Rudolph Versus Bambi: A Conservation Story

December 23, 2013

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Will woodland caribou run out of places to run? Photo: D. Gordon E. Robertson under a Creative Commons license

Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed Reindeer versus Bambi: yes, it sounds like a really bad holiday special. Maybe the worst ever.

Don’t worry; that’s not the case here. But along the Canada border in northern Idaho and eastern Washington, a struggle is playing out pitting the real-life counterparts of Rudolph (caribou) and Disney’s Bambi (white-tailed deer).

The quick version: woodland caribou, the rarest large mammal in the “lower 48” states have faced dramatic changes in forest habitat. White-tailed deer, drawn by the new habitat, have moved in and thrived.

The large numbers of deer have drawn more predators, notably mountain lions. And those mountain lions prey on the less wary, easier-to-kill caribou. An already beleaguered caribou population faces what may be its final straw.

In this case, Bambi wins. But there is nothing simple about this story, not really. For conservationists, it raises far more questions than answers.

Woodland caribou in the United States were decimated by overhunting and logging. Now they face additional challenges. Photo: Joseph N. Hall under a Creative Commons license.
Woodland caribou in the United States were decimated by overhunting and logging. Now they face additional challenges. Photo: Joseph N. Hall under a Creative Commons license.

Run, Run Reindeer

Most people know caribou (also known as reindeer) as animals of the tundra. And indeed, that is where the large herds of these animals thrive.

But there is a subspecies of caribou that lives in forested terrain. Woodland caribou once ranged across the northern tier of the United States.  They lived in old-growth forest, where they ate primarily lichens. In this open forest habitat, they were able to see and evade predators.

Overhunting and logging devastated woodland caribou populations, but animals continued to survive in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, Washington and British Columbia. Theodore Roosevelt hunted them in the Selkirks in 1888, thirteen years before he became president (he tells the excellent story of that adventure in his book The Wilderness Hunter).

By the 1950s, only 100 caribou remained in the Selkirks. Eventually, wildlife managers translocated woodland caribou from farther north in British Columbia. This effort failed.

Today, the herd moves back and forth across the border. By most accounts, no more than 45 animals remain. The number that roam into Idaho and Washington had dwindled into the single digits. In 2012, no caribou were spotted in the “lower 48.”

Also in 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for the woodland caribou in North Idaho, a move that outraged local people concerned it would restrict logging, snowmobiling and other uses.

And the caribou still cling precariously to existence here. For how much longer?

Human disturbance in the forest has allowed white-tailed deer to expand their range. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Human disturbance in the forest has allowed white-tailed deer to expand their range. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Into the Woods

One of the most horrifying moments in the movie Bambi is when Bambi’s mom announces “Man has entered the forest.” Mayhem ensues. Bambi’s mom dies.

In reality, though, whitetails have benefited mightily from humans entering the forest.

Unlike caribou, whitetails don’t have specific habitat needs like old-growth forest. They’ll take small woodlots or farms or even suburbia, thank you very much.

They’ll do quite well with clearcuts, or young growth forest. In fact, they often do too well. The kind of forest now found in much of northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Theodore Roosevelt saw all manner of interesting critters on his 1888 hunting trip to the area. He did not see a white-tailed deer. If they existed there at all, it was only in tiny numbers.

Once hunting laws were passed in the early 1900s, whitetails recolonized (often with human assistance) their former range, and then expanded into new territory like the Selkirks. Driving around the nearby Kootenai Valley now, you’ll see herds of them in the fields and forest edges.

And with them, come the mountain lions.

In the expansive forests of this area, a number of large predators have always thrived grizzly bears, wolves, lynxes, wolverines. They preyed on caribou, certainly. But caribou could see them coming in the open forest. It was that finely attuned dance between predator and prey, each evolving together.

In a logged forest, there’s brush and thick undergrowth. It makes the perfect hiding spot for mountain lions—which have increased thanks to all those deer. Caribou are ill-equipped to deal with an ambush predator. They never see them coming.

Hello Bambi, goodbye Rudolph. What’s a conservationist to do?

Can we conserve caribou in our northern forests? Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Can we conserve caribou in our northern forests? Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

No Fairy Tale Ending?

The fictional deer of film and television overcome long odds (and the occasional Abominable Snow Monster) to save the day and lead their herds.

In our story, a happy ending has so far eluded conservationists.

There are a number of ways to look at caribou in the contiguous United States. Some argue that we should do anything we can do to save thes remaining animals. In the Selkirks, pretty much all the animals that were here at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition still roam. That’s worth something.

And, to be sure, there are other conservation successes that have faced similarly long odds. The bison situation looked hopeless. Black-footed ferrets? They were declared extinct but are now being reintroduced throughout their range. Even the ubiquitous white-tailed deer once seemed destined for doom. Maybe the caribou could make a similar turnaround.

But others wonder how much effort should be put into saving a tiny population of animals. After all, even with unlimited conservation resources, one disaster could wipe them out: a disease or poaching incident, among many other possible scenarios.

Should conservationists spend money on the woodland subspecies when huge herds of barren ground caribou still exist on the tundra of Canada and Alaska? Those animals face threats from climate change and energy development, daunting challenges both. Couldn’t the millions likely required to assist woodland caribou be better spent ensuring that abundant caribou populations remain abundant?

Should conservation measures severely restrict economic and recreational use of land in the Selkirks? That seems to appeal to many urban environmentalists but outrages local people.

Or should wildlife managers institute predator control for mountain lions? That appeals to local people but outrages urban environmentalists.

There are no easy answers here.

Maybe it comes down to this: do we want a world that only has room for the species able to adapt to humanity, like white-tailed deer?

If the answer is no – and I hope it is – we owe it to ourselves to find creative solutions so that creatures like the caribou can continue to be a part of our world.

It won’t be easy, but if we succeed, we’ll have a story better than anything Disney could create.

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  1. Have never seen a Caribou in the lower 48 and would love to. I will keep my eyes peeled when I am in the Kootenai Valley again next spring. Rooting for the boo :-}

  2. First off, is there really a drastic rise in mountain lions? I doubt it. They may have returned after being all but killed off like almost every other species but I do not think they are the problem. Further, they prefer deer to caribou. Also being territorial they are at a number that the land can sustain and do not rabidly overpopulate an area that is a myth from those who like to hunt them.Deer are edge dwelling animals, if the forests return they will keep to the edges. I would love to see more done to protect the caribou but if their needs are old growth and we keep using up the land how is this possible? We drastically change the landscape. when we do we lose a lot but a few manage to hang on and even thrive. They should not be punished for their adaptability. Unless you can put back the old growth or manage to grab enough protected land that has sustainable food for the caribou as well as a local interest in really preserving it, then the caribou are already doomed. If any restoration is possible, the balance of inhabitants will shift without culls and without such major restoration preservation of less adaptable species is little more than an optimistic but unreachable dream.

  3. I think the woodland caribou should be caught and moved to join the caribou on the tundra so their genes won’t be lost.