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BC’s Caribou Recovery Plan: do we want caribou as a species to exist?

Citizens need to think hard about both sides of the issue and take the time to fully understand all that is at stake.

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In ski-able areas, helicopters and snow-cats ferry skiers up the mountains, contributing more noise. It doesn't take much: even cross-country skiers can stress out caribou. But for sheer numbers and noise, the snowmobiles rule. Caribou abandon otherwise excellent habitat when snowmobiles regularly use the area and snowmobile tracks form compacted paths that allow the wolf packs into the higher elevations.

When caribou leave the gently-sloping forests for steeper ground to avoid loud machinery, accidental deaths can occur, mostly from avalanches. One avalanche can wipe out an entire herd remnant. Caribou reproduce slowly and their need to avoid human activity burns up their energy reserves so they give birth to smaller, weaker calves who are less likely to survive.

Most recently, roads for mining and energy extraction have further fragmented caribou habitat. So do the mines, the seismic exploration, and the power lines.

Add in climate change, the biggest unknown of all. Significant caribou habitat has already burned, such as West Arm Park. Pine beetle kill affects forage, and salvage logging makes caribou habitat accessible to humans, other ungulates and wolves.

A recent study of the Selkirk area produced models in which wildfire burns increased by three to four times by 2050, lower elevation forests turned to sage brush grasslands by 2080 and the sub alpine fir and spruce forests at upper elevations disappeared. Snow conditions will change with more precipitation and higher snow lines, with unknown impacts for the caribou.

Study author and caribou ecologist Greg Utzig told the Vancouver Observer, “There are three possible outcomes for the caribou with climate change, and only one them is good.” In the positive scenario, conifers march up the mountains, encouraged by warmer temperatures. In the others, forests disappear.

Fragmented habitat makes adaptation more difficult for the caribou. The valleys, now filled with human development, isolate the herds from each other and other suitable habitat.

A bureaucratic blizzard of paper 

A blizzard of paper settles over this scene: situation analyses, standard operating procedures, land and resource management plans, implementation plans, monitoring forms, science updates. Their purpose and priorities are clearly stated: in areas with competing uses, "the primary objective remains the recovery of mountain caribou."

In 2005, the provincial government took its most serious note yet of the caribou’s plight: herd numbers had crashed by 50% over the past ten years. In 2006, it published its draft Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan. This was made final in 2009, after negotiations with stake holders.

All the stakeholders accepted the conclusions of the Plan’s Science Team: habitat loss and fragmentation were the underlying causes of mountain caribou declines, with mortality by predators as the related cause. Disturbance associated with backcountry motorized recreations was also identified as a key threat.

The goal of the 2009 Recovery Plan was to increase the caribou population of 1,883 animals to its pre-1995 level of 2,500 within twenty years. To do this it would: protect 95% of the caribou’s best winter habitat; manage human recreational activities to protect critical habitat; manage predators such as wolf, cougar and bear; manage the elk, deer and moose; transplant animals to boost herds when necessary; and implement a monitoring plan to ensure these measures were strong enough to help the caribou rebound.   

Environmental groups such as Forest Ethics and Sierra Club heralded the agreement as unprecedented forest protection that would save the mountain caribou.

Is the timber industry the big bad wolf?

The 2009 recovery plan promised a 95 per cent set-aside of caribou's winter habitat. Lee Harding, an external reviewer of the 2009 Recovery Plan, recently completed a report for environmental groups which compiled provincial information to assist with a federal caribou recovery strategy.

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