Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, BC (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)
Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, BC (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)

Mountain caribou


Caribou, Darkwoods, British Columbia (Photo by NCC)

Caribou, Darkwoods, British Columbia (Photo by NCC)

Each winter, while most migrating animals seek warmer climates, a small herd of caribou does just the opposite travelling up British Columbia's South Selkirk Mountains to alpine old-growth forests where they will find delicate lichen called old man's beard.

This lichen's wispy, hair-like strings generally only grow on the dead branches of older, mature forests. Mountain caribou head uphill in the winter to find the food that will sustain them until they can get at more tender greens. Their large feet act as snowshoes, allowing them to travel more easily over the winter terrain.

Though they are commonly called mountain caribou, these animals are actually a variety of woodland caribou that over time adapted to the unique conditions of BCs wet, mountainous forests. Their dependence on hair lichen for winter food and their tendency to live in rugged, mountainous terrain distinguishes them from other caribou.

Mountain caribou are exclusive to the mountains of southern British Columbia and parts of Washington and Idaho.

Conservation status

The Nature Conservancy of Canada's (NCC's) Darkwoods property lies in the heart of the winter range of the South Selkirk herd of Mountain Caribou — the southernmost population of the species and the only caribou that cross the southern Canada/U.S. border. At 46 individuals, this herd is only just maintaining a toehold on its existence.

Due primarily to human development, overall mountain caribou numbers have been declining at an alarming rate, from 2,200 in the late 1990s to 1,900 today. This makes them one of the most endangered mammals in North America (in the U.S., they are endangered, and listed as threatened in Canada). Sadly, the decline of mountain caribou mirrors the decline of the equally rare inland temperate rainforest where they feed during the spring and fall.

What is NCC doing to protect this species?

The conservation of Darkwoods is one of the best ways to ensure the viability of this internationally endangered herd and to protect the only caribou in the world that venture this far south.

In the spring, as new growth starts to poke through the melting snow, the herd will head down to the valley bottoms to find fresher greenery, then climb to alpine meadows to spend the summer. NCC is committed to managing Darkwoods for the long-term support and enhancement of the South Selkirks mountain caribou herd.

The health of the entire ecosystem depends on it.

This article appears in the Fall 2008 issue of NCC's newsletter, The Ark. Supporters who contribute $20 or more per year receive three issues of The Ark annually.

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