Mountain Caribou Herds: A Single Organism
text by Kim Shelton
Recently, I was listening to a podcast by Richard Nelson, a cultural anthropologist who studies human relationships with the natural world. He was recording in the midst of a great caribou migration up in Alaska. As he spoke I could hear the clicking of their hooves and their grunting. His description was so vivid that it felt like I was there in his shoes, being overwhelmed by the smells and the vibration of the earth. He said at one point that observing the caribou made him think that each individual caribou is really just a single cell in a bigger organism. According to Nelson, so much of their existence and identity is wrapped up in being a part of the herd that when one gets separated it's hardly even a caribou anymore.
Mountain Caribou don’t migrate vast distances like the Barren Ground Caribou do, but they are herd animals and they migrate through the elevations, up-and-down, twice a year. Listening to Nelson’s account, I recalled searching for the South Selkirk heard with Dave this summer, a group with only about thirteen individuals at the moment. We were searching for them during the summer so we could get up into the mountains without the snow to impede us. This is also the time of year that Mountain Caribou disperse to avoid predators, so they were extremely difficult to find. As opposed to forming a cohesive unit like they would during the rut in the fall, these few animals were scattered across a patchwork quilt of clearcuts, highways, and intact subalpine forest. They were miles away from each other. Despite their being only thirteen caribou remaining, I wondered why they weren’t travelling together. In a more stable population these Caribou would still be spread out, but would they be completely alone? To a caribou does thirteen even feel like a herd when the comparison is hundreds, even thousands? How big must a herd be to have a gravitational pull on the individual to the whole?
Dave and I were invited to explore the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Darkwoods Conservation Area to search for signs of the South Selkirk herd. Several of the animals in this herd are fitted with GPS collars so wildlife managers can track their movements. Even knowing general locations where a caribou had been recently, in days of searching, we couldn't even find fresh sign of a caribou from the herd, let alone see an actual animal. I thought about how it might feel to be an animal whose entire identity is dependent on the existence of the herd, and to be roaming the land alone. What is a caribou without it’s herd? To me, it meant they were un-findable, invisible, seemingly mythical. It's almost like they're already gone.
I wonder about the South Selkirk Herd's will to survive when they're living life so far from their evolutionary blueprint—in such small numbers at the very southern tip of the caribou universe. How much fight is in them, how much resilience is left as a single cell, disconnected from a greater organism?
This spring we will be headed out on another expedition to Mountain Caribou country, this time further north where populations are larger. Stay posted for updates on how these herds travel together and disperse.