Horse News

Idaho’s Caribou Teach a Harsh Lesson

By as published on The Denver Post

“Thanks to the unfathomable blood-lust of the BLM our native Wild Horses and Burros could be the next to disappear forever.” ~ R.T.

To steal a line from the poet T.S. Eliot: This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper. Worse yet, extinction comes without even a whimper, only a click and a yawn.

The end of the line seems imminent for the last caribou of the Lower 48. Woodland caribou once roamed the forested northern tier from Maine to Michigan to Washington state, as they had for centuries. One herd has struggled for decades along the border of Washington, Idaho and British Columbia, in the Selkirk Mountain Range. Although I have seen the distinctive footprints of these caribou, I never caught up with any of them on the hoof.

Now, my chances may soon be over. Biologists recently completed their winter survey of these animals and found only three individuals in the Selkirks. This is down from nearly 50 a decade ago. All three caribou are female. You don’t need a degree in biology to know how this story ends.

Even if those animals happen to be pregnant, the outlook is grim, said biologist Bart George, who works for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

“We are all in mourning,” George told me.

The southern population of mountain caribou in British Columbia, Alberta, Washington and Idaho is in a tailspin. The Selkirks are one of perhaps 15 mountain ranges that face similar problems, though some are not quite as dire.

I’ve been writing about these caribou for 30 years and reading about them my entire life. In my business — conservation and journalism — I write about extinction frequently. But it’s usually an abstract concept, something that could happen in the future, or has already happened in the past. This is happening now, on our watch.

Mountain caribou are uniquely adapted to life in snowy mountains. They thrive so well in harsh winter climates that they migrate up the mountains in the winter, surviving on certain types of lichen that hang from low tree branches. It’s a precarious way to make a living, though, and it doesn’t take much to impact their survival.

Caribou get killed by cars and poachers and cougars and wolves. But these are tiny nicks in the population compared to the slashing wounds of the large-scale clear-cut logging that has swept over British Columbia, Idaho and Washington since the 1960s. I don’t intend to point fingers; I print words on pulp, live in a wooden house and have friends and neighbors who make a living cutting and milling trees. But clear-cuts are killing the caribou. It’s just a fact.

I believe that people have a right to log trees, but also a responsibility not to push our fellow beings into oblivion. That was the idea behind the Endangered Species Act. Extinction can be a natural process, but not when it’s driven by human greed and consumption. The Endangered Species Act is sometimes described as the “emergency room” of conservation. Unfortunately, critical care appears to be coming too little and too late for our caribou.

I could tell you all about how humanity’s fate is tied to our natural world, how healthy forests are crucial for clean water and “ecosystem services.” But forget all that. I’ll just say this: Caribou have a right to be here, and our nation is poorer without them. Extinction doesn’t always come about with a meteor strike from outer space. It’s usually a slower process — a trickle of bad news that comes gradually to a stop.

A few decades ago, there were about 50 caribou in the Selkirks; now, there are maybe three. Today, there are less than 100 bighorn sheep left in the Teton Range near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There are about 75 resident orca whales in Puget Sound off Seattle. When population numbers get this low, conservation gets expensive, and the odds of survival grow increasingly long.

The Endangered Species Act is important, but the way out of this cycle is to not end up relying on it so heavily in the first place — to keep the land and water and wildlife healthy enough to not need the emergency room. For that, we need to acknowledge that wildlife habitat has a value, whether we are weighing it against cheap oil and a policy of “energy dominance,” or the growth of another foothills subdivision, or just the price of a two-by-four at the lumberyard.

Only a tiny handful of U.S. news outlets have even mentioned the crisis of the Selkirk caribou. I guess extinction in our time cannot compete against the latest tweetstorm from Hollywood or Washington, D.C. There is only a whimper, or maybe a few tears. I want to believe that America can do better than that. For the sake of our grandchildren, I hope I am right.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is senior program director for Resource Media in Kalispell, Montana.

4 replies »

    Congressional Hearing On Drilling For Oil And Gas In The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
    Samuel Alexander, a member of the Gwich’in Nation


  2. When US Senators listen to Arctic voices, only some resonate
    Sam Alexander, from Fort Yukon and Fairbanks

    “Like many Gwich’in, I served in the military,” Alexander told the committee. “As a Green Beret I deployed to Iraq to free the oppressed. Little did I realize, I’d come home to find my own people’s freedom under attack.”

    Alexander says drilling in the refuge would threaten the Porcupine caribou herd, the animals his people depend on. He spoke like someone from very, very far beyond the beltway.

    “When somebody’s looking unhealthy, we say nanakat gwats’i’hindii – ‘Go to your land.’ We say that because we know the land will heal you,” Alexander said. “The land is essential to our way of life. It provides us sustenance and we view it as sacred. The caribou come from a place we call Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, the sacred place where life begins.”

    And that caribou birthplace? It’s none other than the coastal plain of the refuge, the so-called 1002 area, the swath at the far north of ANWR that Congress may open up to oil drilling.


  3. IDAHO

    A group of Boise activists has joined a national grassroots movement called Move to Amend, which aims to curb corporate power and restore democracy.

    “Idaho is experiencing a remarkable invigoration in citizen led efforts to improve the condition of our state and local communities. As Idahoans and Treasure Valley residents step up to actively engage and organize around whatever issue matters to them most, more and more are becoming increasingly aware of the cynical influence that money has in obstructing democratic efforts at reform.

    Confronting the corrupting influence of money in politics is perhaps the most important issue of our time. It’s an issue that touches all other issues.” Brian Ertz, local public interest attorney in the Treasure Valley

    Contact Information
    Email: sends e-mail)


  4. This has been going on for yers. It’s also recreation – people want to drive their stinky, noisy snowmobiles. They are content to kill wolves to ‘save’ the caribou. The caribou’s extinction has nothing to do with wolves, and everything to do with selfish, greedy people. They already have most of the land out there anyway, and want it all. They wouldn’t even agree to put aside any extra land for the caribou. 😦

    I didn’t know there was an “American Snowmobile Association”, right up there with an association for every human activity you can imagine:


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