Rare caribou spotted in Northwest Montana

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A woodland caribou makes its way through the snow. File photo courtesy Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Residents have recently documented sightings of woodland caribou near the U.S.-Canada border. The multiple sightings include the potential for a bull and a cow in separate locations, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Dillon Tabish said Monday.

The caribou is a rare creature in the Lower 48, so a sighting is quite rare.

Caribou, members of the deer family, are native to northwest Montana but have almost completely disappeared from the contiguous United States over the last half century.

Woodland caribou herds once stretched from central British Columbia to Idaho, Montana and Washington. The decline in population is largely attributed to high mortality linked to habitat fragmentation, alteration, loss of old growth forest, and subsequent predation impacts. Woodland caribou are now protected in the United States and British Columbia, though British Columbia recently announced that, after decades of trying to re-establish herds along the border, would stop the program and move what animals it has left farther north.

Six years ago, 19 of the beasts were released in the Purcell Mountains along the border.

In winter, woodland caribou need two things more than all else: deep snow and arboreal (tree) lichen. The snow keeps predators at bay. The lichen, named old man’s beard for the way it hangs from the moist subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce trees of the Inland Northwest, is for eating, according to a story by Daniel Person in the 2013 edition of Montana Outdoors.

Caribou have been known to roam from the Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges in southern British Columbia into Montana, Idaho and Washington but the occurrences have become increasingly rare. They’ve also been historically known in Glacier National Park, ranging as far south as Logan Pass in the early 1920s, but park biologist John Waller said the creatures haven’t been noted in the Park since 2011, when tracks were seen near Kintla Lake.

Caribou are similar in size to mule deer but have different coloration, large round hooves and unique antlers. Even cow caribou can have visible small antlers.

“There are three weeks left of big-game hunting season in Montana. Hunters are reminded to be sure of their target and beyond,” said Neil Anderson, FWP Region 1 wildlife manager.

After confirming reports of the recent sightings, Montana FWP contacted wildlife biologists in British Columbia and informed them of the sightings. FWP will continue to work closely with partners in British Columbia on the conservation of the species.

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