STRAIGHT TALK ABOUT MOUNTAIN CARIBOU

The Valhalla Wilderness Society responds to Wildsight’s article, “Caribou Recovery —What Does It All Mean?”

Twice each year the Deep-snow Caribou migrate from the high mountains to lower elevations, where old-growth forest is key to their survival. These Central Selkirk caribou are in the valley-bottom of the Lardeau River. Photo by Karl Grfroerer.

As the logging industry fights tooth and nail to resist cutting back one iota on the amount of logging that threatens the caribou with extinction, it has enormously exaggerated the impact of caribou habitat protection on the timber supply, and thus on jobs and communities. However, the flip-side — which is under-representing how much forest the caribou need — must also be avoided, because it’s the reason why the previous, 2007  recovery plan resulted in ongoing habitat loss and population decline. Is a recovery program with only “minor” reductions in logging of critical habitat desirable or laudable, when most of the habitat has already been logged, and overcutting is wiping out many species and accelerating climate change? We don’t think so. Click HERE to see how much of the caribou’s critical habitat has already been logged. Wildsight recently released an interview entitled “Caribou Recovery — What Does It All Mean?” that offers a good opportunity for examining these issues. Below, VWS offers a different view of what it all means.

WILDSIGHT: “In 2007, Wildsight played a part in the provincial Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan that set out to recover deep snow dwelling caribou back to a target of 2,500 animals. That plan protected key high elevation habitat, but unfortunately much of the habitat was already degraded and some herds were no longer viable.”

These caribou from the Revelstoke population have migrated to the valley bottom of Downey Creek in spring, where the melting snow reveals the first green plants to help them recover from the low-nutrition they experience in winter at high elevation. They spend as much as 50% of the year at lower elevation. They received very little new habitat protection under the 2007 recovery program, and logging of their habitat continues.

VWS: This gives the public the impression that protecting mostly “high elevation habitat” was a valid recovery plan for Mountain Caribou. It wasn’t, because the habitat loss, from logging, was concentrated and ongoing at  low and middle elevations. Old-growth forest at these lower elevations is spring and early winter habitat for the Deep-snow Mountain Caribou of the Interior Wetbelt. Despite the extensive loss of this kind of habitat, the 2007 plan protected very little of it, and the logging went on.

In 2007 government would allow only 1% of the timber harvesting land base to be protected. However, in secret negotiations with the logging industry, heli-skiing businesses, and snowmobile clubs, a coalition of ten environmental groups agreed to protect substantially less than what the government had offered: in the end only 0.67% of the timber harvesting land base was newly protected. The participants in the secret deal had all agreed on a plan that would cause “no net loss” to industry and “no significant reduction” of the Annual Allowable Cut (AAC), and no mill closures.

This deficiency was concealed from the public by protecting vast amounts of high elevation habitat not profitable to log. Also, slopes too steep for logging or caribou, old burns and some heavily logged areas were thrown in. In addition, some of the new caribou protection zones were merely Modified Harvest Zones — logging could continue. This enabled government to claim that it had protected 2.2 million hectares of late winter habitat. But the caribou needed their spring and early winter habitat too.

WILDSIGHT: “Current recovery efforts lead by The Saulteau and West Moberly Nations’ in central BC brought the Klinse-za herd from 17 individuals in 2014, to over 70 caribou in the herd today. These recovery efforts, which included strong habitat protections, restoration of the landscape by closing and rehabilitating roads, a maternal pen and a predator control program, are beginning to show that mountain recovery is possible—even in heavily impacted landscapes. This type of comprehensive recovery effort needs to be expanded to other parts of the province.”

VWS: Wildsight offers this herd as an example of how a full spectrum of treatments can increase caribou herds “even in heavily impacted landscapes”. However, “strong habitat protections” were not amongst the treatments which increased this herd when it had almost been wiped out. According to Environment Canada, there is a limit to how much habitat loss a herd can experience and still be recoverable to a self-sustaining level. The federal government has set 35% range disturbance as the maximum amount that South Peace caribou can tolerate, past which recovery to a self-sustaining level becomes unlikely. The Klinse-za herd and other caribou in that Local Population Unit have suffered 65% habitat disturbance. The range of this South Peace herd is overrun by energy development. Is it fair to call it “recovery” when the herd will likely always be dependent on massive predator control and maternity penning? Environment Canada’s Imminent Threat Assessment points out that experience shows, that when the highly expensive predator control and mat pens stop, the caribou will decline again because they don’t have enough habitat left to sustain them.

For years the BC government and some of its biologists have fostered the view that with “population management” (i.e., predator killing and maternity pens) one can recover caribou regardless of how much habitat they have lost. This view has aided and abetted the continued destruction of habitat. Resource workers ask, “Why curtail resource exploitation when we are told that we can have caribou and log/mine/drill all we want, just by slaughtering wolves, and maybe bears and cougars, and penning pregnant cows?”

There is only one herd (the North Columbia herd) of Deep-snow Caribou that has had both predator reduction and a maternity pen, but it has not so far increased that herd significantly. Nor has any other predator cull program in the Interior Wetbelt caused significant improvement. VWS discusses this further in its 13-page submission to government on the Section 11 Agreement.

WILDSIGHT: Speaking of the draft Partnership Agreement with First Nations, Wildsight states: “Of course these actions for caribou will lead to minor reductions in timber supply … however, these actions will not close mills….”

VWS: This sounds like the same, old “no significant reduction in the timber supply, no mill closures” that made the last caribou recovery plan a failure. As long as 30 years ago environmentalists were pointing out that the destructive logging of our watersheds and wildlife habitat was driven by too many mills with big appetites. This drove an excessive Allowable Annual Cut that was endangering human health and lives, and dooming some species to extinction. Today, in some areas there is very little forest left for either the mills or the caribou. This is the industry’s own fault for overcutting. The only choice now is whether to log to extinction of the caribou and other species, or cut back significantly.

WILDSIGHT: “Instead of looking at wildlife or biodiversity as a constraint on timber supply or oil and gas or mining we need to start looking at what wildlife and our ecosystems need to thrive and then we can give mining or forestry its fair share.”

VWS: We understand what Wildsight means to say, but assuring the public that all the mills will stay open and reductions in timber supply are minor does look at the protections as a restraint on industry. The fact is that unsustainable development is dooming society and future generations to increasing consequences; species are dying specifically because of a failure to apply restraints, and society needs to face that directly. Thirty or forty years of caribou research have been enough to tell us what caribou need. We no longer have time to defer restraints while we study the problem some more. If environmental groups are unwilling to say this or ask for better, then the caribou and much more will be lost. Citizens should demand immediate and significant reduction in the amount of logging for all herds, followed by permanent habitat protection.

Valhalla Wilderness Society

© 2016, Valhalla Wilderness Society