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Mountain caribou

A unique ecotype of the woodland caribou subspecies, mountain caribou reside in limited numbers in interior British Columbia, western Alberta, northern Idaho and northeast Washington. Historically they were also present in northwest Montana and central Idaho. The South Selkirk Mountains herd of woodland caribou, the world's southernmost remaining caribou, occupy a transboundary range from southeast British Columbia into northeast Washington and northwest Idaho.

Rangifer tarandus caribou

A unique ecotype of the woodland caribou subspecies, mountain caribou reside in limited numbers in interior British Columbia, western Alberta, northern Idaho and northeast Washington. Historically they were also present in northwest Montana and central Idaho. The South Selkirk Mountains herd of woodland caribou, the world's southernmost remaining caribou, occupy a transboundary range from southeast British Columbia into northeast Washington and northwest Idaho.

Conservation Northwest is a leading organization in the fight to save the critically endangered caribou of the Inland Northwest.  Learn about the collaborative Mountain Caribou Project. We're also supporting a new effort, the Mountain Caribou Initiative, to raise awareness about these important creatures.

Critically endangered 

At the end of 2015 it's believed that less than 14 mountain caribou likely remain in the critically endangered South Selkirk Mountains caribou herd. Likely as few as 12 as of mid-2016.

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

These Northwest natives are greatly isolated by major highways and human development, and have steadily declined from an estimated 47 animals in 2007.

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 snowmobile groups, a downlisting of the Selkirks caribou to "Threatened" status has been proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

At the request of the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and other groups, the agency is arguing that these caribou are connected to a larger population in Canada and don’t require the Endangered listing. This is completely contrary to a considerable body of science generated over the past three decades! This risky move is being actively opposed by Conservation Northwest and many other conservation groups. 

Caribou on the highway
Caribou on the highway

What we are doing

As part of the Mountain Caribou Project, Conservation Northwest works closely with Wildsight and other 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. 

Because of their seclusion and alarmingly low numbers in the U.S., we believe it’s critical that mountain caribou (technically a woodland caribou ecotype) retain an Endangered listing under the ESA. The South 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 United States outside of Alaska.

More on mountain caribou and our work to save them

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

Resilient but not invulnerable

Mountain 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 caribou numbers to roughly 1,900 animals across North America.

Tree lichens are caribou food
Tree lichens are caribou food

In British Columbia, 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 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

Though their appearance is similar, the woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) of Canada and the United States differ from the the other caribou subspecies of Alaska, northern Canada and northern Europe and Asia. 

Those include three other subspecies in North America, the Porcupine caribou (R. t. granti), the barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus), and the Peary caribou (R. t. pearyi). Woodland caribou do not make the great migrations common among some of the subspecies to the north, nor did they historically live in such great numbers. 

Woodland caribou in southeastern British Columbia, northeastern Washington, and northern Idaho are a unique ecotype of caribou distinguished from other woodland caribou by their winter diet consisting almost exclusively of arboreal lichens. This trait allows them to inhabit the deep snow areas in the Selkirk Mountains above 4,000 ft, and these caribou are often referred to as “mountain caribou

Caribou in Europe and Asia are also called reindeer, and numerous subspecies exist there from Norway to Mongolia and Siberia.

  • 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.
  • More on woodland caribou from WDFW
  • More on woodland caribou from USFWS
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