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September/October 2010

Woodland Carib…Who?


We often hear about species or populations on the brink of extinction. But we may find it hard to connect with the issue because the animal is usually located in some far off continent, like Africa.  Well, the problem actually hits a lot closer to home: Idaho and Washington, to be exact.  Did you know that the woodland caribou, also known as the mountain caribou, is almost completely extinct in these States?

Caribou are beautiful, antler-bearing animals.  They are the only member of the family Cervidae in which both the male and female of the species produce antlers, which they periodically shed and re-grow. Their hooves balloon to the size of dinner plates during the winter to help the caribou walk on snow.  They also use their hooves and antlers to dig through snow. 

 

Caribou antlers in the snow
Caribou antlers in the snow.  Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Woodland Caribou after new snow.

Woodland caribou after new snow. You can see the fur starting to turn white as winter sets in. Photo credit: Wayne Wakkinen, Idaho Fish and Game

The name “caribou” is of Aboriginal descent and means “shoveler” or “pawer”.  It aptly describes the caribou’s habit of digging through snow to reach their main winter food source, lichen, a plant that grows on rocks and tree bark.  For more information about caribou in general, click here.

Woodland caribou, a subspecies of caribou have thicker, broader antlers than their cousins. They have deep brown fur in the summer and nearly white fur in the winter. Woodland caribou live in the Selkirk Mountains, which span Idaho and northern Washington.  But only about 45 animals are left in this population!  You may wonder why they are dying off.  While a few deaths might be attributable to poaching, that isn’t the only reason.

Humans today have more opportunity and ability to enter the species’ traditional habitat and affect its chances for survival.  For example, when people snowmobile, heli-ski, cat ski or even build yurts, they compact the snow and make noise, creating three problems for these animals. 

First, the caribou cannot dig with their “shovelers” to reach lichen as easily through compacted snow.  With part of their food supply cut off, they must depend instead solely on the lichen that grows on trees.  Second, the compacted snow gives predators such as wolves and bears “easy access” to caribou, removing the need to trudge though deep snow to reach them.  And lastly, these human activities scare the caribou, changing their migrating patterns and key behaviors associated with feeding, breeding, and seeking shelter.

The Selkirk population of woodland caribou is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) because these animals are in danger of becoming extinct throughout the Selkirk Mountain range. Under the ESA, it is illegal to kill, harass, harm, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to engage in any of this type of conduct with respect to woodland caribou.

 

Woodland Caribou
Woodland caribou. Photo credit: Wayne Wakkinen, Idaho Fish and Game

Most of the prohibited behaviors under the ESA are easily understood, however, “harass” and “harm” require further explanation.  Harass under the ESA means an act which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns such as feeding or sheltering.  Harm under the ESA means an act which actually kills or injures wildlife including significant habitat modification that impairs essential behavioral patterns such as feeding and sheltering. 

Picture of a snowmobile rider.
Snowmobile user.  Photo credit: Monica Moritz/ Wikimedia Commons

Actions meeting the “harass” and “harm” criteria for the woodland caribou could include snowmobiling, heli-skiing, cat skiing, or even building a yurt in its habitat since these behaviors  would cause the caribou to avoid certain areas and change their feeding patterns.  Violating the ESA could result in up to a year in jail and fines of up to $100,000.

This winter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be paying close attention to the Selkirk population of woodland caribou.

To contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about this piece or to report a violation you have witnessed, please go to www.fws.gov/pacific/lawenforcement/ and click on the “contact us” link at the top of the page.

 

Last updated: December 3, 2013

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