Ghost In The Mountains: Recovering B.C.’s Dwindling Caribou Herds

By Tim Burkhart

My first encounter with wild caribou was truly magical. As part of fieldwork for a University of Northern British Columbia course in 2015, I flew into the heart of the Muskwa-Kechika, a globally significant wilderness area roughly the size of Ireland, smack dab in the middle of north-central B.C.

As I set-up a remote wildlife camera at a well-trod salt lick, a big bull caribou emerged out of the rainy boreal forest. Antlers raised proudly and leathery snout snorting and snuffling at me with a mix of curiosity and suspicion, his eyes fixed upon mine. Squatting in the muddy ground, I tried to stay as still and quiet as possible. He circled me, steam rising from his shiny black coat. Mirroring my own inquisitive approach, he came within a few feet before primal mistrust took over and he disappeared into the woods like an old northern ghost.

Recalling this intimate encounter offers an important perspective; I have not seen caribou in the wild since.

Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, B.C.’s herds of northern and mountain caribou are now endangered due to the loss and fragmentation of the habitat they depend on. There are an estimated 219 northern caribou remaining, a mere 25 per cent of 1997 counts. First Nations elders remember them as being like “bugs on the land,” and harvesting caribou is a right under Treaty 8, a right that these communities have not been able to exercise since the 1970s.

Currently, a joint provincial-federal study is underway to identify critical habitat and assess existing efforts by B.C. to protect and recover our dwindling numbers. In a move welcomed by conservationists, the province pledged $27 million in February to a comprehensive caribou recovery program. However, there are major differences between the federal woodland caribou recovery strategy and provincial caribou management plans, including the amount of critical habitat identified.

Caribou are especially sensitive to human impacts. The marked increase in caribou predation, mostly by wolves, results largely from extensive habitat changes due to cumulative industrial and natural disturbances. Industry service roads and packed trails, as well as motorized recreation access, increase the mobility of predators in forested areas. While northern communities depend on resource extraction for jobs, many recognize the imbalance between development and stewardship for land and wildlife, and how it is unhealthy in the long term.

These communities are working hard to save these wild animals. Just west of Chetwynd in northern B.C, First Nations communities and conservationists have been taking steps to avert the elimination of the Klinse-Za herd by protecting pregnant cows and calves from predation during the birthing season. While the numbers are small, this intervention has helped to stabilize this herd’s population, for now.

Extraordinary measures like these help stem the tide of extinction at the local scale, but conservationists say much more is required. Proactive conservation measures across caribou habitat in B.C., including landscape-level habitat protection and the restoration of legacy habitat are desperately needed to prevent the fragmentation and ultimate extinction of northern and mountain caribou. There is still high-quality habitat remaining in the Hart Ranges of the south Peace—fast becoming the northern caribou’s last refuge. The Wild Harts include much of the remaining ranges of the Quintette, Kennedy, Narraway and Klinse-Za herds, and are the last contiguous intact forest landscape in northeastern B.C.

Hiking in these mountains, I hope to recreate the magical encounter I had up north, to meet eye-to-eye with an animal that means so much to this country and this province. The northern and mountain caribou live nowhere else on the planet. Leadership from both the government of Canada and the province is desperately needed to ensure these magnificent animals survive for future generations.

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Christine Ly

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