Letter to the Editor of Times Colonist

2 May 2017


In 1914 Martha died in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. When she died the world lost its last passenger pigeon, a bird once so populous in North America that skies would darken for hours while flocks flew overhead.

The question asked by many is how did society allow the passenger pigeon to disappear? Why did governments of the day not take decisive action when it was obvious that the pigeons’ numbers were plummeting towards extinction?

These questions have particular relevance today in British Columbia. BC is a wonderfully biodiverse province – home to 66 per cent of Canada’s butterfly species, 70 per cent of its freshwater fish species, and 77 per cent of its bird species. Yet more than 1,900 species are now at risk in BC – one of only two Canadian provinces with no endangered species legislation.

Tragically, BC’s species at risk, its badgers, spotted owls, wolverines and caribou rely on a hodgepodge of remarkably weak regulations and discretionary laws that are seldom enforced and clearly not doing the job.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the plight of the southern mountain caribou. A glance at eastern BC’s interior wet belt on Google Earth shows the story of massive overlogging that is driving these animals to the brink.

Ninety-nine per cent of the southern mountain caribou, known as Canada’s Ghost Walkers, live in BC. Unique among ungulates, they haunt the high-mountain old-growth forests of the province’s interior wet belt. In winter – when other food is buried under two to three metres of snow – they subsist on a diet of hair lichens foraged from the branches of trees.

Unfortunately, the same old-growth forests that nourish these iconic animals and shelter them from predators are also coveted by logging corporations such as CANFOR. For decades caribou have been losing ground in a one-sided contest with the corporate bottom line.

Logging of caribou habitat is the key reason the Ghost Walker is rapidly disappearing. Habitat loss and fragmentation alter the predator-prey dynamics in the ancient forests they call home. Logging destroys the lichens the caribou depend on. In addition, it promotes deciduous trees that shed their leaves annually – attracting moose and deer, which bolsters the wolf and cougar population. Caribou have not evolved to deal with predators, so their numbers are plunging.

What has the BC government done to address this blueprint for extinction?

Instead of taking action on the primary cause, the provincial government has continued an unsustainable rate of logging. At the same time, they have engaged in unethical and ultimately futile initiatives such as aerial wolf culls, increased moose and deer hunts, relocation of caribou and maternity pens – the latter of which have killed about as many caribou as they have ‘saved.’ None of these actions are supported by the government’s own science as a successful way to recover caribou numbers.

Obviously past actions, largely focused on deregulation of the logging industry and corporate bottom lines, have been disastrous for caribou. Although there has been a decline of over 50 per cent in southern mountain caribou numbers in just two decades, the BC government continues to allow logging in essential caribou range. Even though the Government of Canada’s federal caribou recovery strategy team has designated this habitat as “critical”, the logging continues. The proof is in the pudding. The southern Wells Gray herd has now collapsed from 325 individuals to 120 since 2001.

Despite the precarious state of these caribou, astoundingly, the BC government has approved hundreds of logging cut blocks in their federally designated critical habitat. A provincial government serious about recovering these Ghost Walkers must stop pandering to logging corporations like CANFOR – who are slated to begin logging in core caribou habitat near Wells Gray Provincial Park in early May.

The BC government recently committed $27 million over three years to southern mountain caribou recovery. However, there is no future for these animals without an immediate halt to logging in their critical habitat. Additionally, money should be invested in local communities to help workers transition to different job opportunities.

It is said that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it. Right now we must seize the moment, raise our voices and demand meaningful action from a new provincial government. Failing that, BC’s southern mountain caribou will soon occupy a place in history alongside the passenger pigeon.

Gwen Barlee
Wilderness Committee