From caribou to mountain goats 

They're both at risk from backcountry operators say B.C. conservationists

A B.C. conservation coalition critical of heli-ski operations disturbing mountain caribou herds says Whistler should pay attention to its mountain goat population.

"Now it’s the mountain caribou population that’s threatened, but what’s it going to be two years from now?" said Kat Hartwig, program manager with Wildsight, one of the East Kootenay groups that has been lobbying the provincial government for stricter regulations regarding how close heli-ski operators can fly to mountain caribou habitat.

Caribou numbers have decreased from 2,400 to 1,700 in the last 10 years. Last week the provincial government and Heli Cat Canada, an organization representing heli- and cat-skiing operators, agreed to stress-reducing conditions for the caribou in the hopes of stabilizing their population. But the 48-hour cessation of activity recommendation and other recommendations are not enough, the coalition of four groups say.

"It’s about a decade too late and a dollar too short," Wildsight spokesperson Dave Quinn said in a press release. The group instead advocates for regulated 300-metre "no fly zones" that heli operations would have to adhere to.

Wildsight’s Hartwig, who used to work in marketing for Whistler’s Nancy Greene Olympic Lodge, says Whistler – which doesn’t have caribou but does have mountain goats – can learn from the plight of the mountain caribou.

"Two-thirds of the world’s mountain goat population is in B.C.," she said. "They don’t suffer well with human intrusion."

Hartwig said mountain goats are stressed just finding enough food to survive in winter and don’t need to have their heart rates and metabolism accelerated when trying to avoid helicopters.

Chris McDougall, a G.I.S. specialist with Cascade Environmental Resource in Whistler, says there are mountain goat herds in the Rainbow and Sprout mountain areas and most operators know to leave a two-kilometre buffer around the animals.

"Some operators know where they are and move flight lines appropriately but you never know where (goats) might pop up, sometimes they’re camouflaged by trees and they just appear."

But a local Whistler heli operator says tracks are usually spotted long before the animals.

"And we do leave the area immediately," said Tyler Freed, owner of Coast Range Heli Skiing. "We do behave in a proactive manner," he said.

But self-regulating guidelines don’t keep animals protected, according to Wildsight’s Hartwig. She says wildlife guidelines that would have included area closures to protect wildlife were replaced with best practices guidelines when the present Liberal government came into power four years ago.

Local conservation officer Rob Groeger says helicopters flying too close to mountain goat herds "could push them out of their winter range and then they’d move to sub-standard habitat," where food is harder to find.

G.I.S. specialist McDougall says if operators need to be regulated for backcountry activity, so do snowmobilers.

"It’s one thing to regulate the 10 per cent but there’s another 90 per cent that are also a concern," he said.

Whistler Heli Skiing owner Ken Hardy agrees. In operation in the area for 25 years, Hardy says his company maintains a two-kilometre zone around the goats but snowmobilers don’t. He’s noticed telltale tracks that show mountain goats chased down by snowmobilers.

"It’s not difficult to figure out what was going on," he said.

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