Posted by: columbiahighlands | March 25, 2011

South Fork Mountain: welcome to caribou country

Sema Meadows, on the eastern edge of South Fork Mountain roadless area. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

They’ve been called the “ghosts of the Selkirks”. Only about forty mountain caribou reside at least part time in the lower 48 states, all of them in the Selkirks of northeastern Washington and northwestern Idaho, making them among the rarest mammal in the contiguous U.S.

Mountain caribou need lichen-filled woods to survive the winter. Photo: Aaron Theisen.

South Fork Mountain with its deep forest, bogs and swamps is one place in northeast Washington where you might expect to find sign of this elusive ungulate. South Fork Mountain bears more in common with the boreal forests of northern British Columbia than with the plateau country commonly associated with eastern Washington.

Deep drifts of late-lingering snow and trees draped with mosses provide ideal habitat for mountain caribou. Grizzly, too, their numbers in the Selkirks likely in the several dozens, also take refuge in this area.

Much of this area burned in the great fires of 1926, but amidst the youthful stands of lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, hemlock and western redcedar are massive old-growth survivors.

Sema Meadows, on the eastern edge of the area, is another symbol of the boreal forests of the north. A remnant of the last ice age, the meadows consist of an increasingly rare mid-elevation peat bog inter-braided with the sluggish side channels of the South Fork of Granite Creek. Several rare plants, including green mulhy and creeping snowberry, grow amidst the bogs, and the northern bog lemming has even been spotted here. Granite Creek, which is the main tributary of the Priest River, still harbors redband and cutthroat trout.

At over six thousand of road-free acres, the South Fork Mountain area, together with Hungry Mountain, Harvey Creek and Hall Mountain / Grassy Top roadless areas, comprises a corridor of thousands of acres of roadless habitat that stretches up into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness and north into British Columbia. Surrounded by private timber lands, these roadless areas are the last bastion of grizzly bear and caribou in the United States. And if mountain caribou—and grizzlies, and redband trout—are to remain more than just ghosts, these special wild places should be protected for the future.



  1. I think it is high time that we have special and permanent protection for all of our roadless areas. It’s not that new ones will ever be created.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. There are so many compelling reasons to permanently protect our roadless areas, not least of which is that they are the only ones we have left.

  3. […] Highlands. In fact, the first reported moose sightings in the state, in the 1950s, were in the South Fork Mountain roadless area, part of the Mountain Caribou proposed wilderness area near Sullivan […]

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