The mountain caribou of the Inland Temperate Rainforest of eastern British Columbia and northeastern Washington are one of North America's most endangered large mammals.
Conservation Northwest works closely with conservation groups in Canada (the Mountain Caribou Project) to protect mountain caribou and its inland rainforest habitat.
Mountain caribou are a unique variety of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus). Adapted to the lush, old-growth forests found in the Inland Temperate Rainforest, they exist nowhere else on Earth. Caribou survived the Pleistocene Ice Age extinctions that erased mammoths, mastodons, short-faced bears, ice-age camels, and many others. These animals have adapted to a harsh environment in ways that no other animal can. While they are resilient, they are not invulnerable.
A most endangered large mammal
The mountain caribou is considered one of the most endangered large mammals in North America. They are listed as endangered in the United States, where a small herd lingers on in the Selkirk Mountains. In British Columbia, mountain caribou is also deemed endangered or "red-listed" under the Species at Risk Act. Yet, unlike the Endangered Species Act for the US, Canadian law provides scant protection for critical habitat of at-risk species.
In early 2009, as part of plan to help recover a fast-dwindling population, caribou received partial protection for millions of hectares of critical habitat from the BC government, greatly improving their chance of recovery. Conservation Northwest and other members of the Mountain Caribou Project helped bring about that landmark protection.
On the Canadian side of the border, logging, road building, and motorized recreation are still caribou's chief threats. A federal judge restricted snowmobile use several years ago in mountain caribou critical habitat in the US. Still, heli-skiing remains a threat to caribou, as they are disturbed and stressed by high-decibel machines flying above, landing, or taking off immediately overhead in winter.
Loss of old-growth habitat to logging and other development have removed old growth and reduced mountain caribou herds to just 1,900 animals.
Fragmentation and loss of remaining old-growth forest harms caribou in many ways:
- Caribou rely in winter on arboreal lichens which develop only in old-growth forests.
- Loss of forests has altered predator/prey relationships: clearcuts and roads provide a more attractive environment for whitetail deer, elk, and moose. As these ungulates move onto the cut-over landscape, cougars and wolves follow. They prey upon caribou as well.
- The continuing proliferation of motorized recreation in winter such as snowmobiling and heli-skiing stresses mountain caribou during a season when their health is weakest.
- Caribou are forced into poorer habitat, where predation and avalanche risks are higher and nutrition sources marginal.