The Selkirk Mountains woodland caribou is one of the nation’s most endangered species, with 50 or fewer individuals remaining in eastern Washington, northern Idaho and southeastern British Columbia.
Like many species of wildlife, caribou are susceptible to stress during the winter months, and contact with snowmobiles can place additional stress on these animals. That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is teaming up with wildlife law enforcement officers from Idaho and Washington and the U.S. Forest Service to ensure that snowmobilers avoid closed areas in caribou habitat within the Colville and Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
During the 2010-11 snowmobiling season, the Service and others will be enforcing closures in the woodland caribou recovery area, where current regulations require all snowmobilers to ride only in approved areas. These efforts will augment the ongoing woodland caribou recovery plan, which involves partners in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the USDA Forest Service.
“These critically endangered caribou are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and their habitat is protected by state and federal laws,” said Paul Chang, special agent in charge of law enforcement for the Service’s Pacific Region. “Ensuring compliance with current closures is an essential element of caribou recovery.”
The Selkirk Mountains caribou population, federally listed as endangered since 1984, is found above 4,000 feet elevation in Englemann spruce/subalpine fir and western red cedar/western hemlock forest types.
During the winter, the caribou primarily feed on lichens hanging from trees above snowline.
Restrictions for snowmobile access within the recovery area have been in place since 2007 with good compliance and support from the vast majority of winter recreationists. Several snowmobile clubs throughout northern Idaho and northeastern Washington assist the Forest Service and State of Idaho with monitoring of the recovery area and ensuring that proper signage is maintained along trails, trail heads and near the borders of the recovery area. However, in some cases signs have been destroyed and a small percentage of snowmobile riders have violated closure orders.
“Throughout the ongoing woodland caribou recovery efforts we have worked to keep the community informed and involved, “ said Ranotta Mcnair, Idaho Panhandle National Forest supervisor. “Without the support we have received from snowmobile groups and community members our ability to protect woodland caribou habitat would be severely limited.”
The woodland caribou population decline is largely due to historic habitat loss and fragmentation (due to fires and logging), predation, collisions with vehicles, and overharvest. Protecting the habitat of the woodland caribou has reduced the impact for most of these threats, but predation from mountain lions and other large predators remains the greatest threat to the woodland caribou’s population.
Since the 1960s, the woodland caribou population in the United States has been restricted to the Selkirk Mountains of northeastern Washington and northern Idaho. They also range into southeastern British Columbia. By the early 1980s, the population dwindled to 25 to 30 individuals around Stagleap Provincial Park in British Columbia. Between 1987 and 1997, a total of 103 additional caribou were introduced into Idaho, Washington and British Columbia. However, due to predation from mountain lions and bears many of these animals did not survive. Today, fewer than 50 woodland caribou exist in Canada and the United States. A recovery plan for the population, developed in 1994, calls for management of about 443,000 acres of habitat to support a self-sustaining population. Managing access to habitat, hunter and public education, and law enforcement are all components of the recovery strategy.
Woodland caribou are a medium-sized member of the deer family. Caribou have large hooves, broad muzzles, and distinct antlers both sexes develop annually. The average lifespan for caribou is eight to 10 years. Caribou feed on sedges, grasses, fungi, lichens, mosses, and the leaves and twigs of woody plants, except in winter, when they live on lichen hanging from trees. Female caribou do not breed until they are 3.5 years old and produce only calf per year. Only about three out of 10 calves survive.
Protecting the habitat of the Woodland caribou has reduced the threats to their survival and recovery, but predation remains the greatest threat to the woodland caribou population. In the Selkirk Mountains, cougars are the primary threat to woodland caribou, but bears and wolves are also known predators of woodland caribou.