Mountain caribou are one of the most exhaustively researched and studied mammals in British Columbia, yet few of us will ever see one - except, that is, on the back of the Canadian quarter. They are a subset of woodland caribou, which along with barren ground and Peary, comprise North America's three species of caribou. What makes mountain caribou globally unique is where they live. They have adapted to BC's rugged mountainous terrain, using wide snowshoe hooves to travel through winter's deep snow and subsisting almost entirely on arboreal lichens during the cold months.
Over the past century, however, this reclusive creature, found in isolated pockets from the Northern Rockies to the Southern Purcells, has suffered drastic declines from estimated historical highs of between 30,000 and 40,000 animals to less than 2,000 today. Since 1995 alone, experts believe the total population has dipped from roughly 2,500 to 1,900 caribou, scattered throughout 12 main herds. The reasons for this population plunge are complex. Industrial-scale logging has fragmented the landscape, putting the squeeze on critical high-elevation old growth forest on which mountain caribou depend for their winter diet of lichen. Clearcuts and other landscape alterations have fostered an explosion in deer, elk and moose populations in certain parts of the province, resulting in a parallel spike in the numbers of large carnivores like wolf and cougar. Now these carnivores are preying on mountain caribou in greater numbers.
Adding to this conservation conundrum is the fact that mountain caribou spend winters where we choose to ski, snowboard and snowmobile. Unlike other ungulates, mountain caribou have proven to be extremely sensitive to human disturbance; an afternoon of snowmobiling or heliskiing is enough to send a herd of caribou packing for an entire winter season or more. Our ability to preserve the species will depend on how well we can strike a future balance between recreation and business on one hand, and ecological integrity on the other.
Last October, after years of research and consultation with independent scientists and private sector interests, the province launched its ambitious Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan with the aim of restoring mountain caribou populations to pre-1995 levels. It is a dense and multi-layered initiative; one that requires significant cooperation among an array of stakeholders including government, the resource industry, the tourism sector, First Nations and public recreationalists. The goal is to protect a total of 2.2 million hectares of mountain caribou range from logging and road building, to minimize the impacts of recreation, to manage predator populations of wolf and cougar where necessary, to control the primary prey of caribou predators, and to boost caribou numbers in threatened herds by trans-locating animals from healthier populations.
"The recovery plan as it's written is an amazing first step. The key words are "first step." We have lots of data and the data points to lots of protected habitat and protection from motorized recreation," says Dave Quinn, a biologist who has travelled the backcountry researching southern Purcell caribou populations and who also works as a program manager for the East Kootenay conservation group Wildsight.
In a June 2008 update, the province reported on ongoing consultations with some 80 stakeholder groups, and indicated solid progress towards protecting 77,000 hectares inside, and 300,000 hectares outside the timber harvesting land base that comprises mountain caribou habitat (when added to existing protected land the total amount of caribou habitat spared from logging will total 2.2 million hectares.) Additionally, the ministry is in the process of hammering out 60 stewardship agreements with snowmobile clubs and other recreational user groups.
Well before the BC government announced its recovery plan, the tourism sector was taking pro-active steps to ensure that mountain caribou would start to show up on the positive side of the population balance sheet. Canadian Mountain Holidays, British Columbia's pioneering heliskiing company, has placed caribou conservation at the heart of its environmental stewardship and operating procedures. According to a company mission statement, CMH's goal is to ensure that "skiing and hiking occur in a way that does not cause animals to move from the mountain habitats in which they reside."
In 2004, when it became clear that motorized recreation could have an impact on caribou, CMH invited wildlife biologists Steve Wilson and Dennis Hamilton to review the company's operating procedures. The audit resulted in immediate changes. CMH's Snowbase system was adapted to include not just snow, weather and other skiing-related data, but also wildlife siting information. If management receives reports of mountain caribou tracks or animal sitings in their tenure, the company closes the runs in question until further notice. In 2004 and 2005 respectively, CMH recorded 281 run-day (runs X days) and 2,946 run-day closures due to potential conflicts with the caribou. In addition, Dave Butler, the firm's director of land resources, started conducting workshops with guides that covered mountain caribou ecology and changes in operating procedures. Following CMH's research and efforts, HeliCat Canada signed a memorandum of understanding with the provincial government committing the mechanized skiing industry - both cat and heliskiing operators - to specific procedures aimed at mountain caribou recovery.
Lawrence Redfern is outreach coordinator for the Mountain Caribou Project, a coalition of conservation groups based in Castlegar, and he is also taking an optimistic view of the recovery plan. He points to promising data from recent fieldwork demonstrating that we can indeed have an immediate positive impact on mountain caribou populations. According to provincial government field surveys, mountain caribou in the Southern Selkirks, a region bounded by Kootenay Lake and Highway 6 over Kootenay Pass have climbed from 37 animals in 2006 to 46 today; compelling evidence, Redfern says, of what can happen when land managers use the appropriate levers in their toolkits - habitat protection, selective predator control, restricted recreational access and translocation of caribou to boost a herd.
He says government is so far doing well on the habitat protection front and snowmobile clubs are also moving in the right direction in terms of developing stewardship agreements. Other heliski companies are following CMH lead, too. For example, Eagle Pass Heliskiing, based in the Monashees west of Revelstoke, has made mountain caribou habitat within its tenure permanently off-limits to skiers and boarders.
Redfern does however, sound a few precautionary notes. First, culling of predators should only be undertaken on a very specific and limited basis. Second, the province must not overlook the impact of mineral exploration and development within caribou habitat. Third, much work needs to be done to ensure cat and heliskiing outfits adhere to operating procedures that minimize impact on caribou. Finally snowmobilers, most of whom don't belong to organized clubs, must be made aware of the location of restricted areas, and the reasons behind restrictions on motorized recreation. The recently released report from Biodiversity BC entitled 'Taking Nature's Pulse' adds some fuel to the debate around how we get our kicks in the backcountry. The report's authors conclude that although BC has relatively healthy predator-prey systems, "a major threat to them is motorized access and associated human activities."
"We don't point fingers at any one group because it's an accumulation of factors that have impacted mountain caribou," Redfern says. "At the end of the day it's going to take cooperation, commitment and enforcement."
Clearly, conservation efforts have to occur on multiple fronts. We can protect sensitive caribou habitat from logging and road building, but if that comes without comparable regulation of mining and recreation on the same land base, then most experts agree that these will be at best short term fixes for a caribou population that has been stressed to the breaking point through systematic human encroachment on their habitat.
"A lot of species have adapted well to the changes we have brought, but not animals like caribou and grizzly. When we start to lose large animals like caribou that's a serious flashing red light about overall ecosystem health," says Wildsight's Dave Quinn. "I'm hopeful that we're on the right path now."
Not all that long ago, many observers feared that the only mountain caribou left would be the ones on the 25-cent coin. Today a new level of cooperation between the public, the government, the resource industry and tourism operators is giving this species a fighting chance.