Liam’s lowdown: Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to caribou

THERE ONCE was a forest in British Columbia that seemed to be healthy. It was an endless sea of cedar and hemlock, nestled with vibrant clumps of wildflowers and the steady hum of insects. The only trails were the ones travelled by Indigenous peoples and animals. Otherwise, the wood was an entanglement of shrubs and logs that made travel sluggish. Due to the enormous trees hardly any light reached the ground. The forest was dark. Getting anywhere took time.

However, all that changed when we discovered timber, minerals and oil. A strange stillness settled over the land as animals that once were numerous, began to disappear.

The Columbia Mountains are home to the mountain caribou. About 98 per cent of the world’s 2,500 mountain caribou live in B.C. The animals are very dependent on old growth forest, which provide lichen that hang from branches like spiderwebs. The woods also allow caribou to avoid predation. Only six per cent of the forests in the interior are old growth (120+ years old), due to wildfires and logging.

Logging is the bread and butter of British Columbia, generating almost 60,000 direct jobs. The B.C. Forest Industry generated almost $13 billion in GDP to the province in 2016. Roughly 1 in 17 of all jobs in BC are due to the forest industry.

Although I moved to Revelstoke this September, I lived here before. It was just for a summer eight years ago. I worked with a researcher that was studying moose. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had. We’d thrash through the bush from valley bottom to alpine looking for moose poop to collect and dry to compare nitrogen content. We lived in a dingy trailer at the end of a logging road and bathed in a nearby stream. My friends liked to romanticize the job, thinking I was prancing through meadows with butterflies tickling my nose, singing with birds and smelling flowers.

In reality it was usually raining, the prancing was-more-of-a-jog-because-of-man-eating-mosquitoes and by the end of the day I usually had to pick devil club thorns from my underwear.

This area is beautiful, but there’s one thing I learned. Humans have changed everything.

Not only have the woods been logged, but the valley bottoms have been flooded, and the scraps of forest that remain have been thinned for heliskiing.

If you looked at a map, most of the area would be shaded green for forest with ripples of blue for water and splashes of white for mountains. It may appear “untouched” or “blank”. However, it isn’t. Bit by bit, the blank edges of the map have become logged squares and winding roads.

I wonder what this area looked like a hundred years ago.

As mentioned, logging is key to B.C. Not only does it provide billions in revenue, but companies have billions invested. Industry is here to stay.

Prior to logging, researchers say there were little moose or deer in this region. The thick forest didn’t allow the right forbes, grasses and shrubs to grow. Logging opened the tree canopy to more light and allowed other plants to flourish. More ungulates arrived, the wolves followed and multiplied. Roads added to the problem by becoming transportation corridors for wildlife. Animals were moving around further, faster and more frequently.

Everything has changed. Even if the forests grew back, the moose, deer, and wolves remain.

Caribou may still be doomed.

Stan Boutin is a professor of population ecology at the University of Alberta. He’s regarded as one of the foremost researchers of caribou and he says restoration and habitat protection isn’t enough. Recovery plans must also include captive breeding and wolf culls.

But ultimately, it all depends if the public actually wants to save caribou.

Last spring, I covered protests in Alberta against the proposed caribou range plan. People worried that the plans could close vast area to industry, in particular logging and oil. Hundreds came to Edmonton, holding signs that said “Save caribou and save jobs.”

In response, the Alberta government suspended the plan and did nothing for caribou.

The economy and jobs are usually the most important issues driving any election. We’ve known for decades that caribou are disappearing. If we could help caribou and not let the stock market slip, we would have already acted.

What if we can’t have both? What if something needs to be sacrificed? Will we do it?

I think not.

It’s important to note it’s not only caribou in trouble. A recent report released by World Wildlife Fund says half of all species in Canada are in decline. Bird populations alone have plummeted more than 70 per cent since 1970.

The woods are becoming empty.

With climate change, it’s likely that large scale forest fires will become more common and destroy even more old growth forests.

The long-term survival of caribou doesn’t look good. As more forest is cleared, and industry grows, the caribou have fewer places to retreat. Even if development is halted and public opinion swayed, the damage is done. It’s only a matter of time before the forest becomes more silent.

Maybe the proposed Caribou Recovery Program in B.C. will provide actual policy. But I’m doubtful, especially if history is any guide.

Perhaps it’s time we consider a future without caribou.

No magic, no enemy has caused this grim situation.

We have done it to ourselves.

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