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Santa's Montana Reindeer

December 20, 2010 | by Bruce Auchly
photo of caribou

Montana's reindeer are most likely gone from the landscape now. Not to the North Pole to pull Santa's sleigh. Rather they are probably the victim of habitat loss.

A tiny part of northwestern Montana sits on the southern edge of North America's caribou distribution. Caribou are the same species as reindeer. In Europe and Asia the animal is called reindeer. In North America caribou are caribou, except when domesticated. Then they are referred to as reindeer.

To most folks, caribou are a creature of the far north: Vast herds migrating across Alaska's tundra. Laplanders in the northern reaches of Scandinavia taming reindeer and harnessing them to pull sleighs. And of course, Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of all, whose residence is rumored to be Santa's workshop at the North Pole.

Where ever they live, caribou are members of the deer family, which include elk, deer and moose. They are the only deer species in which males and females grow antlers. The male's antlers, however, are larger. Like all antlers, the headgear falls off each year, then regrows.

In the lower 48 states, the last known caribou, about three dozen individuals, inhabit the Selkirk Mountains, which cover parts of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and southern British Columbia.

There are many subspecies of caribou. The Selkirk herd, like Montana's, are the woodland caribou variety.

Until the late 1950s, a handful of these creatures lived in Montana's northwest corner amid the area's mature cedar, hemlock, white bark pine and fir forests. The Selkirk animals in winter forage on arboreal lichen, which grows on trees. It takes 80 to 150 years for a forest to grow enough lichens for caribou, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management. They will also eat shrubs, grasses and willows.

However, much of the old-growth habitat Montana's animals needed has been logged off or altered by forest fire.

Since 1890, there have been about 140 observations of woodland caribou in Montana. From 1930 into the late 1950s the animals were documented from one to four times a decade. By 1960 Montana's herd, if ever there was one, disappeared.

Since then, a wandering caribou occasionally makes a brief appearance, but it's a rarity. A bull from the Selkirk herd was observed in 1987. About five years ago close to a dozen people saw a caribou in the Yaak valley of Montana's northwest corner. And two years ago a caribou track was confirmed in the North Fork of the Flathead, which runs along the western boundary of Glacier National Park.

The few sightings are thought to be animals that have wandered south from British Columbia or east from the Selkirk's. Both locations have caribou about 40 miles from the Montana line. And 40 miles is not far for a large ungulate to walk.

In Montana, caribou is technically a game animal with a closed season. It is also a species of special concern.

This time of year, however, the only concern is whether a tiny sleigh pulled by eight reindeer will stop at each house. So maybe once a year, for one night, there is a small Montana caribou herd.