Rarest Large Animals in North America
Animals such as white-tailed deer, caribou and black bears remain numerous in some parts of North America. But certain of their subspecies and isolated populations have alarmingly few animals left.
The list below describes ten of the rarest large animals native to Canada and United States.
Florida Black Bear
Ursus americanus floridanus
Somewhere between 1,600 and 3,000 Florida black bears live in remote forests of Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The total population plummeted from over 10,000 historically to just 300 animals in 1974 as forests were cleared and bears shot.
Although it's recovering, this bear subspecies is still threatened by new development expanding into forests. Roads pose another hazard, with well over 100 Florida black bears killed each year by vehicles.
Louisiana Black Bear
Ursus americanus luteolus
Historically this subspecies of black bear was common and widespread in forests of eastern Texas, southern Mississippi and Louisiana. By the mid 1900s the bears were gone from two states. Louisiana's population dropped to less than 125 bears in 1981. Excessive hunting and clearing 85% of the original bottomland hardwood forests in the lower Mississippi Valley led to the bear's decline.
Restoration efforts have since helped the bear population grow to an estimated 500 to 700 animals, most residing in Louisiana.
Odocoileus virginianus clavium
This smallest subspecies of white-tailed deer was hunted to near extinction by the 1940s. From a low of 25 Key deer in the early 1950s, they've rebounded to around 800 animals. The deer live only on a six-mile span of islands in the Florida Keys where they've adapted to being surrounded by salt water.
The diminutive deer are currently threatened by commercial and residential development encroaching on native habitat. Collisions with cars account for 70% of Key deer killed each year.
Caribou - Gaspe Peninsula
Rangifer tarandus pop. 2
What's left of the woodland caribou that once roamed Canada's maritime provinces and the northeastern United States is a tiny herd confined to mountain tops of Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula. As the only wild caribou living south of the St. Lawrence River, the Gaspésie herd is completely isolated and genetically distinct from all other caribou.
Hunting, logging and other hazards have caused their numbers to drop for well over a century. A 2001 estimate puts the population at just 140 animals. The herd currently struggles with disturbance from people and heavy losses of calves to coyotes and black bears.
Rangifer tarandus pop. 1
The 2006 survey of mountain caribou in southeastern British Columbia estimated 1907 animals remained. This ecotype of woodland caribou probably once numbered around 6,000 over a historic range that included northern Idaho and western Alberta.
In all but one of the 18 subpopulations surviving in recent years, numbers have declined an average of 4.5% annually from the mid-1990s to 2006. Two of the herds died out after 2002, while three others had fewer than ten animals left by 2006. New roads built in the mountains have brought disruptions from recreationists, improved access for natural predators, and allowed logging of the old-growth forests that these rare caribou rely on during winter.
Rangifer tarandus pearyi
Although the Peary caribou population hasn't dwindled as low as that of some ungulates, its rate of decline is cause for concern. The numbers of Peary caribou diminished by 72% between 1980 to 2001. This was after a 40% drop from 47,000 animals in the previous two decades. An estimated 8,000 of this small, white and hairy subspecies of caribou existed in 2001.
Peary caribou live only in the extreme environment of Canada's northernmost Arctic islands. Many starve during winters when heavy snow or ice prevents them from reaching food. While the herds can rebound in better years, hunting may lately be hindering their ability to recover from harsh winters.
Antilocapra americana sonoriensis
Less than 500 of this subspecies of pronghorn, that's specially adapted to living on cactus in the Sonoran Desert, remain in United States and Mexico. Over 90% of its former range is overtaken with agriculture, ranching and dams. The single US population in southwestern Arizona declined throughout the 1990s, eventually plummeting to 21 animals following a drought in 2002. Another two separate Sonoran pronghorn groups living in northwestern Mexico totalled perhaps 350 animals in 2000.
As of 2006, about 100 individuals lived wild in the US and another 25 in captivity. To help pull the endangered Sonoran pronghorns back from the brink of extinction, releases into the wild of captive-born pronghorns began in late 2006.
Bos bison athabascae
About 168,000 wood bison roamed Canada's western boreal forests in 1800. By the end of the century, hunting had eliminated all but 250. The remaining herds eventually hybridized with plains bison, and in 1940 wood bison were believed extinct. Nearly 20 years later, a herd of about 200 animals was discovered in Wood Buffalo National Park. From that group, 37 bison were relocated.
Their descendents, as of 2006, totalled 4,188 animals living in seven free-ranging, disease-free herds scattered among two provinces and two territories. A further 6,216 wild wood bison, including those in the Park, live in herds contaminated with infectious diseases, while another 1,029 are in captivity. Besides the ravages of brucellosis, tuberculosis and anthrax, hybridization with plains bison which have escaped from ranches jeopardizes the subspecies.
Peninsular Bighorn Sheep
Ovis canadensis cremnobates
(O. c. nelsoni)
From the 1970s, when their numbers were first monitored, through the 1990s, bighorn sheep living in the mountains west and south of Palm Springs, California declined drastically. The 1974 United States tally of this isolated population of desert bighorn sheep was around 1,170 animals. By 1998 there were 280 peninsular bighorn sheep left in the country and some herds had disappeared.
Since then the US population has recovered to about 793 adults and yearlings. Another estimated 1,000 peninsular bighorn adults live in Baja California, Mexico. The sheep have suffered from diseases picked up from domestic livestock. They continue to be threatened by urban and commercial growth overtaking their canyon habitat.
Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep
Ovis canadensis californiana
(O. c. sierrae)
The decline of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep began when Europeans settled in eastern California. Diseases caught from domestic sheep that were grazed in the mountains decimated the wild herds. By the 1970s, this desert bighorn subspecies was rare, gone from 14 of the 16 areas it inhabited a century earlier.
Their numbers began tumbling even further in the 1980s when the wild sheep abandoned their low-elevation winter ranges. The total Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep population bottomed at 100 animals in 1995. They faired better in recent years and by 2006 around 350 to 400 of the sheep survived.