Forester Kevin Bollefor transports a caribou to a maternal pen adjacent to Lake Revelstoke operated by Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild, part of an effort to preserve the species. Photo: Rob Buchanan/Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild/file photo

This article first appeared in print in the June issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

After a decade on the backburner, the issue of threatened southern mountain caribou populations in B.C. is heating up and headed for a rolling boil in the coming months.

In early May, federal Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna declared southern mountain caribou were facing “imminent threat” and issued an order to government to take action on the issue. The declaration could have very serious implications for the forestry sector, the backcountry recreation industry, and private backcountry recreation in the Revelstoke area, all of which are key sectors to Revelstoke’s economy.

The order, under federal Species at Risk Act legislation, puts pressure on B.C.’s provincial government to take immediate action to protect the threatened species, under threat that the federal government will step in and take over the portfolio. That outcome is perceived by local industries to be a worst-case scenario. The tools available to the federal government are less nuanced than provincial legislation because they focus on critical habitat protection and place less emphasis on socio-economic repercussions. The concern is a federal response would focus on critical habitat protection over other available conservation tools, which include predator and prey management, unused forest service road remediation, maternal penning, silviculture improvements and more. In addition, the federal government is perceived to be less connected to the local economic ramifications of their decisions.

Caribou rut. Photo: David Moskowitz.

The backdrop to the situation is an undeniable decline in southern mountain caribou herds, especially in their southern ranges in B.C. and Alberta. The well-studied ungulate has seen serious declines almost across the board, and most notably two herds in the far southeast of B.C. have declined to only a few remaining females each, making their extirpation a near surety. Their declines are driven by multiple factors, including decades of industrial activity such as forestry, oil and gas activity, and climate change. They have all contributed to the decline of the ungulate, which migrates seasonally from the valley bottoms to the alpine.

The federal order highlighted 10 geographic areas of particular concern, and although the Revelstoke-area ‘Revelstoke–Shuswap’ population unit was not included on the list of 10 critical areas of concern, areas to the south and northwest were, including the Kinbasket, South Monashee and Central Kootenay population units. Revelstoke-based forestry and heliskiing operations, for example, are active in these areas.

This Government of Canada map highlights in red 10 Southern Mountain Caribou Local Population Units of particular concern in Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s Southern Mountain Caribou ‘imminent threat analysis’ that was released in early May. Image: Canada.ca

The federal move has set off a flurry of backroom activity, as industry lobbyists and provincial authorities scramble to represent their interests in the issue, and come up with a response and plan to deal with the federal pressure.

The federal move has intensified focus on the provincial government’s Draft Caribou Recovery Program, which is in draft form and open to online public feedback until June 15. The document is a roadmap for mountain caribou recovery, and its success or failure will be critical.

The crux of the debate is about what measures should be taken to aid in mountain caribou recovery, and where the money will come from to do it.

Environmental groups such as Wildsight and Wilderness Committee place their focus on habitat protection, arguing that more southern mountain caribou critical habitat needs to be protected, meaning further restrictions on forest harvesting and recreation activities like snowmobiling and heliskiing. In early April, Revelstoke-based North Columbia Environmental Society sent a ‘section 80’ request under the Species at Risk Act to Minster McKenna requesting an emergency order to stop logging in federally identified critical habitat in the Revelstoke-Shuswap Local Population Unit. If successful, the halt to logging would severely curtail available harvestable timber, threatening the local forest industry.

Volunteer Wildlife Ecologist Alex Taylor (Golder Associates) unload mother caribou in this file photo. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild/file photo

In addition to climate change, the impact of over a century of industrial forest activity in the area has been identified as the key driver of mountain caribou declines. The caribou thrive in old growth forests, where they feed on lichen that grows on the trees. Clearcut logging removes their habitat and creates new, growing forests that attract other ungulates like deer and moose. In turn, these species attract wolves, cougars and other predators. The increase in the predator population leads to more pressure on caribou as they become bycatch prey to the increased predator population. Active and historic logging roads, and snowmobile tracks also allow predators like wolves to more easily access mountain caribou alpine and forest refuges. Heliskiing activity has been show to stress the animals.

While environmental groups focus on habitat conservation, an established body of science says forest activity curtailment and conservation alone won’t prevent the extirpation of the mountain caribou in the region, and points to the necessity of using other management techniques to reverse population decline in the short term and for many decades to come. Forests require that time to recover to be suitable caribou habitat.

There are several different tools available to aid conservation. A key focus is predator and prey management, namely killing wolves, cougar, moose and deer to remove the cycle of predation of the mountain caribou. Other measures include maternal penning, such as the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild facility on the west shore of Lake Revelstoke, where pregnant caribou does are rounded up into a protective pen while they gestate and rear their young for the first several months when the calves are most vulnerable to predation. Habitat restoration, such as ripping up unused forestry roads and re-sloping them, or more intensive silviculture techniques are also seen as tools. Relocation of caribou from dwindling herds to more viable ones is also an option, but is not viewed as effective if underlying predation issues haven’t been dealt with in the herds receiving them.

File photo: Caribou are released into a maternal pen as part of the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild penning project. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild/file photo

Predator management and prey management are perceived to be the most politically controversial; shooting wolves doesn’t play well to an urban and environmental crowd. They argue it’s an unnatural human intervention on natural cycles, and the wrong strategy; they favour habitat protection.

In B.C., and the Revelstoke area, a wolf cull program began in 2017, and is scheduled to continue for the coming years. However, the number of the predators killed pales in comparison to our neighbours in Alberta, who have focused more intensely on predator management.

Revelstoke-based biologist Robert Serrouya earned his PhD studying mountain caribou in the mountain valleys north of Revelstoke, and currently works at the University of Alberta and the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute on a caribou monitoring project. He is also a science advisor to the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild group.

When asked what advice he had for the provincial government as it revises its recovery program, he said a multi-pronged approach was necessary.

“I would address this very complicated problem by hitting it with multiple levers simultaneously. Continuing on trying to reduce predation rates by managing the predator/prey system and creating safe havens with fencing projects if they are needed and if they work,” he said. “I would accelerate the pace of habitat restoration, and look for habitat protection to try and meet the federal guidelines.”

He underscored his view that habitat conservation alone won’t suffice without additional management measures: “The animals will go extinct. Every scientific paper shows that. Every caribou population dynamic paper shows that. You can protect all of the habitat and the rate of decline will continue to extinction because of the legacy of habitat disturbance.”

Serrouya said that predator control is a necessary part of a successful caribou recovery strategy, but that it needs to be part of a multi-pronged approach.

“If the policy was to only do predator control, [those opposing predator culls] are absolutely right. It’s short-sighted and it’s short term, so it’s a Band-Aid,” he said. “So they’re right, but if it’s done with other longer term measures like habitat protection and restoration, then it is what will be needed to save the species.”

In an interview with the Mountaineer, Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski said he had been active in Ottawa on the issue, calling for increased conservation funding. Prior to his federal political career, Stetski worked as Regional Manager for the BC Ministry of Environment, where he was involved in caribou recovery initiatives in the Revelstoke area.

Interview: Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski discusses mountain caribou issue

“Whatever happens has to be science-based,” Stetski told the Mountaineer. “You need to have people based on research that truly understand what’s happening on the land first and foremost, and what the impact is then on caribou herds.”

He also pointed to the need for a multi-faceted approach: “This is a very complicated issue. [Federal authorities] know that. This is not a single-fix issue,” Stetski said. “It has to be a holistic approach. So they will be looking at science-based … looking at habitat leads, what to do with predator populations and whether current interaction between backcountry recreation and caribou is sustainable in the long run.

“The impetus right now is on the province,” Stetski said.

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