SPOKANE -- Some very special "reindeer" are roaming the Selkirk Mountains of
northeast Washington and north Idaho this winter, but they're not what Santa Claus
might use later this month.
The animals are endangered woodland caribou, which are close relatives of
European reindeer. Their movements throughout the Selkirks, since some of them
were transplanted from Canada last spring, are what wildlife biologists expected in their
efforts to recover the country's most endangered large mammal.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife led a caribou capture operation
in northern British Columbia in April. It resulted in the release of 19 radio-collared
animals in northeast Pend Oreille County. Regular radio-tracking has shown the
newcomers are mixing with the few resident caribou and are moving throughout the
Selkirk ecosystem, which includes a part of southern British Columbia.
They have ranged as far north and east as the Purcell Mountains in Canada, as
far west as Onion Creek in Washington's Stevens County, and as far south as the
southwest corner of Priest Lake in Idaho. Three new calves were sighted with radioed
cows this summer, and at least two cows were seen with resident bulls this fall during
the breeding season.
Department biologists also have learned much about how and where caribou die.
They have found the remains of 11 of the 19 caribou, whose radio collars emitted
"mortality signals" once the animals stopped moving for a long period. Natural
predators, such as cougars, probably killed most of the 11, although positive
identification of cause was possible on only four.
Jon Almack, the department's project leader, has been able to rule out human
involvement in the caribou deaths. He and Kurt Aluzas, another department biologist,
say the losses are normal and were expected during this first year of a five-year
interagency recovery effort.
"Caribou always have been prey for the naturally-occurring predators in the
Selkirks," explained Almack. He noted most losses of first-year transplants occurred in
the summer months when similar transplant efforts were made in Idaho in the late
The department does not take the deaths lightly, however, because caribou
numbers are so precariously low and the Selkirk population is the only one left in the
lower United States. Long-term management plans in the Colville and Panhandle
National forests assure adequate habitat for caribou.
Re-establishing the animals is the challenge. Idaho's transplants in the 1980's
raised the ecosystem's population to 50 from a low of 25 caribou. With Washington's
19 transplants in April, plus at least three births and minus the 11 deaths, the current
total is probably around 60 animals.
"This species didn't reach the brink of extinction overnight," said Almack, "So it
certainly won't be recovered quickly either."
Woodland caribou rely heavily on tree lichen in winter, available in deep snow
only on the oldest, biggest trees. The caribou began to decline when old growth forest
habitat was lost and fragmented by fires and logging early in the century. Predation,
over-hunting, and more recently, vehicle collisions slowly took their toll until the species
was listed as endangered in 1982.
Almack and Aluzas monitor the eight remaining radio-collared caribou weekly.
The signals tell them that most are in the Idaho and British Columbia portions of the
Selkirks, but a couple remain in Washington. They have seen seven of the eight so they
also know they are with small caribou herds. Two cows still have healthy calves in tow
and have been seen with resident bulls. The biologists hope it's a sign that breeding
took place and more caribou calves will grace the Selkirks in the spring.
"Our task of recovering this unique animal might be easier if we could saturate
the area with greater numbers of caribou," Almack said. "Unfortunately the supply of
them in Canada is not great enough to allow us to do that."
Plans are being made to return to Canada in March to capture at least 20 and
possibly up to 30 more caribou for a second transplant in Washington.