Death by a Thousand Clearcuts

The outlook for most of B.C.’s 15 remaining Mountain Caribou herds is bleak. In the south especially it varies from looming extinction to 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. By any metric this herd is in trouble, having contracted by about one-half in the past decade. Ironically, it appears that B.C. Liberals’ 2007 Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan (Recovery Plan) may be largely to blame.

On paper the Recovery Plan looked good, promising to stabilize B.C.’s Mountain Caribou population by 2014 and to rebuild it to 2500 animals by 2027.

This was to be achieved through a three-pronged approach comprising: first, 2.2 million ha of mostly high-elevation winter habitat set aside from logging; 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 has a three-pronged Recovery Strategy for Mountain Caribou proved to be. As early as 2005, a B.C. government-appointed recovery implementation team argued for inclusion of a fourth prong, what they called “matrix habitat”.

As originally defined, 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 sooner or later move into nearby protected areas and so predate on Mountain Caribou. What the 2005 recovery implementation team was hoping for was a commitment by the B.C. Liberals to refrain from creating ever more clearcuts in matrix habitat.

In the event, this didn’t happen. Virtually all the oldgrowth of set-asides established under B.C.’s 2007 Recovery Plan – about 360,000 ha, not 2.2 million as advertised – are situated at high elevations where, granted, they provide critical winter refuge; but not enough, and certainly not what the caribou need to recover, as their declining numbers confirm.

By now the pattern is obvious: as long as industrial-scale logging in lowland matrix habitat continues, Mountain Caribou are doomed. Environmental policies that entrust the future of these animals to costly stop-gap measures like caribou birthing pens, translocation programmes, intensive moose and deer hunts, and, most controversially, wolf and cougar can’t possibly work, are a waste of taxpayers’ money. Proof of this is that there are about 600 fewer Mountain Caribou in the world today than there were the B.C. Liberals announced their 2007 Recovery Plan.

According to the latest surveys, the largest remaining Mountain Caribou populations live in the Hart Ranges (532 animals) and in Wells Gray Park (421 animals). One would have expected the supreme importance of securing matrix habitat adjacent to these herds to have stood out in high relief for the architects of B.C.’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan.

But either it didn’t or, more likely, a high-level decision was made to entrust the Mountain Caribou’s future to a permanent war on predators – this in lieu of setting aside the matrix habitat needed to make such a war unnecessary. Either way, the Recovery Plan actually accelerated the loss of matrix habitat in the Hart Ranges and adjacent to southern Wells Gray. With no appreciable reduction in the rate of cut, the logging simply shifted from the high country to the lowlands.

There’s irony here. Unique among all Mountain Caribou, the Wells Gray herd was likely set to undergo a degree of spontaneous recovery as 90,000 ha of forests dating from wildfires early in the 20th century now transition to oldgrowth (link here for more details). As this process unfolds, the Clearwater Valley – most of it already protected – will become progressively less productive for moose and deer, hence also for the wolves and cougar that hunt them – and also Mountain Caribou.

This is worth repeating: Had the B.C. Liberals’ Recovery Plan included protection for significant amounts of matrix habitat adjacent to southern Wells Gray, there’s every possibility its Mountain Caribou herds would soon begin to recover on their own.

Still, there is news to report. First, in 2014 the federal government designated large areas of matrix habitat south of Wells Gray Park as Critical Habitat for Caribou – a designation that should lead to at least some protection. And second, the B.C. Liberals are no longer in power. In their place, the New Democrats under premier John Horgan (abetted by Green Party leader Andrew Weaver) have promised provincial legislation for species at risk.

The hour is very late for the Mountain Caribou, but perhaps not too late. Please speak out.

Next up: Moratorium for Life