The Gray Ghost caribou herd in the southern Selkirk Mountains is “functionally extinct,” despite a decade worth of interventions by governments to save them.
Only three females are left of a population that had 50 members as recently as 2009, said Canadian wildlife biologist Mark Hebblewhite, a professor at the University of Montana.
“The only thing we can do at this point is let them die off or put them in a zoo and breed them,” he said. “Herds like this are winking out all over B.C.”
The Gray Ghosts — named for their notoriously shy habits — are the last caribou with a range in the lower 48 states of the U.S. In B.C., the George Mountain herd, the Purcell South herd and the Purcell Central herd have also perished in recent years.
“No one has seen a caribou around Kinbasket Lake for about eight years, so they are probably gone, too,” he said.
Managed forests and oil and gas development are essentially fatal to Woodland caribou because their ecological niche is so narrow.
“They are old-growth specialists,” said Hebblewhite. “They feed on lichen that only grows on very old trees. Those forests take centuries to replace.”
The young forests that grow after logging also promote populations of moose and deer, which in turn promote larger predator populations of wolves and cougars.
The South Selkirk herd is considered endangered in the United States and Canada, where efforts to bolster them include killing local wolves and even introducing caribou from healthier herds.
“Dozens and dozens of animals were introduced and we thought they were recovering, but they’ve really tanked in the last couple of years,” he said. “This is the writing on the wall for other caribou populations in B.C.”
B.C. has protected about 2.2 million acres of old-growth forest for caribou, restricted snowmobile access to some core habitat areas and culled wolves in several areas including the southern Selkirks.
While killing wolves has been moderately successful in other regions, the South Selkirk cull program has not, according to the government’s program summary.
Late last year, the Environmental Law Centre and the Valhalla Wilderness Committee petitioned federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to issue an emergency order to protect 10 of the most southerly herds under the Species at Risk Act, citing imminent threats to their survival.
British Columbia’s caribou recovery program has failed because the province has failed to curtail logging and to fully implement snowmobiling bans, said ELC legal director Calvin Sandborn.