Our Eulogy for U.S. Caribou Needs to Be A Wakeup Call

Across the northern United States, in place names, you’ll find echoes of the woodland caribou who once roamed the landscape. Sites like Caribou, Maine; Caribou Lake in Minnesota; and Caribou County, Idaho, are the last monuments to the species that has been lost to those areas for decades, their habitat destroyed by logging and other irresponsible industrial development. Caribou held on, however, in one pocket of habitat in Idaho, serving as a vestige of forest ecosystems otherwise long since gone. But, with continued habitat degradation, they have been driven nearly to extinction, and now their only hope is to be relocated to British Columbia. The herd’s relocation marks the end of caribou in the United States outside Alaska. It’s also our wakeup call to learn from our mistakes and ensure that, north of the border, caribou don’t become a distant memory, the lost namesake of places where they once flourished.

Long before Europeans came to America, there were woodland caribou here, alongside the Indigenous Peoples who first called this continent home. There were caribou when colonists declared independence from England, and there were caribou four score and seven years later, when the country rejected the bonds of slavery. But with the expansion of settlements and industrial logging and mining throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, herds began disappearing. Today, woodland caribou in North America have only half of their historic habitat left—and even this is being rapidly degraded.  

The South Selkirk caribou—nicknamed the “grey ghosts”—have kept alive the nearly-forgotten legacy of the northern United States as “caribou country.” This herd of mountain woodland caribou has been on the U.S. Endangered Species list since 1983, and the Kalispel Tribe in Washington attempted to save the herd through a breeding program. But the root cause of their decline, habitat degradation, continued, pushing them to the brink. In 2009, there were 50 caribou remaining in the herd; today, there are three, and all are female. The only hope for this herd is to be relocated to intact forest habitat in British Columbia.

South Selkirk Caribou in Idaho

Steve Forrest

But this habitat is British Columbia may not be a refuge for long. Canada is repeating our mistakes, failing to meaningfully protect critical caribou habitat. Across Canada, caribou populations are dwindling as intact forests are lost to logging, mining, and other development. Earlier this year, Canada’s Minister of the Environment determined that southern mountain woodland caribou are facing “imminent threats” and that “immediate intervention is required to allow for eventual recovery.” The situation for boreal woodland caribou is equally dire; only 14 of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou ranges are sufficiently intact to allow for long-term survival. Yet not a single province or territory has implemented the range plans called for under the Species at Risk Act, and the federal government has not taken meaningful action beyond highlighting the threat.  

It’s too late for Americans to save our caribou south of the Canadian border. However, we can make a difference for caribou in the boreal forest of Canada. Between 1996 and 2015, more than 28 million acres of boreal forest in Canada were logged, eroding the limited habitat caribou have left. Much of this was driven by U.S. consumption of throwaway boreal forest products like toilet paper, facial tissue, and paper towels. After a single nose blow or kitchen spill cleanup, these former trees are flushed or tossed into a landfill.

Until Canada meaningfully protects caribou habitat, it is not a reliable source of sustainable forest products. Tissue producers like Procter & Gamble should only source from areas that are not vital to caribou survival. Even more importantly, companies can avoid forest degradation entirely by investing in technology to create tissue from recycled materials and alternative fibers. Companies like Seventh Generation, which recently joined others in calling on Canada to implement caribou protections, are already creating recycled products. These recycled tissue products provide us a sustainable alternative and give caribou a fighting chance for survival. Other major corporations need to follow suit. Our everyday choices of what tissue products to buy can help drive them toward more sustainable practices.  

We are fortunate: there is still time to learn from our mistakes and stop the habitat pressures that are driving caribou toward extirpation across North America. Canada needs to act quickly, working with Indigenous Peoples, provinces, and territories to implement meaningful caribou protections. South of the border, as we urge Canada to implement its Species at Risk Act, we need to also do our part, purchasing recycled tissue products that do not come at the expense of caribou.

The extinction of our caribou in the contiguous United States is a tremendous loss that could have been avoided. We failed the caribou here, but there is still a chance to save caribou in Canada. We need to turn the eulogy for our caribou into a call for action and recognize that these throw-away products are not worth the loss of this iconic species. Extinction, as the removal of the South Selkirk caribou shows, is not some distant threat—both Canadians and consumers in the United States need to act now to make sure that we do not lose this treasured animal forever.

About the Authors

Jennifer Skene

Environmental Law Fellow, International Program

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