Text by Kim Shelton. Photos by David Moskowitz Day two in the 2016 summer expedition of the Mountain Caribou Initiative: our mission is to set up camera traps in core home range of the Southern Selkirk mountain caribou herd a few miles from Kootenay pass, just north of the U.S. border. My secondary mission is to keep up with David Moskowitz, scrambling up and down mountains while carrying a pack loaded down with camera trap gear. I'm constantly amazed at the terrain that these caribou seem unfazed by, and that we must traverse if we want to find sign of them. It is absolutely rugged country and stunningly beautiful.
Dave also seems to be unfazed by the terrain, scaling peaks and traversing talus fields at a doggedly consistent and efficient pace - a result of having made a living in the outdoors for two decades. His goals at first seem completely unreasonable to me. The day is long: 11 hours of bushwhacking, with intermittent pauses to investigate tracks and set up camera traps - and I keep up mostly because I'm too stubborn not to.
At our first summit of the day, on a ridgeline south of Canadian Highway 3, we gaze down at a wetland meadow system far below. Somewhere down there we hope to find sign of one of the twelve animals in the South Selkirk herd. I'm scanning the landscape with my binoculars every chance I get as we descend the steep hillside, at times lowering ourselves down hand over hand using spruce branches or handfuls of pacific rhododendron, trusting the hardy mountain plants will hold our weight.
I "glass" the hills again near the bottom of our descent, having learned last year to always look twice after I scanned right over a camouflaged bedded down moose. I slowly check every suspicious looking rock, stump, and waving branch.
A single white tailed deer feeds across the valley from us. According to the Wildlife Management Institute, white tailed deer were historically rare in this area but now comprise almost three quarters of the deer population in the Selkirk Mountains. These deer, along with moose and elk, are considered “primary prey” for wolves and mountain lions, predators that weren’t so much of a threat to mountain caribou years ago, but with the fracturing of the inland temperate rainforest by clearcuts, roads and powerlines, “primary prey” moved in, followed by their predators.
One of the main defense systems of mountain caribou is evasion of predators; carried by their massive hooves they retreat to snow covered peaks in winter and spongy marshlands in the summer, away from where other hoofed animals and their predators typically roam. Naturally they become prey at times, but a large herd can replenish a loss. At twelve animals and with cows taking three years to birth their first calf, and then only one per year after that, replenishment is slow. Compared to a white tailed deer who can birth up to three fawns her first year, the Southern Selkirk mountain caribou herd is fragile to say the least.
In the marshy valley bottom mosquitoes descend upon us as we split up to scan the area for sign. I’ve given up trying to keep my feet dry as I squish across the meadow, searching for game trails, scat, tracks, rubs, browse sign. I did not expect to see bones. White and clean, I can immediately tell they are leg bones of an ungulate - a long legged, gracefully hoofed animal. As a tracker, finding the remains of an animal always gets me excited. I crouch by the few bones and play out all the possibilities of what may have happened here. Knowing that the rest of the carcass must be near by, I stand and move intuitively, loving the sense of calmness that takes over my mind and body when following animal sign. I walk right to the carcass; a large spread of fur and bones lies peacefully amidst a thicket of downed trees and branches on the edge of the marsh.
Now my mind turns on, investigating. Lots of hollow fur, very light colored, the leg bones seem huge, too big for a deer...elk? Moose? The color of the fur is not right, elk are more red but I can’t remember how much white moose have on them. The leg bones are cracked, wolves and wolverines often crack long bones like this, bears do as well occasionally. Did they kill it or did they scavenge?
I take a stick and push the fur around, trying to find more evidence. Somewhere in my mind the debate of whether I want this to be a caribou or not is taking place. The head is nowhere to be found, but I find a single dewclaw. It is very curved. My heart beats faster and sinks at the same time. But I can’t tell yet - the kill site is old and the only way to tell for sure is to take the time and research all the possibilities. So Dave takes pictures, and we bring this mystery out of the mountains with us.
Norm Merz, a Wildlife Biologist for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, met with us the next day and confirmed that yes the carcass was that of a mountain caribou. He had been in there just days before and was awed that we happened upon the exact same place. He also confirmed our suspicions that it was fed on by wolves and also by bears, but the exact cause of death is unknown. Biologists from the province of British Colombia had taken the head to investigate the sex of the animal. As both males and females grow antlers, the presence of single tine “spike” antlers on this carcass indicated that the animal was either an adult cow or young bull. Norm expressed his relief in seeing that the teeth were sharp - this animal hadn’t spent years grinding lichens - it was a young bull. Norm noted wryly that any loss from this herd is problematic for their ultimate survival, but females, on whom the future growth of this herd depends, are especially important for herd survival.
Opposing feelings of celebration and tragedy once again battle inside of us. This project has become such a contradictory experience. Constantly we search for success - but success is finding a dead bull caribou instead of a dead cow, or finding their tracks coming out of a clear cut. Failure is having spent all day in beautiful country - prime caribou habitat in the largest remaining inland temperate rainforest in the world - and finding absolutely no sign that caribou even exist.
I have never seen a mountain caribou. I have bushwhacked for miles, seen their tracks and their scat. I have stared at maps, seen photos, heard stories and even dreamt of them. But the closest I’ve ever been to a mountain caribou was touching the bones of a young bull from the elusive twelve animal strong Southern Selkirk herd.
NOTE: Stay tuned for images from our camera traps in the months to come as we return to check them. Follow Kim on instagram at @barefootturtle, David at @moskowitz_david, and the project at #mountaincaribouinitiative for more images from mountain caribou country! Interested in supporting the project? We are still fundraising to cover our research expenses. Tax deductible donations can be made online through project sponsor, Blue Earth Alliance.