Mountain 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.
Unique in the world, mountain caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) live wholly in the lush Inland Temperate Rainforest, with an estimated 1,900 animals in scattered herds that extend well north into British Columbia. Some 30 to 40 mountain caribou cross down into the US where the rainforest extends into the mountains of northeastern Washington and northwestern Idaho. Red-listed in Canada and protected here as an endangered species, they are vulnerable and few in number.
Magnificent mountain caribou
Mountain caribou in BC and the US, though in appearance similar, differ uniquely from their cousins, the barren-ground caribou, of Alaska and northern Europe. Those in Europe are also called reindeer.
- While barren-ground caribou migrate long distances seasonally, mountain 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 mountain 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 mountain 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.
A future for caribou
Large tracts of ancient forests once allowed mountain caribou to stay separate from deer and elk, this in turn protecting them from wolves and cougars, who normally stalk these other ungulates. Predation is rising, however, as logging opens and fragments the old-growth forests mountain caribou rely upon. Mountain caribou are also harassed by mechanized sports, including snow machines and heli-skiing within their critical winter habitat.
As part of the Mountain Caribou Project, Conservation Northwest works closely with conservation groups in Canada to protect mountain 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.