Northwest caribou populations in decline 

The population of the most endangered mammal in the lower 48 states is not getting any healthier, and an affiliation of environmental groups is looking to prevent the Stimson Lumber Company from making the situation any worse.

At issue is the last remaining cluster of woodland caribou that claim parts of the Selkirk mountain range in northern Idaho and northeastern Washington their home. Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1984, the caribou have been the subject of several re-population efforts during the last two decades. None of those efforts seem to have taken hold, however, as the herd’s numbers have dropped from more than 50 several years ago to the current range of 25 to 30.

Stimson has proposed an easement project that will result in seven new roads on federal land in the Colville National Forest (CNF), where the bulk of caribou habitat is located. The roads would provide access to Stimson holdings on private land surrounded by the CNF and, during the next three years, would create at least 15 miles of new road and nearly 1,600 acres of logging on Stimson land.

As evidenced by their rapidly diminishing range in the face of human expansion—historically, caribou populated much of the northern United States—caribou do not co-exist well with their two-legged neighbors. “Caribou are interesting animals,” says Jerry Boggs, a staff biologist for the Selkirk Conservation Alliance (SCA), one of the nonprofit groups seeking to stop the Stimson project. “Their main predator defense has evolved into one tactic, and that is avoidance.”

Allowing further logging activity in the one area where the caribou still range in the lower 48 states would be a mistake for several reasons, says Boggs. First, the animals are well adapted to life in heavy timber and do not fare well in landscapes pocked by large clearings. Second, a large part of the caribou diet is the lichen that grows primarily in old-growth forests. Third, logging the high-country areas where caribou live makes the ecosystem more compatible for elk and deer, which bring natural predators with them—predators that could easily do great damage to the small caribou herd.

Adding to the urgency of the issue is the failing health of Canada’s once-populous herd of caribou, says Boggs. “There are 13 sub-populations of caribou, all found in British Columbia,’ he says, “and they don’t number more than a few thousand all told.”

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