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1987 - You Know Dasher and Dancer...

The reintroduction of a native species takes a great deal of planning and care. In some cases it can be very successful. Bighorn sheep were successfully reintroduced to the Owyhee River canyonlands in 1963. Elk were brought into central Idaho following the extensive wildfires of 1910. And following the federal reintroductions of 1995 and '96, wolves have become abundant, widespread and off the endangered species list.

Many factors affect the success of a reintroduction. These include habitat changes, predators, food availability, competition with other wildlife, diseases and parasites and even the weather. In the case of woodland caribou, it appears that habitat changes to their native range in Idaho have had a considerable impact. 

Woodland caribou thrive in a kind of cold and snow inhospitable to most other wildlife. Their stocky bodies and hollow hair provided insulation against the winter cold. Long legs and large wide feet the size of pie plates helped the caribou move through the snow. Caribou feet act as snowshoes, helping the animals reach into the branches of trees to find tree lichens, their primary winter food. Caribou living in arctic regions use their large hooves to scoop away the snow to find lichens growing on the ground. In fact, the word caribou comes from the Mi’Kmaq Indian word that means “the one who paws.”

Timber harvest and large wildfires in North Idaho have changed the habitat where caribou are found. The younger forest stages that followed logging and fires could not adequately support caribou. These forests attracted white-tailed deer and with them, their main predator, the mountain lion. Predation by mountain lions combined with habitat change and the caribou’s low reproductive rate, have worked against the success of the caribou reintroduction.

What the future will hold for Idaho’s caribou is uncertain. As habitat ages, it will become more favorable to caribou, but this is a slow process. No further reintroductions are planned at the present time. The potential for wild caribou to move into Idaho from British Columbia is limited given the challenges these animals are facing in their Canadian range. Woodland caribou remain one of Idaho’s rarest gems, seen only by those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.