At the western and eastern ends of Canada's border with the United States, efforts are underway to transplant woodland caribous back into northern US forests they once roamed. Biologists plan to study the feeding and migration patterns of the gray, reindeer-like creatures, with the overall goal of reestablishing the caribou in former habitats. Unlike deer and elk, caribous head uphill to altitudes as high as 6,000 feet in winter. They feed on lichen, which deer and elk rarely eat.
Maine biologists, in a project jointly funded by state and private donors, trapped 27 Newfoundland caribous in late November. Although three of the animals later died, the survivors will be maintained in a pen at the University of Maine for at least a year before being released to the wild.
Idaho biologists, whose caribou program is being financed by some $200,000 from the federal government under provisions of the US Endangered Species Act, were unsuccessful in a November attempt to capture Canadian caribous. They plan another attempt in the spring. A small herd of caribous already lives in the Selkirk Range part of the year, and the relocation project aims to increase their number.
Here in the heavily-forested Panhandle of Idaho, the caribous will not be universally welcomed if a spring expedition yields the two dozen caribou sought last month.
In Bonners Ferry - the nearest town to the planned Selkirk Mountain Range, which would be the habitat for a transplanted herd - Idahoans complained the caribou project would stifle an already suffering economy. Logging is the backbone of the town's economy, and residents want federal forest lands managed for the benefit of that industry, not transplanted caribous.
Early opposition to shipping in caribous was so strong in Bonners Ferry that the local school district at first refused to take part in an ``Adopt-A-Caribou'' program that offered schoolchildren a chance to share radio-collar tracking data with biologists and learn about caribou migration patterns. Teacher and parent protests convinced the school board to reverse its decision and permit school participation in the program.
Gregg Servheen, wildlife research biologist assigned full-time to the caribou project by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, says he expects the caribous and loggers will make good neighbors. He explains that clear-cut and select-cut logging sites make prime spring forage areas for caribous.
The first Idaho expedition failed, Mr. Servheen explains, when changes in weather caused caribous to move from open, late-fall forage grounds into the timber of the mountains west of Williams Lake, British Columbia.
About $16,000 worth of helicopter time and many man-hours were spent on the Idahoans' first attempt to snare caribous for transplanting. But Servhen says that was a small price to pay toward preserving the species in America.
Larger than deer but smaller than elk, caribous are distinguished by the fact that both males and females grow antlers (though the males' antlers are larger). Like moose, woodland caribous have antlers that are flattened or ``palmated'' in places.
Although most people think of the caribou as a far-northern creature, Servheen and his Canadian counterparts will move them from about latitude 51 to near 49 - some 100 miles to the south.
Although previous transplants in Newfoundland and Alaska have been successful, Servheen says there is a slim chance caribous moved to Idaho could head north, once freed, and never return.
In 1963, 23 Newfoundland caribous were released in Maine, and all of them perished. This time, in both Idaho and Maine, radio collars will be attached to all the trapped caribous so that biologists can track them and learn their habits. That information will make for better herd management, says Servheen.
Caribous are abundant north of the border, in both eastern and western Canada. There are some 5,500 in the easternmost regions, although the animal once was nearly extinct there. Newfoundland successfully rebuilt the herd from what they called ``nursery herds.'' Now the province is permitting Maine to trap some of its caribous, as British Columbia is allowing Idaho to do in the West.
Though hunting of caribou in Idaho might be possible in time, says Servheen, the first priority is to get a herd reestablished in the Selkirk Mountains.