group of caribou whose migration patterns crossed through western Washington, northern Idaho, and even southern Canada. This southernmost herd of mountain caribou wasn’t lost only because of natural phenomenons; they were victims of a pattern that has forced several wildlife species towards extinction. Humans, as we have seen throughout the history of wildlife in this country, are largely responsible for the elimination of this species from the contiguous United States.

The white-tailed deer was almost hunted to extinction at the turn of the twentieth century. Without any hunting regulations, it was a free-for-all on the whitetail. They were extirpated in many states. Alongside decades of unregulated hunting, the increasing human population, massive deforestation, and booming construction meant that whitetail habitat was constantly shrinking. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, whitetails were eradicated from the state and were not reintroduced until the mid-1930s. Indiana bought a total 296 deer from Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania in hopes of reviving a healthy deer population. My dad was born in 1940, not far from where I live now, and he didn’t see his first whitetail until he was fifteen years old. Can you imagine that? It is especially strange to think about, when, as of 2017, the deer population in Indiana was hovering around 680,000, and the overall whitetail population in the United States was near 29.5 million.

According to The National Wild Turkey Federation, the Eastern Wild Turkey, much like the white-tailed deer, faced the same issues with population devastation. Centuries ago, prior to colonization, the U.S. turkey population pushed 10 million. With unregulated hunting and the demand for turkey as food, which was fueled by exponential human population growth, the numbers of wild turkey plummeted. Once again, add in development, logging, and railroad construction, the habitat necessary to support a robust turkey population dwindled. Wild turkeys had disappeared completely from 18 of the 39 states in which they were originally found. By 1940, the number of birds in the wild would hit an all-time low in the U.S. Restoration efforts were largely ineffective until roughly 1951, when cannon nets were employed by Herman (Duff) Holbrook to capture birds for relocation. Holbrook was a wildlife biologist with the United States Forest Service as well as an avid turkey hunter. Relocation and repopulation efforts took hold in parts of South Carolina, and other wildlife biologists followed suit with their own capture-and-relocate efforts. By 1974, the wild turkey population in the U.S. had exploded to 1.4 million–a far cry from 320,000 birds in 1951. In 2014, there were a reported 6.2 million wild turkeys spread across 49 states.

Ambassadors Mo Seck and Tony Vinca's Alaskan caribou hunting camp

Elk need to be included in this conservation conversation, too. The U.S. elk population was booming before European colonization. According to GoHunt.com, there were an estimated 10 million elk roaming North America before European settlers arrived. While I may sound like a broken record, this population also shrunk; by 1890, there were only 100,000 head of elk in the U.S. The loss was, again, a result of non-existent hunting regulations, human population growth, industrialization, and livestock. However, with the beginning of wildlife management efforts, including regulated hunting and reintroductions of elk in places such as Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and most recently, Virginia, the elk population has rebounded to around one million head in the U.S.

There have been many success stories in wildlife conservation and species reintroduction in the U.S.–stories of animals that we almost drove to extirpation at best and extinction at worst. These repopulation efforts have been crucial in bringing back species from the brink. Has it been easy? No. Was there failure? Of course, not to mention a lot of heartache. But it seems like, in most cases, someone along the way found something that worked.

With all these other success stories, I have to ask: Why not caribou, and why not now? If you have heard about the proposed opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil-drilling, you may have also heard caribou mentioned as one of the primary animals that stands to suffer catastrophically if this proposal passes. The Porcupine Caribou Herd and other herds in northeastern Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories are already facing challenges due to climate change, which has resulted in significant changes to the herds’ migration routes. For man to continue disrupting or destroying the environment that these animals have inhabited for hundreds of years? That's adding insult to injury. The Porcupine Herd has reported numbers hovering around 200,000 caribou, but the history of population demise among whitetail, turkey, and elk is a stark reminder that these numbers can drop significantly if we do what we always do: develop and damage huge amounts of land.

Photo by Mahting Putelis

The southern herd of mountain caribou, living in western Washington and northern Idaho, had been listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a federally endangered species. However, that title was given only to the animals south of the Canadian border. There has been great debate among conservationists and wildlife biologists about federally protecting the entire southern herd, even though it is composed of 17 separate smaller herds, holding just under 1,200 animals that roam deep into Canadian territory. There is also much discussion about the need for Canada to step up conservation efforts with regard to habitat protection. Many feel that there is a lot of lip service accompanied by very little action. But that’s Canada–one piece of a much bigger puzzle. For now, let’s start in our own backyard and focus on how we might bring back caribou to U.S. public lands.

The Selkirk herd, or the “Grey Ghosts" of the lower 48, is gone. Outdoor recreation like snowmobiling, habitat loss due to logging and logging roads, and shrinking snowpack at higher elevations due to climate change have pushed the southern herd to the point of no return. These animals adapted the best they could to a habitat fragmented by roads, clear cuts, and growing cities and towns, but there were other issues at play. The southern herd of mountain caribou does not migrate like other herds; instead, they go to higher elevations in their home area and push into deep snowpack to avoid predation and feast on tree-dwelling lichen. However, due to the effects of climate change, that snowpack has shrunk significantly, making it harder for caribou to escape predators, such as wolves, who paradoxically have their own conservation success story. Their wide hoof base allows them to trot atop the deep snow that other animals with smaller feet  punch right through. Without that deep snow, predators now follow caribou wherever they go. Logging roads have also made it easier for the predators to track the caribou into areas they may not normally go, too.

Although the successes in repopulating various species in the U.S. might give us a loose template for the caribou, several questions remain: Where do we go from here? What can we do to bring back this animal that so many have forgotten or have never known? How do we make the southern mountain caribou one of those great American conservation stories that people will write about decades from now? Caribou herds were once spread across the lower 48, from Washington to Montana, all the way through the upper Midwest, and even into the Northeast. The answers may not be that different from those posed for other species that we have brought back from the brink. It may be a little more difficult this go ‘round, but just like every good story, we have to start at the beginning.

Photo by Mahting Putelis

So where do we start? 

Habitat, habitat, habitat. We must get an adequately sized habitat set aside for these animals if they are to have any chance of living in the lower 48 again. It is important to note that federal protections were put in place for the caribou, albeit almost a year after the last three animals were relocated to Canada. This was a start, but the real fight for habitat protection will be an uphill battle, to say the least. Folks who recreate in the region where caribou last roamed in the U.S. have argued that the area shouldn’t be taken away from them, especially for an animal that doesn’t even exist there anymore. Many believe that the loss of revenue for the towns to which snowmobilers flock for outdoor winter recreation is the real driving force of that resistance. To succeed at herd reintroduction, the caribou need more. Not only do we need to make more habitat available, we must also work to enact land protections and acquire federal funding for these efforts. But it’s more than just land and money; we need to give more than we take and develop a deep sense of compassion for these magnificent animals.

To learn more and help make a difference, reach out to the International Caribou Foundation and become an active participant in caribou conservation. Surely, we can dig deeper for one more great conservation victory in the United States.