The Last Reindeer in America

A remnant caribou herd in the Northwest.

selkirk reindeer

Editor’s Note: The following is a re-post of a 2009 holiday favorite. Who knows? Our local herd could help deliver Santa’s presents tonight.

Most people don’t know it, but the Northwest is home to the last wild reindeer still living in the Lower 48 states. To be sure, there aren’t many of them—a few dozen at most—but they are here.

No kidding. Northern Idaho and northeastern Washington are home, at least occasionally, to a small band of woodland caribou that split their time in British Columbia. They are considered the same species (but a different subspecies) as the reindeer that populate northern Europe and Christmastime lore.

If you’re in the mood for some holiday reindeer reading, I give you a good article by Jim Yuskavitch in Forest Magazine:

The Selkirk Mountains caribou are the last holdouts of America’s native caribou population, which before 1900 were found in northern New England, the Great Lakes area of the upper Midwest, northeast Washington, northwest Montana and Idaho, ranging as far south as the Salmon River…

Historically, mountain caribou occupied the forests and mountains of southwest British Columbia from the Alberta border through the Okanagan highlands, and from northeast of Prince George, south into northeast Washington and northern Idaho down into central Montana. Today, they have vanished from more than half of their original range. They number about 1,900 animals in thirteen populations that are made up of anywhere from a dozen to 400 or 500 animals. Mountain caribou disappeared from Montana by 2002, but they still hang on in Idaho and Washington.

And if you’re feeling conservation-minded this season, you should go check out the caribou webpages at Conservation Northwest (and here too) as well as the Mountain Caribou Project. Also, Sightline’s Cascadia Scorecard wildlife indicator. Or if it’s reindeer maps you want then check out Sightline’s continental-scale map of caribou habitat; and the Mountain Caribou Project’s detailed terrain map.

It would be nice, I think, to look forward to future Christmases with reindeer south of the Canadian border.

Finally, if you want some Yuletide cocktail conversation, maybe you should read up on the differences between North American caribou and true reindeer, which you can find at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks website. And then someone should tell me why reindeer were widely domesticated in the Eurasian Arctic but not in North America? I’ve never understood why this would be.

Photo: Ministry of Forests and Range, Province of British Columbia. Also, I admit to taking some poetic license with this post. The word “reindeer” technically refers to the rangifer tarandus tarandus subspecies, while the mountain caribou of the Selkirks (sometimes called woodland caribou) are of the rangifer tarandus caribou subspecies. Whatever.

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