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Woodland caribou

Woodland caribou are a variety of woodland caribou living in old-growth forests in British Columbia. One herd extends down over the border into the US only in the Selkirk Mountains of northeastern Washington and northwestern Idaho.

Rangifer tarandus caribou

Unique in the world, woodland caribou (also called mountain caribou, particularly in Canada) live wholly in the lush Inland Temperate Rainforest, which extends from eastern British Columbia down into eastern Washington and western Idaho.

Conservation Northwest is a leading organization in the fight to save the critically endangered caribou of the Inland Northwest, the southernmost caribou in the world. 

Critically endangered 

As of early 2015 less than 18 woodland caribou likely remain in the critically endangered South Selkirks caribou herd, which ranges between northeast Washington, northwest Idaho and southeast British Columbia.

Selkirk caribou bull. Photo: USFWS
Selkirk caribou bull. Photo: USFWS

There are an estimated 1,900 woodland caribou in scattered herds to the north in Canada. However, these endangered Northwest natives are greatly isolated by major highways and human development, and have steadily declined from an estimated 47 animals in 2007.

Protection status

Red-listed in Canada and protected in the U.S. as an endangered species, mountain caribou are vulnerable and few in number. However, at the request of snowmoblile groups, a downlisting of the Selkirks caribou to "Threatened" status has been proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. This risky move is opposed by Conservation Northwest and other regional wildlife groups. 

What we are doing

See a map of current and historic Mountain Caribou distribution or visit the Mountain Caribou Project

Because of their seclusion and alarmingly low numbers in the U.S., we believe it’s critical that woodland caribou retain an Endangered listing under the ESA. The southern Selkirk Mountains woodland caribou are unique because of their feeding habits and habitat use patterns, and they’re the lone wild caribou we’ve got in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

As part of the Mountain Caribou Project, Conservation Northwest works closely with conservation groups in Canada to protect woodland caribou and their unique forested habitat. Protection from snowmobiles in the Selkirks and an important new recovery plan agreement between the Canadian government and conservation groups for herds north of the border promise hope for a future for these animals. The recovery plan agreement in Canada is currently in the process of being legislated.

Resilient but not invulnerable

Woodland caribou are considered one of the most endangered large mammals in North America. Loss of old-growth habitat to logging and other development have removed old growth and reduced mountain caribou herds to just 1,900 animals.

Tree lichens are caribou food
Tree lichens are caribou food

In B.C., logging, road building, and motorized recreation are still caribou's chief threats. Caribou rely in winter on arboreal lichens which develop only in old-growth forests. The continuing proliferation of motorized recreation in winter such as snowmobiling stresses mountain caribou during a season when their health is weakest. This can force caribou are into poorer habitat, where predation and avalanche risks are higher and nutrition sources marginal.


Iconic wildlife
Iconic wildlife

More on woodland caribou

Woodland caribou in B.C. and the U.S., though in appearance similar, differ uniquely from their cousins, the barren-ground caribou, of Alaska and northern Europe. Barren ground caribou in Europe are also called reindeer.

  • While barren-ground caribou migrate long distances seasonally, woodland caribou live within the same mountain forests. To find food and escape predators, they climb high into the mountains in summer and descend into old growth forests during the chilly winter months. 
  • Amazingly, in winter woodland caribou depend absolutely upon arboreal, or tree, lichens as their main source of food. Barren-ground caribou eat lichens that grow on the open ground.
  • Huge hooves keep woodland caribou "afloat" over deep snowpacks, giving them the "step-up" to browse tree lichens growing from the lowest branches of old-growth trees. Tree lichens thrive in the moist, internal air within the forest canopies of the Inland Temperate Rainforest.
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