Canadian officials are relocating the last six resident caribou known in the Lower 48 from northern Idaho and Washington into British Columbia. At the same time, at least two different caribou have been spotted in northwestern Montana.
"It’s sad to see these numbers down to where they are, but that’s why just seeing two of them in Northwest Montana is pretty special," says Dillon Tabish, spokesperson for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Tabish says there have been three sightings of two confirmed woodland caribou – a bull and a cow – in the Purcell-Yaak region, near the Canadian border. They’re believed to be transient.
Caribou are native to Idaho, Washington and Montana. But timber harvest, development and the loss of old growth forests meant the animals lost habitat and became more vulnerable to predators like wolves and mountain lions.
"All of those have combined to have a really severe, unfortunate impact on caribou herds where now we are down to a very, very small amount of animals on the landscape," says Tabish. "So much so that just seeing two of them in Montana is a very significant moment in our recent history."
Tabish says the population has plummeted over the last 50 years. For decades, scientists have tried to re-introduce the animal into its native range. In 2012, five caribou from a relocated herd in British Columbia found their way over the border and into Montana. But three of those animals were killed by predators, and a fourth nearly died from tick paralysis.
The caribou relocated from Washington and Idaho will be taken to a pen near Revelstoke, British Columbia, where scientists will attempt to breed them in captivity. Tabish says the overall caribou population in North America continues to decline, so it’s unlikely the caribou spotted in Montana indicate an expanding range.
Caribou have large, round hooves and unique antlers, but could easily be mistaken for mule deer. Tabish says for the last few weeks of hunting season, hunters in the region ought to be especially careful.
"We would just hate to see a hunter mistakenly identify a caribou, thinking it’s a mule deer or something else."