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  • Immediate action needed as habitat loss, not wolves, drive caribou to extinction


    Judith Lavoie
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    Killing wolves, moose and cougars won’t save the caribou—but stopping logging in their endangered forest habitat might give them a chance.

     

    THE USUAL HEAVY WINTER SNOW north of Revelstoke will make it tough to maintain a blockade, but a small group of determined activists want to ensure loggers do not gain access to certain blocks of old-growth forest. These forests—part of the threatened Inland Temperate Rainforest—are critical habitat for the endangered deep snow Columbia North caribou herd.

    One cutblock has been auctioned off by BC Timber Sales to Downie Timber and three others remain on the auction list.

    Last December, after a backlash from conservation groups and scientists, the provincial government deferred logging on 11 of 14 scheduled cutblocks in the Argonaut Valley until the mountain caribou herd planning process is complete—which is not expected until late next yearBut that still leaves the three cutblocks, adding up to almost 65 hectares, and close to five kilometres of road that was punched into the valley before the deferment.

    “We’re afraid that if we leave, they’re quite capable of ploughing those roads and logging in the winter,” said Virginia Thompson, who, after years of volunteer work to protect caribou, has been spending time on the blockade as a member of Old Growth Revylution.

     

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    Numbers of  woodland caribou in BC have shrunk from 40,000 to 15,500. Caribou are the canaries in the clearcuts,” says lichenologist Trevor Goward. (Photo by Conservation North)

     

    “We don’t know if we can pull it off, but we are sure going to try. We have a few people who are very at home in the back country and know how to winter camp and don’t mind being quite solitary,” Thompson said.

    The protest is supported by First Nations, including the Splatsin and Ktunaxa Nations, and environmental organizations, such as Wildsight, Wilderness Committee and Valhalla Wilderness Society.

    The Splatsin First Nation has called on BC Timber Sales to cease all operations in the area and a news release supporting the blockade says “Splatsin members and leadership will be standing up for what little intact refuge area remains for our four-legged ancestors.”

    The Ktunaxa Nation Council has committed to working with the Province and other parties to ensure Ktunaxa Nation interests and stewardship responsibilities are upheld.

    “The area in question is a vital southern mountain caribou habitat and any threat to the caribou, or ?a?kxam’is q’api qapsin (all living things), in this region is of great concern,” says a Ktunaxa news release.

    The determination to continue the blockade is reinforced by anger that, despite studies showing that saving BC’s dwindling caribou herds depends primarily on habitat protection, the Province is continuing to kill wolves, cougar and moose in caribou habitat, while allowing logging to continue.

    A recent study shows habitat loss is driving woodland caribou to extinction. It points out that caribou have lost twice as much habitat as they have gained over the last 12 years. In the past three decades, BC’s 54 herds of woodland caribou have shrunk to 15,500 from 40,000 animals and, in the Kootenays, since 2006, five caribou herds have been extirpated and three others are struggling to survive. 

     

    “Everything has gotten worse”

    Those are grim statistics which, said Sadie Parr, former executive director of Wolf Awareness, make it more extraordinary that the BC government is not pulling out all the stops to save the Columbia North herd, which is regarded as the one most likely to survive in southern BC.

    “It amazes me that the same government committed to protecting caribou is logging the little habitat the animals have left,” she said.

    The 2021 population census of the Columbia North Mountain Caribou shows about 184 animals, up from 138 in 2006.

    But critics say that government is trying to sustain those numbers by continuing to kill wolves and other animals in perpetuity instead of protecting their habitat.

    Parr stepped down from Wolf Awareness to allow her to take more direct action after concluding the usual channels, such as sitting on committees and holding meetings with government officials, were not working.

    “Everything has gotten worse. The logging continues. More wolves are killed. The caribou are winking out. That’s why we are so fierce about people heeding this call,” she said.

     

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    A view of logging of old-growth forest in Bigmouth Valley (photo by Sadie Parr)

     

    It is not only the caribou that are threatened. Bigmouth Creek and the Argonaut Valley, one of the last unlogged valleys in the region, are within the Inland Temperate Rainforest, an ecosystem that a recent study said is critically endangered and facing ecosystem collapse.

    “The decline of mountain caribou has mirrored the destruction of the Inland Temperate Rainforest ecosystem,” said Eddie Petryshen, Wildsight conservation specialist.

    The convergence of old-growth logging, shrinking caribou herds and the controversial wolf cull means BC’s top hot-button environmental issues are crystallized in the opposition to further old-growth logging in an area described as a patchwork of roads and clearcuts.

    Lower elevations of Bigmouth Creek have been hammered by clearcut logging going back decades, said Vallhalla Wilderness Society director Craig Pettitt, pointing to mottled images on a Google Earth map.

     

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    Satellite image of clearcuts in the Bigmouth Creek area. The Argonaut Creek watershed is in the lower right corner.

     

    “This logging has reduced what were vast stands of old-growth cedar hemlock forest to fragmented postage stamp retention areas,” he said.

    In contrast, so far, Argonaut Creek has escaped, probably because of the steep terrain, and the area provides a refuge of intact forested habitat for the deep snow caribou, Pettitt said.

     

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    A view of the upper Argonaut Valley (photo by Eddie Petryshen)

     

    Blockade slowed down logging, but critical valley-bottom threatened

    There is no injunction, so police and media attention is sparse at the Revylution blockade, but, the self-described land defenders have succeeded in preventing Downie Timber from harvesting.

     

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    The Old Growth Revylution blockade during summer 2021 (photo by Sadie Parr)

     

    “We’ve deferred harvest, deferred road building,” said a Downie spokesman, who refused to confirm his name or explain the terms of the deferral. 

    A Forests Ministry email, in response to questions from Focus, said the blockade has also “stopped environmentally sensitive road deactivation work from being completed.”

    Downie previously logged about 126 hectares of old growth on the north side of Bigmouth Creek. Petryshen does not want to see any more ancient trees loaded onto trucks.

    “Those were probably 500 to 600-year-old trees; a lot of that forest had been growing undisturbed since the end of the ice age. It’s globally unique forest and there’s not a whole lot of it left,” Petryshen said.

    “The deep snow-dwelling caribou are so tied to that ecosystem and have learned to live within it and we are disrupting that whole process,” he said, noting that the block that Downie plans to log contains some of the highest value old growth; it’s valley bottom—habitat that is essential to caribou which spend about half of their time in low elevations.

    No logging is currently taking place in the Argonaut or Bigmouth areas, but old-growth stands are scheduled for harvest in Bigmouth Creek, according to the ministry e-mail.

    “Locations for proposed cutblocks in the Bigmouth area have not been determined and will be dependent on the assessment and advice of many specialists for a range of natural resource values,” it says. The email also notes: “It’s important to recognize that, in their report, the Independent Panel [old-growth review panel] did not recommend a moratorium on old-growth logging in BC. They recommended deferrals in areas where there is a near term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss and further action to change the way we manage our old-growth forests.”

    Roads and clearcuts mean moose and deer move into the area—together with hunters and snowmobilers—and prey animals are followed by predators such as wolves and cougars

    Petryshen described this as “out-of-whack predator/prey dynamics,” and added, “The predators are not going after caribou, the caribou are just the bycatch. The system is kind of in chaos and caribou are the first to go when it is significantly out of balance.” 

     

    Focus on wolf cull not the answer

    Since 2015, 1,447 wolves have been killed in the provincial cull program. The animals are usually shot by aerial gunning from helicopters—a practice heavily criticized for disrupting wolf packs and having little basis in science as other wolves usually move into the area. A court case on its legality is being heard in late October.

    A study released last year found no statistical support for wolf culls or caribou maternity pens as conservation measures for mountain caribou.

     

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    The BC government has killed over 1400 wolves despite no evidence that it protects caribou (photo by John E. Marriott) 

     

    This month, a Pacific Wild petition calling for a halt to the cull, with more than half a million signatures, was presented to government on the opening day of the BC Legislature, but, in answer to questions from Focus, the Forests Ministry said both predator reduction and habitat protection are needed to protect caribou.

    “Without protecting caribou habitat, wolf and cougars will have to be killed in perpetuity to maintain caribou on the landscape. This is not what anyone wants,” says the emailed response. “On the other hand, if we only protect habitat, we likely will lose many caribou herds due to the current disturbed condition of the habitat from past and ongoing forestry activities. We need to protect habitat that is currently suitable and we need to give impacted habitat time to recover. This is a decades long process,” it says.

    BC is currently holding consultations, which will continue until Nov. 15, on extending the cull program for another five years.

    Parr is unimpressed by the consultation process and said the Province has already decided to not only go ahead, but to expand the cull, even though habitat protection and herd plans will not be completed until 2022.

    “We have asked them to show us the externally peer-reviewed science on this and they can’t…There’s no equation that could convince me [it is right] to brutally kill this number of wolves, which are sentient beings and play important ecological roles which are then disrupted,” she said.

    Parr believes that killing everything except caribou, while continuing to destroy habitat by removing trees that are thousands of years old, makes no sense. Though there might be short-term increases in caribou number, there will be no positive, long-term outcomes.

    “There are so many layers to this. We’re creating an ecological debt for future generations,” she said.

     

    Caribou need lichen, lichen need old growth

    Frustration is mixed with sadness and anger as Trevor Goward traces the downward spiral of deep snow mountain caribou populations and connects the decline to lichens, the essential deep snow caribou diet, which are being lost to logging.

    Goward, an internationally recognized lichenologist and author of about 150 scientific papers on lichens, said logging of old-growth forests in the Revelstoke area has now reached the point of no return and he believes the Columbia North caribou, which have survived in BC’s interior for millions of years, are tipping towards extinction.

    “It’s an absolute horror story and the caribou should be the warning. I call them the canaries in the clearcuts,” said Goward, pointing to decades of studies concluding that deep snow caribou need extensive old-growth forests at all elevations for long-term survival.

    “Once you get beyond a certain point—and we’re long past that point—every tree cut is basically making the situation worse,” he said.

    However, government biologists first opted to kill hundreds of moose and deer in the mistaken belief that, without prey, predators would leave. When that plan did not work, the killing was extended to wolves and cougars, Goward explained.

    “Any qualified biologist understands that pressure comes both bottom up and top down. Top down is the predation and bottom up is the food they eat—and to focus on one to the exclusion of the other is reprehensible in the extreme,” he said.

    Deep snow caribou rely on lichens growing on the branches of trees and when there are fewer trees with lichens, caribou expend more energy walking in the deep snow. It eventually gets to the point where caribou cannot survive, Goward said.

    “It’s not just a matter of the individual caribou dying, but, if it’s a stressful winter, the cows abort their fetuses and, if young are born, they are much less resilient than a normal caribou calf, so they are much more likely to die in the first year,” he said.

    “These caribou are special. They are the only ones that live entirely on these lichens. They need forests that are at least 120 or 150 years old,” Goward said.

    When caribou cannot find hair lichens in the high altitudes they move down to the valleys, he said.

    “But now the lowlands have been essentially nuked. There’s nothing for them. So, the next time they have to go down, they will only have wasted energy,” Goward said.

    “It’s a very sad story and the irony of the whole thing is that this is the one caribou type that could have survived long into climate change because they don’t care what’s on the ground. They just needed to have old forests and they have lost them, so it’s lose, lose all around,” he said.

     

    Only “plans to make a plan” while caribou near extinction

    Petryshen and Parr also find it difficult to be optimistic about the future of caribou in BC, when economics seem to trump immediate action and the answer from government is that there are plans to make a plan.

    “What’s frustrating is that, as the logging continues, they continue to say they don’t know where caribou habitat is,” Parr said.

    The official Environment Canada critical habitat map has been in the works since 2014, Petryshen said. “It has been in draft form for seven years and the Province and feds keep saying ‘hey, we are almost done,’” he said. Petryshen is hoping Indigenous leaders will fill the gap left by the federal and provincial governments.

    “I grew up close to the South Purcell mountains and we lost those caribou while we were planning to make a plan. We need immediate action right now,” he said.

    Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world.

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