A Photographer’s Quest to Document the Last of the Rainforest Caribou

In a new book, photographer David Moskowitz turns his lens on the story of a rapidly declining species and habitat

In spring, mountain caribou descend to the edge of the melting snowpack to feed on shrubs released from the snow and arboreal lichens blown out of trees. David Moskowitz
A young caribou gazes out from under an adults head. David Moskowitz
One of the last mountain caribou, whose home range straddles the international border between the United States and Canada in the southern Selkirk Mountains. David Moskowitz
A bull feeds in a wildflower-studded wet meadow in summer, Rocky Mountains. David Moskowitz
When the valley between the Selkirks and Purcells around Trout Lake (British Columbia) was logged, these ancient cedars were spared. This monument to a lost forest reminds us of what remains in other parts of the Caribou Rainforest. David Moskowitz
A meandering stream wanders across a glacier-carved basin in the northern Selkirk Mountains. David Moskowitz
Sunset in the southern Selkirk Mountains in an area frequented by the last transboundary herd of mountain caribou. David Moskowitz
A mountain vista in the caribou's habitat. David Moskowitz
Mountain caribou use the sprawling forests of the region as a refuge from predators. David Moskowitz
Typical winter habitat for one of the largest remaining herds of mountain caribou in the Monashee Mountains. David Moskowitz
A subalpine forest and wetland in the Monashee Mountains, typical summer habitat for mountain caribou. David Moskowitz
Mountain caribou cows that have descended to where the snow has melted in low-elevation rainforest and spring green-up has begun. David Moskowitz

Four years ago, David Moskowitz trekked into the world’s last inland temperate rainforest, stretching a short range from northeastern Washington and northern Idaho to southeast British Columbia in Canada. He hoped to get a glimpse and photograph the elusive mountain caribou, an animal known to live in this unique ecosystem. What he found was catastrophe. Moskowitz discovered that both the mountain caribou and their home are deeply endangered, and are becoming more so every day. Very few herds still exist and are limited to the Selkirk Mountains region, but the most endangered, the Selkirk herd, may already be extinct.

“I was driving up the road, and I saw their habitat coming back down the road on logging trucks,” Moskowitz told Smithsonian.com, speaking of the part of the forest that hasn't yet been protected. “I couldn’t believe we are actually, today, in the 21st century, clear-cut logging old-growth rainforest. It was this epiphany for me, just how utterly unbelievable the landscape these animals occupy is and what we're doing to that landscape.”

After some digging, Moskowitz discovered the caribou’s plight is mainly driven by our hunger for paper pulp. The temperate rainforest in which they live—an ecosystem that is rare and seeing its own life fade away—is being torn down, tree by tree, to become paper. The effects of this on the forest and the caribou are dire. And although the paper industry is the largest issue, the caribou are facing an onslaught of other issues: new predators, disruptive recreational travelers, mineral extraction and climate change. In an effort to bring visibility to the issue and to help create change, Moskowitz began creating a book, Caribou Rainforest: From Heartbreak to Hope, to share the plight of the caribou and their habitat.

The mountain caribou are unique among other species of woodland caribou, of which they're considered a subspecies. In the winter, they migrate to high alpine peaks, essentially using large snowfall as an elevator to reach the untouched tree lichen that feeds them through the season. No other types of caribou live in the high mountains during the wintertime. Currently, the mountain caribou only live in this inland rainforest habitat. At one time, though, before logging and hunting and other habitat dangers became a concern, they also lived in northwestern Montana and central Idaho. Only about 2,000 mountain caribou remain, mostly in Canada. The small population that crossed into the U.S. has dwindled to only three caribou. The Endangered Species Act lists all species of woodland caribou as endangered, and the population is red-listed in Canada. A few programs are in place to aid the caribou, like the Mountain Caribou Project, but it's a hard sell—in the U.S. in particular, snowmobile groups are lobbying to decrease the listed threat level of the mountain caribou in order to make it easier for snowmobiles to go through the protected land.

Smithsonian.com spoke to the photographer and author about his exploration into the world of the endangered mountain caribou.

What makes the forest so unique?
The caribou rainforest, formally known as the Inland Temperate Rainforest located in British Columbia's Interior Wetbelt and a small part of the Pacific Northwest, is the only remaining intact inland temperate rainforest on planet Earth. A temperate rainforest refers to a rainforest that is in the temperate regions of the world as opposed to the tropics. And then inland refers to it being hundreds of miles from the coast. There are a few spots on the planet where they have existed in the past, but here in the Pacific Northwest is the only place where humans haven't destroyed that forest yet. So we still have vast tracts of original primeval, old-growth, inland temperate rainforest here and nowhere else on the planet. It's really this exceptionally unique ecosystem.

What issues are the caribou facing?
The original challenge for the caribou had to do with things like market hunting. When miners and colonists came into the region, the caribou were hunted for food at unsustainable rates. That carried on, in some places, into the 90s. But even though market hunting has completely stopped and the indigenous people have stopped hunting them of their own volition, caribou populations have continued to decline. And that is 100 percent because we destroyed their refuge habitat. Mountain caribou have this amazing lifestyle where they are dependent on these huge tracts of old-growth forest. The reason they can survive there is because nothing else will live there. There's no deer, elk or moose in these vast tracts of old-growth forest because all those animals have a different habitat. There are almost no predators. The caribou basically had this whole rainforest kingdom to themselves. As we've gone in and logged that habitat, we've invited moose and deer and, in some cases, elk to come into those areas. Caribou didn't evolve to have a high level of predation pressure. These other animals can tolerate it, but caribou can't. So the caribou population has plummeted.

How would the forest itself and any other wildlife living there be affected if the caribou go extinct?
The caribou has been used as an umbrella species to protect these forests. So by protecting the habitat for caribou, the idea was that we're preserving a representation of the ecosystem itself. British Columbia has said, point-blank, that habitat is protected for caribou. If the caribou disappear and there's no chance of them returning, then the habitat protections will be removed. And similarly in the United States, there are critical habitat designations for mountain caribou. If those habitat protections were removed, the forest itself would be at risk for removal, which would impact everything in that ecosystem. It’s one of the other reasons I think this story is so important. It's a parable for this moment in time in conservation. The Endangered Species Act was this amazing progressive idea in the 1970s. But now our understanding of how ecosystems work and the threats that ecosystems face today are very different than what things were in the 1970s. Yet we have conservation legislation mandating things like species-level protection. We really need to be thinking on an ecosystem level. People have tried to use species-level protection to get at preserving an entire ecosystem, and it's just not working.

A Photographer's Quest to Document the Last of the Rainforest Caribou
A subalpine forest and wetland in the Monashee Mountains, typical summer habitat for mountain caribou. David Moskowitz

Did you have any particular struggles that you faced while working on the book?
The animals are really hard to find. It took years of fieldwork to actually find and photograph some of them. The camera trapping efforts involved lots of time in the field looking at tracks and signs, and learning how to predict where these animals would return to. We also consulted local experts whenever possible to point us in the right direction. I also did a number of multi-day backcountry expeditions by foot, ski, and canoe in every season of the year. Additionally, I joined researchers and managers on a few occasions that were going to be carrying research activities I could tag along for. And another challenge, honestly, was just the emotional experience of daily trekking. Driving sixty miles on logging roads of clear-cut rainforest just to get to the end of the road where they haven't logged yet, and then trying to photograph the rainforest and the animals in it. Just recognizing how raw and how real it is. This is an environmental tragedy unfolding underneath our gaze. Having to face that every day was very challenging, but it was also a big driver of why we needed to get this story out there today, while there's still a chance for something different in the future.

What interesting behaviors did you witness?
Caribou are the only members of the deer family where both males and females have antlers. In all the other members of this family, the males use their antlers to scent mark on trees. I got to see female caribou doing this, something that surprised me as well as some researchers I talked to about the observation. I also got to witness sparring males during the rut, and calves following close on their mothers' heels in the same way you can watch a human child sneak between the legs of their mother. I also found the remains of caribou that had been fed on by carnivores, and tracks documenting illegal snowmobile use in critical mountain caribou habitat in winter. Perhaps one of the most trying observations I made was finding the tracks of caribou wandering through a freshly clear-cut block of low-elevation old-growth in the spring. Thinking about these animals returning to a place they had been coming for generations and finding it completely annihilated... I really had a hard time imagining what that might feel like.
How did you feel about seeing and photographing an animal that most humans will never see?
I saw a New York Times article that ran one of my images of one of the last caribou in the last herd that comes down into the USA, and I realized that this particular animal was very likely deceased because the herd declined from 12 to 3 during that year. Millions of people would see it posthumously in an article about the extinction of their population. It was very sobering. A number of people have called these animals the canary in the coal mine for the ecosystem. We depend on functioning ecosystems for our survival. This is a train wreck for caribou, but it's also a train wreck for all of us humans too. That's been a big driver of a lot of the work I have been doing; let's see if we can help turn the conversation towards the bigger picture of our challenges today. To me, photographs of these animals speak to both an unfolding tragedy as well as act as a reminder of the beauty and opportunity to chart a new course forward. People connect with photos and stories of these animals, and it draws us into a sense of reciprocal responsibility to the other living creatures on this planet. As Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations told me during an interview, "The caribou where there for us, and now we need to be there for the caribou." This is true on a tangible level for his people; caribou kept his people from starving during hard winters. It's also true for all of us on this planet. We depend on natural systems for drinking water and a stable climate. Ecosystems around the planet are in trouble. We have a responsibility to return the care they have provided for us for so long.

Was there anything that particularly surprised you while you were working on the book?
The history of mountain caribou and how the species was perfectly tailored to this globally unique ecosystem was fascinating to unpack. You can find caribou all over the northern hemisphere, but nowhere else in the world do they migrate twice every year and, rather than latitudinally across big landscapes, they go up and down the mountains to access different things they need. Some places in the high mountains get sixty feet of snow in the winter. The caribou go up to the tree line to where it snows the most to spend the winter, then they use the snow basically as an elevator to take them up to their food. They're eating arboreal lichens. As the snow falls, they get access to higher and higher levels of the trees, and so they get access to more and more food. And nothing else will live at the tops of the mountains in the wintertime, so they don't have to worry about predators at all. The problem is that now we have a heli-ski industry dropping humans into that beautiful caribou habitat, and that causes the caribou to have to travel more to avoid humans. And that's negative on their energy budget. So the struggle to figure out how we, as humans, can care for an ecosystem and species within it while still getting our basic needs and recreational enjoyment desires met was another fascinating part of the story to unpack.

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