Trail Talk | As Goes the Caribou

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we reflect on the loss of a keystone species - mountain caribou - and what this represents for the outdoors as we know it.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Books Guidebook Author
April 28, 2020

One of the most beautiful and wild places on the eastern seaboard, the Chic-Choc Traverse was placed on Peter Potterfield’s 25 Classic Hikes of North America with good reason. In May 2000, my wife Heather and I did a recon trip to Quebec’s Chic-Choc Mountains in the 200,000-acre Parc National de la Gaspésie. Three months later we returned to backpack the 50-mile Chic Choc Traverse – one of the most stunning stretches of the International Appalachian Trail. We were hooked.

Named by the Mi’kmaq, the largest of the First Nations Peoples traditionally occupying land from Newfoundland to Maine, the Chic-Choc Mountains (meaning “impenetrable wall or barrier”) form the rugged spine of the upper Gaspe Peninsula. Rising from nearly sea level, the Chic-Choc are prominent and imposing. Bulky peaks exceed 3,000 feet in elevation, with deep glacier-carved river valleys and rocky cirques. Mount Jacques-Cartier stands the highest at 4,160 feet.

Thanks to their northern latitude and maritime position, the
Chic-Chocs have a climate similar to neighboring Labradorand Newfoundland – cold but not severe. The highest summits
are carpeted in alpine tundra. Providing habitat to several
at-risk plant species, these mountains are also home to the
southernmost caribou herd in North America and the only
remaining herd south of the St. Lawrence River.

About 200 Gaspe woodland caribou roamed the park when
we visited 20 years ago. One of Canada’s 12 subpopulations,
the Gaspe herd had been greatly reduced due to the loss of
its habitat: old-growth boreal forests. On the last day of our
five-day trek, we got up early to crest the barren summit of
Mount Cartier to try to catch a glimpse of them. We were the
only ones on the trail that mid-September day. The weather
was clear and warm with a calm breeze. As we approached the
rounded open peak, we grew ecstatic upon spotting a handful
of caribou across the summit.

We stood quietly and positioned our trekking poles behind
our ears, pointing them to the sky. Caribou, like moose, have
poor eyesight, and we were told that the erect trekking poles
look like antlers to them from a distance. Whether it’s true or not we gave it a shot, and sure enough a few of the caribou
gave us a perplexed look as if we were wayward caribou.
With camera in hand, I snapped a few photos of the beautiful
animals to capture the moment. As it turns out the photos
weren’t necessary, as that experience is firmly imprinted into
my mind. It was the highlight of the traverse, and to this day
one of my fondest hiking memories.

I long to return to hike Mount Cartier, this time with my son. I
want him to experience the same wonderment his parents did
so many years ago. However, with the Gaspe herd now down
to 90 animals, I fear that may not be possible.

The prospect of ever seeing the Southern Selkirk woodland
caribou herd is grimmer. I’ve been intrigued by this herd, ever
since reading an article in the Defenders of Wildlife magazine
about them back in the 1980s. The most endangered
mammals in North America, these caribou were also the only
remaining population in the Lower 48 — and they were found
in Washington. During the 1990s and early 2000s I made
several trips to the Salmo-Priest Wilderness in the far reaches of northeastern Washington, in hopes of seeing one of these
elusive members of the deer family.

The Wilderness was created in 1984 to provide habitat for
the caribou and endangered grizzly bears. However, the
Wilderness’s horseshoe-shaped boundaries cover little more
than the region’s highest summits, leaving most of the area’s
valleys of intact old-growth forest open to road building and
logging. The adjacent Priest River Valley in northern Idaho —
excellent grizzly and caribou habitat — was also omitted from
the Wilderness area and open to resource extraction. And to
the north in British Columbia, a highway, transmission lines,
and an array of logging roads cut through adjacent prime
caribou habitat.

Caribou feed on slow-growing lichens that grow on old-growth
conifers. Since the time the Defenders of Wildlife article was
written in the 1980s, huge swaths of the old-growth forest
which sustained the caribou were cut down.

My stomach sank two years ago when I read that the Southern
Selkirk herd was declared extinct. The last surviving animal
from that herd, a female, had been captured and relocated
to an impoundment near Revelstoke, BC. Perhaps with an
aggressive breeding program employing caribou from other
herds, the Southern Selkirk population may rebound and
be reintroduced to the wild lands they once occupied. But it
will take many decades, perhaps centuries, to restore their
habitat. The prospect of that happening looks bleak. With the
caribou’s absence, the wildlands of Northeast Washington are
now a little less wild. And we humans — who are so capable of
reason — are the reason why these caribou are now extinct.

I will never get to hike among them and revel in that part of
our natural heritage. A part which, until very recently, had
defied the ravages of urbanization and mass consumption. I
lament the caribou’s passing as I lament all the other species
great and small that we’ve added to the long and growing list
of extinctions and extirpations.

The natural world is my tonic for when the human world lets
me down. But it gets harder to feel nature’s rejuvenating
powers when we continue to chip away at nature itself. And
far too often I take to the hills, mountains, forests, shorelines,
and prairies seeking redemption but instead returning
disheartened with how we’ve compromised our world. Each
passing year a part of me, like the caribou, is gone.

I often wrestle with big pictures when I spend hours alone on
the trail. Always asking why, why, why? And often pondering:
if only this, or if only that? I’m reminded every day of the
perils we face as our planet continues to urbanize, our
numbers continue to multiply, and our consumption continues
unconstrained. Mankind is capable of greatness, and we have
corrected past wrongs to bring species back from the brink.
Rebounding populations of bald eagles, bison, and gray
wolves attest to this. But I’m afraid as we allow thousands
upon thousands of acres of prime habitat to continue to be
cut over, paved over, and treated like a commodity available
to the highest bidder, scores of other creatures will join the
South Selkirk caribou. Our remaining wild lands become less
wild - and little pieces of ourselves go with it.


Craig Romano is an award winning author of more than 20 guidebooks, including the newly released, Urban Trails Seattle and Urban Trails Everett (Mountaineers Books). These guides are filled with great places to connect with nature on your next hike, walk, or run.


Main Image by david moskowitz.

Mountain caribou have been identified as an “umbrella species” by conservationists, meaning that protecting their habitat also helps preserve many other species who depend on the same ecosystem, and yet they’re still facing extinction all over North America. We explore this further in Caribou Rainforest; From Heartbreak to Hope, published by Braided River, conservation imprint of Mountaineers Books, in 2018. Learn how you can take action to protect this stunning ecosystem and its critically endangered woodland caribou at caribourainforest.org


This article originally appeared in our Spring 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.