In Canada, mountain caribou recovery falters 

A decade of conservation efforts has done little to stop the decline of the endangered ungulates or their rainforest home

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - No Recovery Mountain caribou recovery has faltered despite concerted efforts.
  • Shutterstock photo
  • No Recovery Mountain caribou recovery has faltered despite concerted efforts.

The western hemlock towered over 60 metres into the cloudy British Columbia sky. The tree, about 1.2 metres in diameter and several centuries old, had sprouted in a forest that formed around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. It took David Walker, a nimble man with 30 years' experience logging here in the Selkirk Mountains, about two minutes to drop the huge conifer. The ground shook.

After Walker turned off his saw, I asked what would become of the old giant. It's going to a pulp mill, he said matter-of-factly.

This is one of the planet's rarest forest ecosystems: interior temperate rainforest. The largest of its type left on earth, this rainforest stretches hundreds of kilometres from the Idaho Panhandle into central British Columbia, spanning multiple mountain ranges and the headwaters of two of the West Coast's largest rivers, the Columbia and Fraser.

It's also home to endangered mountain caribou, which evolved to use these vast forests to evade predators. To survive here, mountain caribou adopted a diet of arboreal lichens that only grow in abundance in forests close to a century old or older. Decades of industrial logging operations have destroyed and fragmented mountain caribou habitat, and their numbers have dwindled to perilous levels, with about 1,000 remaining.

In some ways, the mountain caribou is like a Canadian version of the spotted owl. Much as the owl's threatened status was exploited to help save swaths of old-growth forest in the Northwestern United States, over the logging industry's strong objections, attempts have been made to use mountain caribou to help preserve the inland rainforest in British Columbia.

Despite a decade of protective measures, however, mountain caribou numbers keep declining as logging continues across their range. Even as British Columbia pours money into caribou conservation, it continues to exacerbate the situation through logging activities.

This behaviour highlights a larger societal collision: a progressive shift towards a broad view of the value of nature versus the entrenched power of a resource-extraction economy. Meanwhile, mountain caribou conservation is becoming a case study in the failure of single-species-focused efforts to address ecosystem-wide challenges. When the dust settles, neither the animal nor the rainforest may survive.

Logging trucks stacked high with ancient cedar regularly rumble down Victoria Road, passing European-style coffee shops and inns, headed for Downie Timber's sprawling mill on the edge of Revelstoke. This national park gateway community is "a resource extraction town with an outdoor recreation veneer," says Michael Copperthwaite of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation. Despite burgeoning tourism and a huge amount of previously logged lands fallowed for decades until they regenerate, the province has managed to keep cut rates steady.

For millennia, mountain caribou depended on the forests now rolling through the province by the truckload. Eating arboreal lichens allowed them to prosper in a place that both their competitors and predators avoided. But once caribou habitat is logged, deer, elk and moose move in. Wolves and mountain lions, which depend on these other ungulates in this part of the world, soon follow. These predators can then make quick work of mountain caribou, whose defense strategy of avoidance has been shattered.

In 2007, pushed by a coalition of conservation groups, British Columbia adopted the Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan (MCRIP), which calls for the use of various "management levers" such as habitat protection and winter recreation restrictions. (About a dozen mountain caribou remain south of the border, in Idaho and Washington, and snowmobiling has been minimally curtailed to protect the endangered species.) Predator management — specifically the wolf cull, which has seen the demise of hundreds of wolves and fractured the coalition of conservation groups that pushed for caribou protections to begin with — has garnered the lion's share of media interest. While the MCRIP set aside thousands of square kilometres of forest as caribou habitat, it did not reduce the amount of logging occurring in the region.

Kerry Rouck, corporate forestry manager for the Gorman Group of Companies, which owns Downie Timber and several other operations in the region, confirms that caribou protections have not reduced their logging on public lands. According to Rouck, all of the timber being harvested by Downie still comes from previously uncut forest, about half of which is classified as old growth. The rest is composed of mature stands of trees that burned about a century ago.

With almost no second growth ready to be harvested yet, that means that everyone logging in the heart of mountain caribou country is cutting old growth. A recent audit of logging in mountain caribou habitat by the Forest Practices Board (FPB), British Columbia's independent forestry investigation agency, found that none of the cutblocks it reviewed had ever been logged before. According to estimates from two timber companies and the FPB, the province will be cutting virgin timber for the next 30 to 40 years before a significant number of stands here are ready for a second cut.

Ironically, cutting old growth can be a mixed bag for the timber industry. Hemlock trees are often worthless economically and are typically pulped to make paper products. It often costs more to cut and ship the hemlock logs to the mill than companies are paid for them. The logs are hauled away in part because it's "socially unpopular" to leave them on the ground, says Rouck.

Since many accessible stands are now officially protected caribou habitat, timber companies have to go deeper into the mountains to fulfill their quotas, further fragmenting the landscape. "It's pushing us into tougher ground, the back ends of drainages and steeper, more difficult access," says Rouck.

But the losses from cutting hemlock and the expense of accessing hard-to-reach trees are largely offset by a de facto government subsidy. Companies pay "stumpage fees" to the province for trees they cut on public land. These fees are reduced for operations that require building new roads, are expensive to harvest because of steep terrain, or contain lots of low-value wood, like hemlock. This incentivizes otherwise uneconomical operations.

The province does its best to accommodate the industry. According to a 2013 FPB report, timber representatives in the Revelstoke area were invited to comment on and influence amendments to biodiversity management plans, which affected caribou habitat and old-growth forest reserves, a full year and a half before conservation groups were informed of the process. A government project reviewing old-growth timber swaps in another part of the interior rainforest lists a representative of the forestry trade group, the Interior Lumber Manufacturers Association, as the contact person for the project. (The association would not comment on anything involving caribou, however.) British Columbia's so-called "professional reliance" system essentially allows logging companies to police themselves while operating on public lands.

Corporate profits are not the only driver, however. To keep stumpage revenue — more than $1 billion annually — flowing, the province actually encourages companies to log in mountain caribou habitat. If a company doesn't fulfill its quota, the province will give logging rights to that particular swath of forest to another firm.

Chris Ritchie is responsible for overseeing mountain caribou recovery efforts for British Columbia's Ministry of Forest, Lands, and Natural Resources. Over the phone from his office in Victoria, Ritchie admits that the province is failing to meet its own goals for caribou recovery.

Since the recovery plan was initiated in 2007, numerous herds have continued to decline, at least two are gone altogether, and four others are down to fewer than 10 animals each, making their recovery highly unlikely. Not a single herd's population is increasing, according to recent census numbers.

With no plans to curtail logging and habitat fragmentation, Ritchie says the province will focus instead on "really heavy, expensive long-term management," such as killing wolves and reducing moose and deer populations through hunting and other methods, in order to maintain a predator-prey dynamic that caribou can survive. As various herds disappear, the forest protections that currently exist for their home range will, in at least some instances, be removed or applied elsewhere. This was done when the George Mountain caribou herd died out in the 2000s and the province decided that it was impossible to re-establish it.

There may still be hope for the caribou, however. In 2011, British Columbia ruled that resource extraction in the West Moberly First Nation violated Canadian treaty obligations, which allow that nation to hunt caribou on these lands. British Columbia altered local plans to settle the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Canada's federal government is revising its mountain caribou conservation strategy, which is likely to end up stronger than British Columbia's. If that happens, the Canadian government could force British Columbia to comply with federal guidelines through a "protection order" under the Species At Risk Act. There is no precedent for this being done in Canada, though.

After David Walker felled that hemlock tree in the Northern Selkirks, it was trucked to a reservoir on the Columbia River. It was then floated to the Celgar pulp mill in Castlegar, British Columbia, about 321 kilometres from where it was cut. Curious about what would become of it, I perused Celgar's promotional materials. I learned that Mercer International, a U.S. company, owns Celgar and boasts of using only wood from internationally certified "sustainable" forestry operations. As for the pulp it produces? It is sold in North America and Asia to make, among other things, "hygiene products," another name for toilet paper. 

David Moskowitz is a biologist and photographer in Winthrop, Washington. Follow @moskowitz_david. This article first appeared in High Country News, www.hcn.org.

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