The reindeer of America died out in the Lower 48.


A caribou in the southern Selkirk Mountains in Idaho. (Steve Forrest / US Fish and Wildlife Service)

This year, in the middle of winter, the wild reindeer of the United States has been extinguished in the contiguous United States.

After years of decline, the last remaining caribou herd between Canada and the states of Idaho and Washington, located in the Pacific Northwest, had more than one member known. In January, wildlife managers from British Columbia captured the female and put her in a pen where they hope she will survive better than alone in the snowy nature.

"It was the right choice," said Ray Entz, director of wildlife and land resources for the Kalispel tribe in Washington, who was part of the international effort to conserve the Selkirk herd of the South, referring to the rugged mountains that he lived. "This animal would not survive."

In the foreseeable future, the capture ended the Selkirk herd in the wild, which biologists already saw as "functionally eradicated". Fifteen isolated subpopulations of a larger group called southern mountain caribou, which, as their name suggests, live in a different landscape than the robust tundra herds of the North. All 15 are shrinking, mainly because of human development that has fatally altered their habitat.

Caribou also populated northern New England and the upper parts of the Great Lakes states, such as Minnesota, which gave birth to a coffee chain bearing the name of the animal. But their range is gradually contracting to the north. In 1983, when there were less than 30 members, the Selkirk herd was added to the list of endangered species.

The population of Selkirk was almost 50 years old in 2009, but since then it has "dropped, decreased, decreased," said Leo DeGroot, a wildlife biologist with the government in British Columbia. An annual census revealed only three animals in 2018. "They do not have a future with one, two or three animals."

Even before the recent capture, Selkirk caribou appeared to have abandoned the American portion of their range. No US sightings have been confirmed since 2012, although data from a radio collar indicate that a person entered Washington at the end of 2014, according to a management plan developed by a group international multi-agency that studies the population.

"They do not call them the gray ghost for nothing," said Entz, using a nickname for animals, which have always been elusive.

Mountain caribou live in temperate rainforests in the interior and move in winter to high altitudes in search of what they survive all season: a furry arboreal lichen hanging from old trees . Their massive hooves – "pie plate or dinner plate, that's not an exaggeration," said Entz, – work like snowshoes when crossing the slopes.

Officially, predation by wolves and mountain lions was the main cause of the collapse of the Selkirk herd. But it started with humans, said DeGroot.

The forest has been fragmented over the decades by logging, roads, power lines and, in Canada, by oil and mining exploration. Smaller foliage that pushed back into place attracted moose, deer and elk, which in turn attracted predators. Predators make a living from the many newcomers, DeGroot said, but caribou have become "bycatch". Wolf reform in Canada has not helped Selkirk caribou.

"Caribou are only a more vulnerable species. They do not hit like a moose. They are not as nervous as a deer. They never have twins, "DeGroot said. "So with these changes, they are the ones who pay the price."

Canadian wildlife managers have decided to capture the last Selkirk caribou after determining that one of the three enumerated last year – all wearing a radio collar – had been killed by predators and l & # 39; Another, missing for months and probably dead. After the female was caught in a net from a helicopter, biologists sedated her and took her to a maternity enclosure near Revelstoke, British Columbia.

Government biologists in British Columbia captured and moved the last known member of the South Selkirk caribou herd in January. (Ministry of Forests, Land, Natural Resources Exploitation and Rural Development)

Pens are generally used as temporary obstetric and childcare services for caribou. Given that newborns are particularly vulnerable to predators, implementers move pregnant females into pens where they are fed until the calves are over one month old.

Revelstoke's pen now houses Selkirk's caribou and three others – a calf who was born there and who came back after the murder of his mother, and two of another declining herd of southern mountains. The goal is to capture a female from a nearby flock that will get to know other refugees and then, when managers release them all at the same time, will lead them into her habitat.

Canada plans to launch a caribou breeding program, DeGroot said. But any release of animals bred in captivity is in at least four years, he said, and it is not clear whether these animals will be used to restore the Selkirk herd or other precarious flock .

Entz said that the Kalispel tribe, which historically depended on Selkirk's caribou as a source of meat, wanted them back in the Lower 48. "I am resolved about the return of this species," said Entz. "It's too easy to say," Well, they're not here, let's stop. "This is not the point of view of the tribe."

Conservation organizations echo that. Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups announced their intention to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to designate caribou protected habitat in northern Idaho and northeastern Ontario. Washington. In 2011, the agency proposed to reserve more than 375,000 acres, but after the opposition of snowmobilers and others reduce that to about 30,000 acres. A federal court later ordered Fish and Wildlife to re-examine the case, but the agency has not yet rendered its decision.

Caribou may not have left the contiguous United States, but protecting their former range may provide "a chance to fight" for their return, said Andrea Santarsiere, a lawyer with the Center for Biodiversity. "Without habitat protection, the chances of us seeing the caribou in the first 48 years are pretty slim."

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