What to do about the caribou?

By Anita Willis
Anita Willis

Photo: Art Studio 21 Photography

I invite our Canadian readers to take a moment to find a quarter. Go on, check your pockets; I’ll wait.

On the flip side of Queen Elizabeth II, you’ll find a stag’s head with a towering set of antlers cantilevered over its powerful neck. This is the noble caribou, Rangifer tarandus.

Right now, holding that coin, you may be as close as you’ll ever come to a caribou. Canada’s icon of the wilderness is in trouble.

North America’s three caribou subspecies—barren ground, Peary, and woodland, the type that live in British Columbia—have experienced serious population declines. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, classes seven regional populations—from the Northern Territories to Quebec to British Columbia—as endangered, threatened, or of special concern. Dawson’s caribou of B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands are officially extinct.

Our magazine’s Winter 1998 issue introduced me to B.C.’s mountain caribou, now the target of an urgent provincial recovery strategy. These endangered animals, an ecotype of woodland caribou, live in the humid coniferous forests of the Columbia Mountains, ranging from upper Idaho through the Kootenays and north into the Rocky Mountains east of Prince George. Without intervention, they too could die out.

It took a book about Arctic caribou to awaken me to what we stand to lose here in B.C. In Being Caribou (McClelland & Stewart, 2006), Canadian wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer relates the five-month journey he and filmmaker Leanne Allison made with the Porcupine River caribou in 2003. The newlyweds followed the 123,000-member herd—on foot—between their Yukon winter habitat and their calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a site threatened by oil and gas exploration. Quite the honeymoon.

Heuer’s fascinating account triggered a revelation: If he and Allison were concerned enough about the Arctic’s hundreds of thousands of barren ground caribou to trek 1,500 kilometres, create a book and National Film Board documentary to raise public awareness—why wasn’t I more concerned about B.C.’s 12 dwindling herds of mountain caribou, the last of these animals in the world?

Researchers believe B.C. had 30,000 to 40,000 woodland caribou before Europeans arrived, and perhaps as many as 80,000. Today, there are less than 16,000. That includes the 1,900 remaining mountain caribou—600 fewer than when we published our 1998 article.

Mountain caribou depend on old-growth trees in B.C.’s lush inland temperate rainforest, which supports many species of lichen. While it’s hard to imagine 100- to 180-kilogram adult caribou subsisting on wispy arboreal lichens, that’s exactly what gets these animals through the winter. Their wide, splay-hoofed feet allow them to stand atop deep snowpack and stretch up to nibble the nutritious lichens that grow on century-old trees.

Here’s the good news. The recovery strategy outlined thus far (stakeholder discussions are ongoing, with more announcements expected this spring) will protect 95 percent of the mountain caribou’s winter habitat from logging and road building. This will be achieved through a new allocation of 3,800 square kilometres of forest, combined with existing parks and protected areas: in all, 22,000 square kilometres of caribou range.

How those 3,800 square kilometres are distributed will be crucial. Caribou winter in alpine and subalpine forests, and come down the valleys in spring and late fall. Because their mid- and low-elevation habitat falls within our most accessible timber harvesting areas, these old-growth areas have become increasingly fragmented.

Aided by logging roads and snowmobile tracks venturing deep into the backcountry, wolves and cougars now hunt with ease in areas where the caribou once eluded them. And with harvested forest areas creating new habitat for moose and deer, more predators are being attracted into caribou territory.

Proposed new guidelines for recreation groups should help reduce snowmobile, helicopter, and ATV disturbance in the caribou’s feeding areas. But biologists agree: the caribou need large, unroaded, unfragmented areas of old forest to survive. Are we willing to be a little more generous with the lower-valley forests we’ve claimed for ourselves, if that’s what it takes to keep these animals alive?

The caribou, that coin-stamp symbol of Canadian wilderness, has become a signal species of habitat imbalance. And in this era of global warming, protection of living, breathing, carbon-cleansing forests may become a new imperative—for what sustains the caribou sustains us, too.

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Christine Ly

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