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Originally published Friday, December 20, 2013 at 12:05 PM

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Rudolph’s last stand: Where have all the reindeer gone?

Those gentle-eyed reindeer of Santa Claus mythology are merely domesticated versions of caribou. And the caribou most often associated with Christmas — the elusive, snowy-forest-dwelling woodlands caribou, now number only about 1,700 in the sprawling “interior wet belt.”


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Wolves and Caribou have co-existed since the last ice age. It is the human population... MORE
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’TIS THE SEASON of Rudolph, so just go ahead and do it: Take a moment at that local nursery, game farm or Santa’s hut to stare into the bottomless pools of molten chocolate that are the eyes of a reindeer.

Two things might happen: You’ll get a magic, bones-level spark of a long-lost connection with nature, complete with its own idyllic image of this genteel beast roaming wild and carefree through some sparkly, snow-draped landscape. Then you’ll shoot a picture and buy some fudge.

Setting aside, for now, the fudge, focus on that chocolate. That soul-touching feeling is a normal, profound human reaction. But at the risk of breaking out the big, fat bah humbug, know that it might be taking you to a mind’s-eye place and time that is on the verge of going the way of carbon paper.

Those beautiful, gentle-souled reindeer of Santa Claus mythology are merely domesticated versions of caribou, which still exist in great numbers in North America, especially in the Arctic, home to about a million. But the caribou most often associated with Christmas — the elusive, snowy-forest-dwelling woodlands caribou, Rangifer tarandus — now number only about 1,700 in the sprawling “interior wet belt” on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Once fairly abundant throughout the northern U.S., surviving herds of these mountain version of woodland caribou have mostly shrunk back into the north, into the rugged Rockies sub-ranges in British Columbia and Alberta. It is these caribou — living in deep forests and usually at high altitudes — that are most closely associated with the reindeer that live in our minds’ eye.

One subgroup, the South Selkirks herd, lives in a mountainous swath between Nelson, B.C., and Priest Lake, Idaho, with a few members ranging into extreme northeastern Washington. And this Christmas season, more than any in the past, its very survival is in doubt.

WANT TO see one in person? Good luck.

Ironically, this is part of the problem. The save-something-by-exposing-people-to-it conservation strategy has never had a chance with woodland caribou, because they make a living at staying un-found. Even the people who “work” with them — determined biologists in Washington, Idaho and B.C. — rarely see them in the wild unless they’re in an airplane, following tracks through snow in a known hangout.

When they are seen, it’s often by lottery-ticket chance when a few wander down to the shoulders of Canada Highway 3, near Kootenay Pass, to lick up road salt sprayed into the trees by snowplows. The best way to get to know a caribou is to pick the brains of those who study them enough to stand for a moment in their hoofs.

These majestic “gray ghosts” are large animals (up to 600 pounds) with a lush, brown-gray-and-white coat. They’re somewhat slow-moving, with both males and females sporting an impressive antler rack. They live mostly at high elevations in wet, old-growth forest, and even in the best of times, all they have to eat during long winters are lichens (think: stringy moss) hanging from trees.

It’s not a bad survival trick for plant munchers living much of the year in snow. The catch: If the snow’s not as deep some years as others, caribou can see lots of lichens hanging overhead, but can’t get to them, because they’re caribou, not giraffes. Climate change is not their friend.

Much more so than their cousins, deer and elk and moose, caribou spook easily and have long memories. Just one encounter with a snowmobile, or even a helicopter dropping off skiers, will make them want to run far, far away and never return. They’re also quite curious — often to their peril, when they circle back to check out a noise that turns out to be a hungry cougar or wolverine.

They do have a few evolutionary advantages. Caribou hoofs have evolved into round, pan-sized snowshoes, complete with a dewclaw “crampon,” allowing them to walk atop deep snow. They have survived not by outfoxing, outrunning or outsmarting predators, but simply going where they are not. When predators follow deer, elk and moose to lower elevations in winter, the caribou go high.

They are grazers and lovers, not fighters. Unlike their ungulate relatives, it is not in the caribou’s constitution to use size or even those imposing antlers as weapons. It might be part legend, but those who have seen one being attacked by a cougar have observed the rest of the herd simply standing nearby, in doe-eyed shock.

Slow to reproduce, they have seen areas of comfortable refuge shrink, via human activities such as logging, recreation and roadbuilding, to the point that the living never seems easy anymore.

And here’s what keeps those who watch over them up at night: This herd plodded along at about 100 animals for decades, then stayed somewhat stable for years at about 50. But in an annual census two years ago, their numbers plummeted from 47 to 27. Nobody really knows where the 20 others went.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the South Selkirks caribou herd is now one bad winter, or misguided shoot-’em-up party, away from extinction. The animal we celebrate as a holiday symbol today stands as the most-endangered big furry mammal in the United States.

DO WE CARE?

It might not be a fair question. Caring requires knowing, and the caribou slide toward oblivion is the very definition of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. The animals’ plight is better known in B.C., where they are more commonly seen. Canadians also see it as a symbol of national identity — sort of a northern version of America’s eagle. The caribou appears on the backs of Canadian quarters.

Even in the States, a passionate cadre of biologists, nature-lovers and scientists remains dedicated to saving the Selkirks caribou. But unlike B.C., where some land-use victories have been won, the puzzle pieces for caribou survival in the States have never seemed to fit well.

The survival challenge is complicated. But a leading expert on the animal, Leo DeGroot, with B.C.’s Ministry of Natural Resources, says the primary threats are threefold. With legal hunting now forbidden, predation and habitat loss are the first two, and they are intrinsically related. When trees hosting caribou’s winter staple lichens are cut, they can’t be replaced for hundreds of years. And while much logging in caribou habitat has been severely curtailed or stopped outright, much of that damage has been done.

The logging-altered landscape also has upset the predator/prey balance by opening broad swaths of tender greenery — a salad bar to competing species such as elk, deer and moose, which now exist in numbers once unsustainable. With them come predators — primarily cougars and bears, but increasingly, wolves, as well.

In the past, predators in many areas couldn’t “make a living off caribou,” so didn’t try, DeGroot says. But once they’re already there for deer, caribou are easy pickings.

The third strike against caribou is recreation, primarily the motorized type, such as backcountry snowmobiling. It’s not as critical as the other factors, but still important, especially with such a small remaining population, DeGroot believes.

The snowmobile factor, though, has had additional, less-visible impacts. Tension among backcountry snowmobilers, particularly in northern Idaho, has become a hot potato in the caribou-recovery program, creating political pressures that conservationists fear could be the gentle animals’ ultimate undoing.

WOODLAND CARIBOU in the U.S. have been a federally protected endangered species since 1984. That means the federal government must act to protect it on federal lands, which predominate in the U.S. portion of the caribou’s range. They are similarly protected in B.C.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW), conservation groups charge, had to be goaded into protecting the animal in the first place and has never seemed to warm to the task.

It took a 2009 lawsuit to get the feds to finally act, in 2011, to outline a critical habitat area for the beasts, as required by law. Agency scientists outlined a zone of 375,000 acres, telling nervous neighbors that the designation likely wouldn’t lead to significant changes in land-use restrictions already in place for caribou habitat.

Still, the plan drew howls from snowmobile groups and tourism officials in northern Idaho, where some opponents have lumped the matter into a larger debate about the proper reach of the federal government. Angry letters from the likes of Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch were fired across the agency’s bow.

Last year, USFW, after ingesting public comment, issued a revised critical-habitat map showing an area of only 30,100 acres in Washington and Idaho — 93 percent smaller than originally proposed, with the vast majority of the shrunken habitat coming from Idaho.

Conservationists, whiffing political capitulation, responded in September with a new lawsuit, calling the radical downsizing a death sentence. Their take: The federal government has given up on the Selkirks caribou.

“It looks like that to me,” says Joe Scott of Conservation Northwest, a Bellingham wildlife-advocacy group. “I think they’d be happy to be out of the caribou-conservation business once and for all.”

Federal officials deny that, but have opened the door. Last year, Fish and Wildlife agreed to consider a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation — with financing from Bonner County, Idaho, and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association — to delist Selkirks caribou from the Endangered Species Act.

They point to census surveys showing fewer than a half-dozen caribou typically found south of the 49th parallel, and argue that the herd is not biologically distinct from other B.C. populations, thus not endangered at all. A decision is pending.

The net effect of all this brief-exchanging has been the eating up of much of the available Fish and Wildlife Service staff time and money that might have gone toward boots-on-the ground solutions, says Brian Kelly, the agency’s Idaho supervisor.

“We would love nothing more than to spend our time working with partners to devise a critical recovery area rather than dealing with litigation,” he says.

Kelly bristles at the notion that the massive reduction in critical habitat area was politically motivated. He says the agency simply “misinterpreted data” about what amounts to the caribou’s potential range, versus their actual area of occupancy.

“We’re a science-based organization.”

Perhaps unwittingly echoing arguments made by delisting advocates, Kelly adds: “I don’t want to be flip . . . but just because we have a line on a map (the U.S./Canadian border) doesn’t mean that caribou can’t go to other places.”

SO INFLAMED are the politics about the Selkirks caribou — or the larger argument over U.S. federalism it has been sucked into — that several caribou biologists interviewed for this article didn’t want to be named.

But B.C.’s DeGroot cautiously echoes other biologists in pointing to an error in the critics’ assumption that a tiny U.S. population merits a tiny habitat reserve.

“We’re aiming for a recovered population (100 to 300) that’s much larger than the current population,” he says. “One reason we need a lot of habitat is because the habitat changes. There has to be a lot there for times when we do have a wildfire or disease outbreak, so caribou have other forests to go to.”

Part of the problem with helping the herd today is the inability to track them and find out what’s killing them. No member of the South Selkirks herd wears a radio collar. The process of helicopter net-gunning and collaring a terrified caribou is simple and effective, but extremely stressful to the animal.

Collaring in a nearby herd in the Purcell Range has allowed biologists to launch management changes that have helped the herd, which had slipped below 20, start a slow comeback. And other Canadian management strategies show promise: A captive breeding program is under way in Banff, Alberta, and a maternity net-pen experiment near Revelstoke, B.C., has quadrupled calf survival rates.

Supplementing the herds is another option, but it’s had mixed success in two previous attempts: Not all caribou taken from other places know to look up into the trees to find lichens, and often starve or fall prey to predators. Because of that, managers of other herds farther north have become reluctant to sacrifice their own caribou for transplanting.

Those are all stopgap measures, aimed at stemming decline and perhaps turning the survival corner. What’s the best, long-term solution? Preserving habitat, biologists agree. The more the better. Let them be caribou, and give them a fighting chance.

Meanwhile, Americans who never see their own caribou sadly can’t know what they risk losing, say Canadians fortunate enough to have rare, but unforgettable, encounters with the silent beasts of winter. That mind’s-eye view of the Christmas reindeer? It actually still exists — in small, diminishing doses.

“They are an absolutely stunning animal,” says Nancy Newhouse of the Nature Conservancy Canada, which recently purchased, and vowed to protect for caribou, a 136,000-acre private timber reserve south of Nelson, in the heart of the Selkirks herd’s home range.

Those looking for a good reason to join the fight to save America’s last woodland caribou, she says, should look no further than the fact that they simply belong in America’s northern woods.

“For me, there’s all the ecological reasons (to save them),” Newhouse says. “They go hand-in-hand with that wet inland rain forest. It’s a pure, beauty-of-living thing. They just seem like they should be part of that landscape.”

Ron Judd: rjudd@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8280. On Twitter: @roncjudd.



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