The first time I saw a caribou it was served on a plate. During a homemade breakfast in Arctic Village, Alaska, my host presented a heap of scrambled eggs, thick toast, strong coffee and a lean hunk of meat that she described as "Rudolph." Nearly 20 years after that meal I still remember my excitement at the prospect of returning to the Lower 48 and torturing my vegetarian sister with the news that I ate a reindeer.
It was delicious, I told her.
Christmas was never the same.
Technically, I didn't eat a reindeer. The game on my plate was tundra caribou, abundant in Alaska. Although part of the same species, Rangifer tarandus, reindeer are a domesticated variety of caribou used for pulling sleds, mostly in Scandinavia and Siberia. The iconic Christmas characters are typically smaller and have shorter legs than their wild relatives. They do have some similarities: Both males and females grow antlers, and the males' fall out in winter, meaning popular illustrations of Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and the gang are inaccurate. Another thing reindeer and tundra caribou have in common is they both maintain moderately healthy herd numbers.
Other caribou aren't so lucky, particularly the woodland variety that have been known to wander into northwestern Montana. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the last caribou sighting occurred about five years ago in the Yaak Valley. Two years ago, FWP also confirmed caribou tracks—distinct from other ungulates because it's a wider, almost circular print—along the North Fork of the Flathead, near the west side of Glacier National Park. Other organizations, like Canada's Wildsight, one of the lead members of the International Mountain Caribou Project, receive additional reports of caribou moving through the Yaak, but the animals are considered transients, most of them lone stragglers from British Columbia or the Selkirk Mountains of Washington, northern Idaho and Canada. In any case, Montana sightings are rare.
"You hear about it, but I've never actually seen one in Montana," says Nick DeCesare, a doctorate student at the University of Montana who's spent four years studying woodland caribou in the Canadian Rockies. "And the way things are going, it'll take an incredible effort for them to return."
Things weren't always so bleak. FWP says that, in addition to regular migrations, a herd may have existed in the Yaak until the late 1950s. But by 1960, the animals essentially disappeared. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer says the caribou is officially considered extirpated from the state, making it "the only historical native species missing from Montana's vast array of wildlife."
The reasons why caribou no longer migrate through or live in Montana—and why herds in southern Canada are also threatened—include logging, forest fires, oil and other natural resource extraction, predators and climate change. In short, the old-growth forests that provide caribou with their primary winter food source, ground lichen, no longer exist in the region. It could take 100 years for the forest to regrow enough to lure a herd back to the state, and that's not likely to happen, biologists say.
The reality, unlike Santa, doesn't bring good cheer. Much more than Christmas will never be the same.