Canadian reindeer receive U.S. rescue help just in time for Christmas
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has unveiled a plan to help ensure the survival of one of North America’s most endangered populations of caribou — an isolated, one-of-a-kind herd of about 40 of the antlered animals that ranges across the Canada-U.S. border in the Selkirk Mountains of southern B.C. and northern Idaho and Washington states.
The proposal to protect as “critical habitat” some 152,000 hectares of old-growth wilderness on the American side of the border is being hailed by both U.S. and Canadian wildlife advocates as a potential salvation for the continent’s only transboundary population of so-called “mountain caribou” — a sub-group of the iconic species found on Canada’s 25-cent coin and known in Europe as the reindeer.
The specialized “mountain ecotype” woodland caribou numbers just 1,700 individuals, almost all of them in B.C. The sub-group inhabits only thick, high-elevation forests, feeding primarily on tree lichen, rather than the lichen ground cover consumed by their far more numerous caribou cousins spread across boreal Canada.
The cross-border protection measures for the woodland caribou’s mountain ecotype come at a time of rising concern for the overall species’ future in Canada. Threats, including climate change and habitat fragmentation across vast stretches of the caribou’s range in the boreal forest, have wildlife advocates pressing federal, provincial and territorial governments to restrict logging, mining and other activities.
An arctic sub-species, the Peary caribou, is also facing trouble because warming temperatures in the Far North are more frequently causing the animal’s food supply to become encased in an impenetrable sheet of ice.
In 2008, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Canadian government spent a combined $90 million to initiate the purchase and protection of a 55,000-hectare swath of wilderness — known as Darkwoods — on the Canadian side of the Selkirk caribou’s range. The B.C. government also has established a threatened-species recovery program aimed at halting habitat loss in the Selkirks and throughout the province, while also curbing disturbances from back-country snowmobiling and other human activities that threaten the mountain caribou’s survival.
The proposed U.S. designation of critical habitat, which is still subject to public consultations in the coming months, would produce a comparable level of protection for the Selkirk caribou in the American portion of the tiny population’s range, experts say.
“Christmas has come early for America’s only reindeer relative,” Mike Leahy, a campaigner with the U.S. environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement applauding this week’s U.S. government announcement.
Nearly a decade ago, Oregon-based Defenders of Wildlife joined with several other groups in pressing the U.S. government for critical-habitat reserves to protect the mountain caribou from destructive logging practices and other threats. In 2009, the alliance launched a lawsuit over the issue.
Similar campaigns by environmentalists north of the border helped prompt action by provincial agencies and the Canadian government, which put $25 million toward the Nature Conservancy’s 2008 acquisition of Darkwoods.
“This land is a significant investment in Canada’s natural legacy,” John Baird, then the federal environment minister, said at the time. “I have always thought British Columbia is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and Darkwoods is a treasure in that crown.”
Chris Ritchie, implementation manager for the B.C. government’s wildlife recovery program, said provincial officials are “quite pleased” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed new measures.
“As you can imagine,” he told Postmedia News, “the caribou don’t care about an international boundary. So if there’s analogous habitat protection on each side of that line, that’s just good for caribou conservation.”
Susan Burch, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialist in species recovery, said the agency “actually looked at what Canada had secured recently with the Nature Conservancy, so the idea is that this (U.S. habitat) is contiguous and allows for that passage” throughout the mountain caribou’s Selkirk range.
“We’re really excited to see the transboundary conservation efforts that are happening,” added Nancy Newhouse, Rocky Mountains program manager with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
By Randy Boswell Postmedia News