The Kalispel Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources is helping to recover the last population of “reindeer” or Caribou in the lower 48 states. Caribou or “reindeer” are part of a group of species that are circumpolar and found in the Arctic countries of the world. The south Selkirk Mountain caribou population of the South Mountain caribou subspecies occupies and utilizes habitat in northeast Washington and north Idaho. This population is threatened by habitat loss, winter recreation, global climate change, and increased mortality (namely by vehicles and predators). The endangered Selkirk caribou population has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since the 1980s and is the most critically endangered mammals in North America with approximately eleven animals remaining, just 2 more than Santa’s team of reindeer.
The loss of habitat is the main problem facing caribou as logging and roads have reduced their winter habitat. This shift in habitat has increased access by other ungulates causing predators to move ever closer to their high elevation winter habitat. With wolves re-colonizing this area in 2008, their numbers were drastically reduced. Canadian wildlife agencies, with the support of their trans-boundary partners, have removed twenty wolves in close proximity to the herd as a temporary measure to reduce this decline. Human impacts during winter recreation activities can also be devastating for caribou, causing stress to the animals during the season when their calorie intake is at its lowest.
Caribou are a vital indicator of our environment and are an equally important part of our collective heritage. Caribou habitat is associated with high elevation and the snowpack which is necessary for clean water, stream flows, and fish populations. This habitat is important to other high elevation animals, including grizzly bears, golden eagles, wolverines and lynx.
To recover the Selkirk caribou herd is going to take effort, concern, and money as well as protecting their habitat. As part of the Kalispel Tribe’s cultural and natural heritage, the Tribe has already applied for and received grant and contract funding of nearly $200,000 for the effort to recover the Selkirk caribou. Along with other U.S. tribes, Canadian first nations, conservation groups, and various trans-boundary agencies, the Kalispel Tribe will be assisting in the capture of pregnant caribou cows next spring to let them calve in the security of a 19-acre maternity enclosure (Mat Pen). The Mat Pen project has been successful in other northern Canadian caribou populations and is a last-ditch effort to protect the young caribou from predators until the calves are stronger and more likely to survive. The cows will be held for about three-four months and be radio-collared when released.
The 19-acre Mat Pen was built in Canada at about 6,000 feet elevation with 15-foot-high cloth fencing. Shepherds will live and work on-site (in a small trailer under a steel lean-to) to maintain/repair the fence, feed the caribou, and protect them from predators. This will be challenging as the area will be under about ten feet of snow at the time.
To trap at least six pregnant cows, biologists will release nets from helicopters in March. For seven to ten days, the cows will be fed their normal winter diet of arboreal lichen, which hangs from old growth tree limbs, as they are transitioned onto a diet of pelletized food that’s fed to domesticated reindeer. By their Spring release, they will be enjoying their regular diet of grasses, forbs, and shrubs.
Since June, The Selkirk Conservation Alliance (SCA) has led permitting and organizing volunteers to collect large quantities of arboreal or tree lichen. To support the number of pregnant cows and their calves, volunteers will need to collect about 250 pounds of these lichens. It takes a lot of lichen to make a pound and volunteers have only gathered about 100 pounds so far. SCA is continuing to organize volunteers to collect lichen in the Priest Lake area this winter and are always looking for additional help through their website and facebook page at www.scawild.org.
The Kalispel Tribe is also organizing a fundraising event for the Selkirk Mountain caribou on March 3rd at Northern Quest Resort & Casino. The event will feature the documentary Last Stand: The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest as well as a short conversation with the filmmaker and a group of wildlife experts working on the project. All proceeds from the event will go to the fund for the South Selkirk Mountain Caribou herd maternity pen project and recovery efforts.
For additional information about the Kalispel Tribe’s efforts to recover the Selkirk caribou and the fundraising event on March 3, visit www.kalispeltribe.com/caribou.