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Wilderness Alert

I write in support of wild places, here specifically Wells Gray Provincial Park in east-central British Columbia; but that’s just a for instance...

Introducing Wells Gray Provincial Park

At 540,000 ha, Wells Gray Provincial Park is as large as, or larger than, one in every five nations on earth...

Introducing the Mountain Caribou

British Columbia is home to three ecotypes of the Woodland Caribou...

Letter to Don Kayne, CEO and president, Canfor

Forestry planners are accorded tremendous power to effect downstream outcomes...

Proposed Logging near Wells Gray Threatens Mountain Caribou

If we can’t maintain a viable Mountain Caribou herd in a vast wilderness park like Wells Gray, then what hope is there of doing so elsewhere?

Anatomy of a Moratorium

What is most urgently needed just now is time to sort all this out.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mountain Caribou Alert: Call to Action!

© Mark Bradley / www.borealnaturephotos.com
The idea that Canfor would log the Clearwater Valley is by now surely unthinkable. Whether Canfor planner Dave Dobi, a Registered Professional Forester, is fully aware of the impact his proposal would have on a threatened species is a question that perhaps needn’t be asked. For now it’s enough to know that Canfor’s president and CEO Don Kayne understands at what door his Vavenby planner has lately been knocking: the door that opens toward extinction for one of B.C.’s truly iconic animals. Canfor, says Mr. Kayne, will not support actions that impact parks or critical habitat for species at risk. Amen.
The outlook for most of B.C.’s 15 remaining Mountain Caribou herds is frankly bleak. In the south especially it varies from looming extinction to permanent life support in the form of periodic reintroductions, calving-assistance programs and, above all, predator culls without end.

The south Wells Gray herd belongs in the latter, life-support category. This herd is unquestionably in trouble, having contracted by about one-third in the past decade. Ironically, it appears that B.C.’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan (MCRIP, here Recovery Strategy) may be largely to blame. Or if not quite yet, then certainly it soon will be. More about that in a moment.

On paper the Recovery Strategy looks good, promising to rebuild B.C.'s Mountain Caribou population from 1700 to 2500 animals by 2027. This will be achieved, it claims, through a three-pronged approach comprising: first, 2.2 million ha of mostly high-elevation forests set aside as winter habitat: second, intense on-going predator control targeted at wolves and cougar: and third, management of mechanized backcountry winter recreation.

Now a three-legged stool really isn’t very stable, and neither is a three-pronged Recovery Strategy for Mountain Caribou. I’m not the first to see this. In 2005, a government-appointed recovery implementation team argued – cogently, I think – for inclusion of a fourth prong, what they called “matrix habitat”.

In its original definition, matrix habitat is low- to mid-elevation forest not necessarily occupied by Mountain Caribou but capable, when logged, of supporting substantial numbers of moose and/or deer and hence also their predators. Wolf and/or cougar populations bolstered by these clearcuts can sometimes spread out into nearby protected areas, sooner or later devastating the resident Mountain Caribou. What the recovery implementation team was hoping for was a commitment by government to refrain from creating ever more clearcuts in matrix habitat.

In the event, this didn’t happen. Virtually all habitat set-asides established under B.C.’s Recovery Strategy are situated at high elevations where, granted, they provide the Mountain Caribou with critical winter refuge. In the few places where the set-asides dip to valley elevations, they’re rarely more than small thumbs of oldgrowth protruding into landscapes either already logged – and thereby converted into habitat for predators – or soon to be. For the rest, the Recovery Strategy entrusts the future of Wells Gray’s Mountain Caribou to a costly regime of questionably effective, morally opprobrious predator control.

Overall I’d have to say the Recovery Strategy’s overwhelming reliance on predator control seems a bit half baked: rather like proposing to raise chickens without building a chicken coop. Sure, you can blast away at predators as until the cows come home; but the problem never disappears. Sooner or later you lose your chickens.

There’s more. First, what happens to an ecosystem when you permanently remove up to 80% of its top predators? Not nothing, I suppose. It's easy to assert that any resulting increase in moose and deer can be offset by human hunters; but surely this is a long shot given the size and remoteness of the areas involved. Second, how can we know that government won't some day lose interest in funding predator culls? What happens to the Mountain Caribou then? And third, isn't it possible that these predator culls may actually be forcing survivors into prime caribou habitat – a hypothesis worth testing, I should think.

Mountain Caribou, of course, aren’t chickens. They’re a nationally and internationally threatened large mammal, arguably the most iconic animal in the mountain region of Canada and, besides, an animal essentially endemic to British Columbia. I'd say they deserve better than we’ve given them.

Death by a thousand clearcuts. I write in support of wild-deerness, here the Mountain Caribou of southern Wells Gray Park (medium green), but that’s just a for instance... (click to enlarge)
"Like many of the decisions government makes,” says government biologist Chris Ritchie, “there are trade-offs to balance the management of environmental, social and economic needs. There's nothing particular to caribou about that". Decoded, Ritchie is saying the Recovery Strategy is to be seen as a balance between the interests of local mills clamoring for fibre and the life-and-death interests of Mountain Caribou. “Balance,” however, should imply benefit to both parties, though it’s hard to see much benefit here for Wells Gray’s Mountain Caribou – a point surely underscored by their on-going decline.

What’s to be done? According to best science, only two of B.C.’s Mountain Caribou herds have a good to very good chance of persisting into the human-dominated long-term. One of these is the Hart Ranges herd, the other is the Wells Gray herd, north and south. Both herds, by the way, are vulnerable not only to predators but to increased variation in the winter snowpack - a by-product of global climate change. Details aside, what’s critical at this time is to ensure these herds persist in numbers sufficient to absorb periodic downturn whatever the cause.

One would have expected the supreme importance of securing matrix habitat adjacent to Wells Gray (and the Hart Ranges) to stand out in high relief for the architects of B.C.’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan. But either it didn't or, more likely, a decision was made to entrust the future of Wells Gray's caribou to a permanent war on predators - this in lieu of setting aside the matrix habitat it would take to make such a war unnecessary. Either way, the Recovery Strategy actually resulted in less matrix habitat for the southern Wells Gray herd than existed prior to its implementation.

There's irony here. As it happens, Wells Gray’s Mountain Caribou – unique in this regard – were in all likelihood set to undergo a degree of spontaneous recovery. Briefly, this is because about 90,000 of forests that sprang up in the wake of huge wildfires early in the 20th century have now reached maturity and will soon transition to oldgrowth. As this process unfolds, the Clearwater Valley – most of it already protected – will become progressively less productive for moose and deer, hence also for wolves and cougar. Had the Recovery Strategy included significant amounts of matrix habitat adjacent to the park, Wells Gray’s Mountain Caribou could reasonably be expected to begin rebuilding in the years ahead. As things stand, every new low-elevation clearcut outside the park creates yet more habitat for predators, thereby putting more stress still on a herd which, unless I’m mistaken, is now unlikely to expand any time soon. As predator populations build, Mountain Caribou populations decline.

Here’s how Mountain Caribou recovery looked to an early government-appointed recovery implementation team seeking recovery for Wells Gray’s herds, north and south. The yellow and red areas represent “matrix habitat”, defined as low-elevation forestlands not necessarily used by caribou but highly productive for their main predators when opened by logging. With the on-going decline of Mountain Caribou across most of its range, there's hope the B.C. government will eventually include such areas in its Recovery Strategy - even if only in core areas like Wells Gray (and the Hart Ranges, and maybe the northern Selkirks). Until then, residents of the Clearwater Valley are quite rightly calling for a moratorium on industrial logging in the area shown in red. (click to enlarge)
What the Wells Gray south caribou herd needs most urgently at this time is for government to restructure logging schedules outside the park using a “caribou matrix management zones” approach. Logging would proceed as usual outside the yellow zone on the map; but as the park is approached, future management decisions would increasingly be weighed against the latest caribou census. If the numbers show the park’s caribou are declining, then no logging. If stable, then maybe a little logging. And if there’s good evidence of increase, well then more logging still. That sort of thing.

Summing up, it seems fair to conclude that B.C.’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan is failing the Mountain Caribou that make their home in Wells Gray. This is too bad. Ever since its establishment in 1939, Wells Gray has been seen as a major stronghold for Mountain Caribou in southern British Columbia. As evidence, consider that Wells Gray’s southern boundary has twice been extended on their behalf. Consider also that Mountain Caribou also played a major role in the decision to link Wells Gray to Bowron Lakes via Cariboo Mountains Park; taken together, these three parks form a vast Mountain Caribou refuge. With recovery for the Wells Gray herd now in sight, surely this is not the time to allow short-sighted land management decisions to deflect us from public resolve dating back, one government to the next, more than 70 years.

A provincial election is now looming in B.C. From now until May, the B.C. government might yet be persuaded to take affirmative action on behalf of the park’s Mountain Caribou. The single most progressive step it could take (apart from creating caribou matrix management zones) would be to establish a moratorium on further logging immediately the south and west of the park, in the area marked red on the map.

Whether or not we are prepared to take up the call to action speaks, I should think, with considerable force to the question of how much we still care about the wilderness values of supernatural British Columbia. The time to seek adequate protection for Wells Gray’s Mountain Caribou is now.

Please speak out.