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Last Caribou Herd On U.S. Mainland 'Functionally Extinct', Experts Say

HELENA (CBS Local) - Another species is about to disappear from the American wilderness. The last herd of southern mountain caribou - known as gray ghosts - has reportedly dwindled down to the point where wildlife experts are calling them "functionally extinct" in the U.S. mainland.

The Selkirk herd - the last group of caribou living in the lower 48 states - has gone from a population of around 50 in 2009 to just three females currently. "It's devastating that we've nearly lost the South Selkirks caribou herd," environmental group Wildsight's John Bergenske said in a news release. "What's worse is that unless we take immediate action to protect all critical mountain caribou habitat, the South Purcells and other southern herds won't be far behind."

Conservationists are blaming the downfall of the species in the U.S. on decades of overdeveloping and road-building along the Canadian border. "The functional loss of this herd is the legacy of decades of government mismanagement across caribou range," biologist Mark Hebblewhite said, via The New York Times.

The gray ghosts weigh as much as 600 pounds and feed on a slow-growing lichen which forms on rocks and trees in the forest. The caribou food supply has been slowly cut down by the logging industry on both the U.S. and Canadian side of the border. "The tragic outcome was very predictable," Hebblewhite added.

Wildlife experts say the number of southern mountain caribou in Canada is also declining, with only 3,800 left in all of North America. That number has reportedly fallen by 2,000 in the last four years due to the lack of restrictions on over-logging in British Columbia.

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