Picture a herd of caribou. Do you see them grazing lichen on the tundra, with warm breath steaming in the frosty air as they migrate over snow-covered ground? That's what many people think of when caribou cross their mind. But there's another type of caribou, one that lives in the lush green rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.

This is the mountain caribou, an elusive animal that few people see, let alone know about. But one conservation photographer aims to change that.

David Moskowitz spent years tracking mountain caribou and photographing them for a new book, "Caribou Rainforest: From Heartbreak to Hope," which highlights this unique subspecies and the complex melange of cultural, economic and environmental issues that pushed the mountain caribou to the brink of extinction.

In that difficult mix, he also finds beauty and possibility for change. Moskowitz explores what dangers threaten the species and how solutions can be crafted to benefit them, their habitat, and the other species dependent on the same rare rainforest ecosystem — including humans.

We spoke with Moskowitz about his beautiful new book, his experiences tracking and photographing these shy animals, and how we can maintain hope and action when a situation seems dire.

mountain caribou hidden by trees, Caribou Rainforest book, David Moskowitz
These caribou, like the inland rainforest they evolved in, have gone under the radar of conservation groups and the general public. (Photo: David Moskowitz)

MNN: Your latest book tells a difficult story, as we are so close to losing a unique subspecies of caribou. What originally drew you to this topic?

David Moskowitz: Four years ago, I suddenly found myself with a month of free time in July. I decided to use it to go track down some of these fascinating animals and see if I couldn’t pull together images for a short essay on them.

I quickly realized what a unique ecosystem they depend on, and dove into the complexities of the conservation and social challenges we face to care for both these animals and the rainforest.

Watching old-growth trees going down the road on logging trucks and away from prime habitat for an endangered species, and then learning that many of these trees were just going to the pulp mill to make paper products, pretty much sealed the deal for me that I was going to pursue telling this story in as big a way as I can.

Most people have never heard of mountain caribou. What are some of the reasons the subspecies has been overlooked?

These caribou, like the inland rainforest they evolved in, have gone under the radar of conservation groups and the general public for a few reasons. One is they are tucked away between the ultra-charismatic Canadian Rockies and the coastal rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. They are far from population centers. Accessing much of the caribou rainforest requires a ton of work, so recreational access has been limited by both.

Additionally, mountain caribou are super hard to find and observe, so they get less attention than the massive herds of barren ground caribou up in the Arctic. Mountain caribou make a living being hard to find by hiding out in vast tracts of roadless rainforest.

It's really a shame because this ecosystem is absolutely stunning, has tremendous value in terms of ecosystem services it provides, and is actually one of the most unique and endangered forest ecosystems on the planet. Similarly, the survival strategy of these caribou is totally unique to this place on the planet despite the species’ range across the Northern Hemisphere. It's stunningly beautiful — one of the most epic series of mountain ranges I’ve had the privilege to explore.

Pacific Northwest rainforest scene, Caribou Rainforest book, David Moskowitz
Some of the photos in 'Caribou Rainforest' took photographer David Moskowitz three years to get. (Photo: David Moskowitz)

In addition to your skills as a photographer and storyteller, you are a professional tracker. What was it like searching out and following these wild caribou? How did working on this story put that side of your wildlife training to the test?

Hah. Well, for me these things went hand in hand from the start of the project. I knew it would be tough to find these animals due to the habitat they live in and their low population numbers. Some images took me three years to get and I wasn’t expecting that.

Part of my initial inspiration to pursue this story was the fact that I thought it would be a great adventure trying to find mountain caribou and explore the amazing mountains of the region. I wasn’t wrong about that, but I learned so much more and developed my skills as a photographer and a wildlife tracker immensely though the project.

One of the major skills I practiced was camera trapping. After the first field season on this project, I realized that motion-triggered camera traps might be the only way I could get the images I was after. Several years of ups and downs followed as I scoured the landscape, tracking down the best spots to set up camera traps to capture images of mountain caribou, grizzly bears, wolves and other elusive animals in the rainforest.

You're careful to show that many complex factors have added up to create the current dire situation for the mountain caribou. How do you maintain that open and balanced perspective, when it can be so compelling to place blame or demand action?

Well, wildlife conservation is really only very little about wildlife biology. It's really mostly about human relationships and how we manage ourselves.

At its heart, what is unfolding in the caribou rainforest is really about the ongoing impacts of settler colonialism on the indigenous peoples and ecosystem of this region. And it's very clear that the problems this has created don’t just affect caribou or the original people of this place. We are all suffering from the unsustainable relationship we have with the natural world.

Most folks I’ve met on the ground in the caribou rainforest are all really interested in the same things when you boil it down: a way to feed themselves and their families within a cultural context that feels relevant to them. Really it's the same thing mountain caribou want. When I start from that place, it's pretty easy to relate to all sides of this story and a helpful place to start conversations.

That's a lot of what I hope to do with my work on this project — create openings for people to see ourselves as another part of the system we are upending.

That being said, I absolutely believe that we must not only demand action, but take action ourselves. There is too much at stake here not to. What those actions look like vary greatly from person to person, but we all need to put our backs into addressing climate change and an economic model that is robbing future generations of people, caribou, and all sorts of rainforest creatures of the possibility of lives liked with dignity and abundance.

mountain caribou look tiny when viewed from above, Caribou Rainforest book, David Moskowitz
Mountain caribou use the mountain landscape from valley bottom to mountain top. (Photo: David Moskowitz)

Mountain caribou are considered an 'umbrella species.' What does this mean from a conservation perspective?

The unfolding story with mountain caribou is a case study in the concept of the umbrella species, including both its value and its limits. Mountain caribou use the mountain landscape from valley bottom to mountain top, so in order to protect them, you theoretically need to protect every element of the ecosystem.

Ideally this means everything else in this ecosystem should benefit from the protection measures for caribou. This has worked in that there has been substantial amounts of critical habitat set aside from logging for caribou.

However, a lot of the management to keep mountain caribou from going extinct has had little benefit to other species. That's because legislation like the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Species at Risk Act in Canada have no mandate to deal with ecosystems, just individual species. You can keep a species alive by putting pregnant females in a pen to keep them and calves from getting eaten by predators, but this doesn’t do much for endemic salamanders and lichens.

And, with the very real possibility that mountain caribou could disappear from large parts of the rainforest, the habitat for them could be removed from protection once the caribou disappear. Both the USA and Canada have precedent for this happening.

At the end of the day, if the umbrella collapses … well, there are a lot of things that are gonna get pretty wet.

What are some of the personal lessons you learned about this difficult issue while you were documenting this story?

When I came back from many of my trips to the caribou rainforest, I was often very depressed and just wanted to check out. Photographing old-growth rainforest being clearcut, listening to the stories of First Nations struggling to have their legal rights respected … this is a story filled with pain for many. I had to learn how to go through this, not cut it out.

After the first slideshow I did, someone came up to me and said, "Well, it seems hopeless." But I’m full of hope, and I worked with so many people up there who are full of hope. We wake up and go to work to fix things and make a better future, despite knowing the challenges we are facing.

So how do we help bridge this gap, to help people see the travesties of what's happening out there but then also the inspiration to act rather than get lost in grief?

The work of Joanna Macy and her concepts of the "work that reconnects" was really helpful for me and I wove that into the conclusion to the book and into how I present on this story.

Feeling the pain of what's happening in the world, in the caribou rainforest, is part of the process of healing. Pain tells us there is an injury, that something needs attention. It's the signal to pay attention and take action.

Cover of Caribou Rainforest book, David Moskowitz
If mountain caribou disappear from large parts of the rainforest, their habitat could be removed from protection. (Photo: David Moskowitz)

How can concerned readers get involved in the preservation of mountain caribou and their habitat?

At CaribouRainforest.org we have an action page with links to several conservation groups and specific actions or campaigns they can key into. In a nutshell though, three areas that people can focus on are: climate change, solidarity with indigenous peoples' sovereignty and rights, and specific advocacy around forestry reform and mountain caribou conservation actions in Canada and the USA.

Caribou Rainforest is available for purchase from Braided River. In addition to enjoying this new book, you can also watch "Last Stand: The Vanishing Caribou Rainforest," a documentary short film about the mountain caribou.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.