Much Too Short a Visit

Several woodland caribou that entered northwestern Montana from Canada last spring met a grim fate. Will future incursions by these native-but-now-absent big game animals last longer? By Daniel Person

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors March-April 2013 issue

In early March 2012, biologists drove cattle trucks into the Purcell Mountains in southern British Columbia, then backed into a makeshift corral to allow the cargo to stretch their knobby, bell-bottomed legs.

The woodland caribou had begun as a group of 20, captured in northern British Columbia and transported south to within 40 miles of the Montana border. One animal died en route, and after being let off the truck, the 19 that remained were tranquilized and loaded onto helicopters that, like whirling Noah’s arks, whisked the animals, two at a time, to higher ground and deeper snowpacks.

In winter, woodland caribou need two things more than all else: deep snow and arboreal (tree) lichen. The snow keeps predators at bay. The lichen, named old man’s beard for the way it hangs from the moist subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce trees of the Inland Northwest, is for eating.

The Purcells, which dip into Montana, have historically contained both, providing habitat for a healthy, if not large, population of woodland caribou.

But during the 1990s, the number of animals there dropped drastically. By the early 2000s, biologists in British Columbia began to fear that, without new stock to increase genetic diversity and boost herd size, woodland caribou would cease to exist in the southern Purcells.

That’s an outcome Montana biologists know well. The animals, a subspecies related to the caribou that migrate across the Alaskan arctic plains and the reindeer of northern Scandinavia and Russia, were once found as far south in North America as Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains. But by the mid-1980s, when the woodland caribou in Montana came up for consideration for endangered species protection, it appeared that not a single one remained to be protected.

Today, two generations removed from the last known resident herd, caribou are an animal that Montanans never knew they lost. The disappearance of caribou is especially notable given the recovery of other species in Montana once on the brink of disappearance: grizzlies, wolves, and bald eagles. “The woodland caribou is the only historically native big game species that we’re still missing,” says Jim Williams, regional wildlife manager in Kalispell for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Montana’s experience with caribou is one the Canadian government does not want to see play out in the southern Purcell Mountains. And so came the trucks and the 19 caribou to join 14 already living there.

Off the helicopters and out from under sedation, the caribou ambled away, trudging through fresh powder into a stand of trees. Video of the release shows snow matted onto the caribou’s coats, making them look like the ghosts they have become across much of their American range.
But something interesting, if not totally unexpected, occurred after the caribou’s release. Five of the transplants made a quiet pass across the wooded international border into Montana. For most of the animals, the visit was tragic: Three were killed by predators, while another almost perished from tick paralysis. Only one, a bull, returned to Canada unscathed.

The five animals’ cross-border journey told British Columbia biologists that they needed to find ways to keep future transplanted caribou from moving south, where more predators live. But for Montana biologists, the reappearance of caribou—if only for a few short weeks—was a tantalizing glimpse into the possibility of restoring a big game species that once called at least a small part of the state home. As biologists plan to transport another batch next winter (see sidebar, page 14), all eyes will be watching to see whether, in trying to avoid Montana’s fate with caribou, the Canadians will in fact reverse it.

No one knows how many caribou roamed the mountains of far-western Montana before European settlement. But an exhaustive report by FWP biologist Tim Manley in 1986 definitively shows that the population consisted of more than the occasional straggler from the north.

For Tobacco Plains Indians like the Kootenais, oral tradition suggests they regularly hunted caribou in the Yaak drainage. There are also the place names—such as Caribou Mountain in the southern Purcells and Caribou Creek near Libby. The Kootenai name for Logan Pass in Glacier National Park—“Bigfeet was Killed”—likely refers to the woodland caribou’s huge hooves. (In the 1920s, members of the Kai’na Band of the Niitsitpi reportedly killed a bull caribou near the pass.)

During ensuing decades, reports of caribou came in fits and starts. A herd of between 8 and 12 was seen near Lolo Pass in the 1930s, and a herd of 35 was reported in the Yaak drainage in the 1940s. The most documented sightings of caribou in Montana came in the 1950s, unfortunately for reasons heralding the animal’s coming demise.

The caribou’s ornate antlers are what first draw the eye. But just as the Kootenai reference to “Bigfeet” suggests, nothing speaks to the caribou’s identity more than its enormous hooves. Shaped like bisected dinner plates, the hooves use the same physics as snowshoes to keep caribou atop deep snow. When winter comes and most animals— including predators—head to lower elevations for easier mobility, caribou move uphill, where they browse on hanging arboreal lichen accessible only when the animals are standing on deep snowpack.

“These caribou have carved out a niche that no other ungulates have learned,” says Joe Scott, director of Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit group monitoring efforts to bolster the southern Purcell herd. “They lose themselves in old-growth forests.”

Which gets to why the 1950s were so devastating to Montana caribou. In the 1940s, severe winds flattened high-elevation spruce-fir stands across the state’s northwestern region, followed by a spruce bark beetle epidemic. A decade later, in an effort to salvage the blown-down and insect-killed timber for commercial use, logging was greatly expanded in the caribou’s highland habitat.

In his 1986 report, Manley suggests that the increased number of loggers in the highlands was in part responsible for the growing number of caribou sightings.

And, like bugs under a rock, the exposed caribou scattered.

Cutting down old-growth forest removed the ancient trees where lichen grow. What’s more, logging roads and early-growth trees and shrubs made the high-elevation habitat more hospitable to other ungulates like deer. They, in turn, attracted cougars and wolves, which caribou had once been able to avoid. “That gets to their very survival strategy,” says Tim Thier, an FWP wildlife biologist in Eureka, a town just 6 miles from the Canada border. “When you open up the forest canopy at higher elevations, you make it more conducive to deer, moose, and elk, which gives predators incentive to follow.”

Forest fire has much the same effect. Large blazes in the early 20th century appear to have wiped out prime old-growth habitat used by caribou. By 1986, after decades of sporadic reports in Montana,
biologists could not find a single caribou during four consecutive years of searching. While small populations in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho and northeastern Washington received endangered species protection, Manley concluded in his report that Montana would have to start from scratch. “If caribou are ever to become established within Montana, then it would most likely have to be through re-introductions,” he wrote.

In the 1990s, FWP biologists explored the possibility of relocating caribou to Montana and found suitable forested areas in the Whitefish and Purcell Ranges. “We don’t have the habitat for caribou we had in the 1800s, but we still have some patches,” Thier says. But the effort to transplant caribou into Montana didn’t get far, partly because acquiring the animals is so difficult. “British Columbia barely has enough for its own recovery effort, much less extras for us,” says Williams.

Meanwhile, between the time of Manley’s report and the transplant of 19 caribou last March, things hadn’t gotten much better for the species in the U.S.–Canada border region. A transplant of 103 caribou in the late 1980s and early ’90s into the southern Selkirks, meant to augment an Idaho herd of 30, resulted in a net gain of only 18 animals. A mountain lion that biologists dubbed “Mr. Nasty,” responsible for killing at least three of the caribou and probably more, is partly blamed for the low survival rate. Then in 2009, an avalanche in Banff National Park wiped out most of the park’s herd, raising questions about that population’s viability.

Caribou advocates in northern Idaho contend that increased snowmobile and skiing activity harms that state’s remaining caribou. They say the winter recreationists cause the animals to expend precious energy while seeking areas with less human activity. In recent years only a few caribou have been counted in northern Idaho. Some local communities, claiming that caribou are now extirpated (locally extinct), are petitioning to have the animal taken off the endangered species list in hopes of lifting logging and snowmobiling restrictions.

And then came the Purcell transplant.

The first of the five caribou that migrated to Montana last spring announced its arrival in particularly grim fashion: a mortality signal from south of Eureka. As originally reported by the Missoulian, Thier, Manley, and Williams snowmobiled to the area to recover what they expected would be a carcass. Instead they found an alive but paralyzed caribou. The animal was rushed to a veterinary clinic in Eureka, treated for a tick-borne disease, and then taken back to Canada.

Excitement surrounded the next caribou to cross the border. It was pregnant, leading some news reports to herald the possibility of the first documented caribou birth in Montana in decades. But the birth never occurred. The pregnant cow broke a leg and was killed by a predator, likely a lion. Its radio collar led biologists to three-quarters of the animal’s body. “It was just heartbreaking,” Thier says. “Here was this cow just days from giving birth.”

The third and fourth visiting caribou were killed by wolves. Only the fifth, a bull, managed to make it back to Canada alive.

Caribou north of the border hardly fared better. Just 7 of the original 19 lived through August, according to British Columbia biologists. About half of those that died were killed by lions or wolves and the rest perished from accidents or unknown causes. Clearly disappointed Canadian biologists told reporters they will try to make sure the next set of released caribou fare better. For one thing, they said, they’ll take efforts to keep the animals from migrating to Montana, where lower elevations mean higher predator densities.

Thier shrugs off the notion that the caribou’s hard luck in Montana means the state’s mountains are no longer suitable habitat. “Whenever you release animals, it’s typical to put them in the best habitat, but they’ll go here, they’ll go there, they’ll go to places that aren’t too good,” he says. “The areas where they ended up weren’t good habitats.” He explains that predation of the released caribou came in low-elevation areas of Montana and British Columbia, outside of what biologists consider suitable habitat.

That’s not to say Thier disagrees with the Canadian biologists’ plan to prevent the immediate southward journeys seen last spring. He envisions a slower and more sustainable recovery of the animals. “It’s our hope that this population builds and, as it builds, that caribou move into some appropriate habitat in Montana,” he says. “To a huge degree, this is a last best effort. [The Canadian biologists] are putting all they can into it. If it doesn’t succeed in Canada, we’ll need to figure out why it didn’t work there,” before even considering transplant efforts in Montana.

Others, like Scott, are not as optimistic for Montana. One of the major challenges in caribou recovery is their slow reproduction rate. Even under the best-case scenario, he says, a decade of herd growth wouldn’t be enough to spill into Montana. The addition of climate change and the loss of old-growth forests may create a more permanent setback to the animals, not just in Montana, but across the Inland Northwest.

“They’re amazingly adaptable. But we’ve put some significant roadblocks in their way,” Scott says. “We have some work to do if we want to keep them around.”Bear bullet

Previously a journalist in Bozeman, Daniel Person now works in Seattle. A version of this article originally appeared in the summer 2012 issue of Montana Quarterly.