Declining Reindeer Population in America Creates Concern

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Last winter, wild reindeer in the continental United States went extinct. The last wild reindeer of the Selkirk herd, a subpopulation of caribou, was captured in British Columbia in hopes of her survival. She was found due to a radio collar.

In 2009, there were almost 50 caribou in the Selkirk herd. But according to a census taken in 2019, there were only 3 Selkirk caribou left. The Selkirk herd is one of the fifteen isolated subpopulations of southern mountain caribou. In early October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that southern mountain caribou will be listed as endangered. 

The Selkirk’s natural habitat is an inland temperate rainforest, and they migrate according to their food source: furry arboreal lichen. The caribou used to live in New England and the northern part of the Great Lake States, but over the past few decades, humans have forced them to move toward the northwest, and southern mountain caribou had to adapt.  

Humans have also been cutting down the forests in the caribou’s new habitat, causing smaller foliage to grow back. This small foliage attracted moose, elk, and deer. Predators, the mountain lions and wolves, followed their prey. The predators were then introduced to caribou, which were easier to hunt. 

When there were three wild Selkirk caribou left, all of the caribou received collars so that they could be tracked. One of the caribou was killed by predators, while the second one went missing and was presumed dead. Therefore, the last surviving wild Selkirk reindeer was taken to a pen in Revelstoke. The pens were initially for pregnant southern mountain caribou to give birth and raise their young away from predators, but now the pens house two Selkirk caribous and 2 other southern mountain caribou to aid their survival. When it is time to release the caribou, the plan is to capture a female caribou from a nearby southern mountain caribou herd and then release all the caribou so that the female leads them to the nearby herd. 

Reindeer have significance in the continental United States. The Kalispel Tribe depended on the Selkirk caribou and want them back in the continental United States due to their cultural significance. Additionally, reindeer are associated with the holiday season in the United States.

“Reindeer are often commonly associated with winter. They’re most commonly associated with Santa Clause, namely like the reindeer-drawn sleigh,” stated Global Senior Fiona McCue.

Protecting reindeer habitats could bring the reindeer back to the Continental United States.

“Planting forests and restoring the habitat to the way that it was would be the main goal in revitalizing the population,” stated APES teacher Erin Binns. 

Some argue that humans should take action to restore the reindeer population in the United States. 

“We have changed the habitat to the point where we kind of have a responsibility for saving the species because we’ve changed them,” explained Binns.