How Wildlife Biologists Are Trying to Save Christmas

Dec 14, 2018

A Mountain Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) feeds on lichens in an old growth forest.
Credit Florian Graner

With Christmas Day fast approaching, Santa and his reindeer are making their final preparations to visit all well-behaved boys and girls. And while we’re sure Dasher, Dancer, Donner and Blitzen have been well fed before their long journey, the same can’t be said about their free-roaming cousins. 

Wild reindeer, known as caribou in North America, are historically found throughout the forests of the lower 48. But now, only a single population remains in the United States in the Selkirk Mountains of Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Ray Entz, director of Wildlife and Terrestrial Resources with Kalispel Indian Tribe, says the decline of the caribou is largely due to human actions.

“Habitat degradation starting with logging way back," he said, "and then, a myriad of other issues: road development, winter recreation – forested habitats, when they were clear-cut, turned into really good moose habitat and so moose populations increased. And, with moose populations increasing, various types of predators have increased.”

A Mountain caribou family lick salt along a highway.
Credit Courtesy of Ray Entz / Kalispel Tribe of Indians

Recognizing the plight of the mountain caribou, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed all populations within the contiguous U.S. and endangered in 1983. But recovery of these populations has stalled and drastic efforts are being undertaken to ensure caribou return to the northwest in the future.

"There are two left in the population that we know of," Entz said. "And those two along with the remaining four, I believe, from the population north of Montana are all going to go to a captive rearing program. The goal is to have a healthy, sustainable, south mountain caribou herd that can fully occupy its previous range."

Entz and his colleagues are working hard so that on future Christmas Days, the caribou pulling Santa’s sleigh won’t be the only caribou in the lower 48.

A small herd of mountain caribou are photographed from a helicopter by wildlife biologists.
Credit Ray Entz / Kalispel Tribe of Indians