Death by a Thousand Clearcuts

The outlook for most of B.C.’s 15 remaining Mountain Caribou herds is frankly bleak. In the south especially it varies from looming extinction to permanent 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-third 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 – and even to many environmentalists – 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 forests set aside as winter habitat; 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. Actually this is something any competent caribou biologist could have predicted from the outset. In fact, some of them did. Already in 2005, a B.C. government-appointed recovery implementation team argued for inclusion of a fourth prong, what they called “matrix habitat”.

In its original definition, 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, where they predate secondarily 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 habitat set-asides established under B.C.’s 2007 Recovery Plan are situated at high elevations where, granted, they provide the Mountain Caribou with critical winter refuge. But that simply wasn’t – and isn’t – good enough.

By now the writing’s on the wall: 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. Proof of this is the B.C. Liberals’ 2007 Recovery Plan – and the fact there are about 600 fewer Mountain Caribou in the world today than there were when it was announced.

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 Wells Gray (and the Hart Ranges) 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 decision was made to entrust the future of Wells Gray’s caribou 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 resulted in less matrix habitat for the southern Wells Gray herd than existed prior to its implementation.

There’s irony here. As it happens, Wells Gray’s Mountain Caribou herds – unique in this regard – were likely set to undergo a degree of spontaneous recovery. Briefly, this is because 90,000 ha of forests dating from wildfires early in the 20th century have now reached maturity and will soon 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.

Had the B.C. Liberals’ Recovery Plan included significant amounts of matrix habitat adjacent to southern Wells Gray, there’s every possibility its Mountain Caribou herds would eventually begin to rebuild on their own.

Still, there is news to report. First, a few years ago the federal government designated large areas of matrix habitat south of Wells Gray Park as Critical Habitat for Caribou – a designation that promises to give some protection in the next year or two. And second, in February the B.C. Liberals committed to spending $27 million to take “the necessary steps to protect caribou habitat.”

How this will play out is hard to say. Not very well probably. The B.C. Liberals’ programme – a continuation of its 2007 Recovery Plan – makes no definite commitment to rein in logging in Critical Habitat for Caribou. Instead it looks to be more of the same old same old: caribou birthing pens, liberalized moose and deer hunts, and wolf and cougar culls. In Wells Gray, this is likely to translate to ongoing logging on the one hand and – thanks to this – a renewed wolf kill programme aimed at the park’s resident wolves on the other.

A provincial election is now looming in B.C. The single most progressive step the B.C. Liberals could take on behalf of Wells Gray’s Mountain Caribou herds would be to establish a moratorium on further logging immediately south of the park, in the red Critical Habitat for Caribou marked on the map.

Please speak out.

Next up: Moratorium for Life