Mountain caribou face uncertain future

By Mike Youds
December 26, 2013
Mountain caribou face uncertain future
Southern mountain caribou. Photo from Nature Conservancy of Canada. Photograph by: Canada-World.

A couple of mountain caribou calves in southern Wells Gray provincial park were captured by remote webcam earlier this year, providing a glimmer of hope for the endangered herd.

Other than that sighting, there has been no reversal in a steady decline of the herd, the species and its northern relative, the boreal caribou, cousins of the domesticated reindeer rooted in the Christmas narrative.

“I wish Santa Claus all the very best, but that depends on the decisions we make,” said Trevor Goward, a park resident and lichenologist who studies the winter food source of mountain caribou.

Very few of the animals have been seen in southern Wells Gray in recent years. A mountain caribou referral group will meet in the new year to review the status of the province’s recovery plan for the species, he said.

After an aerial survey last year counted only half of what was once a herd of 400, there is growing concern that population decline will continue without concerted action. At a meeting in Clearwater earlier this year, government biologists acknowledged that a triage approach involving three key initiatives would be the best way of halting the decline, Goward said.

The first step would be to curb logging in mountain caribou habitat. Logging is known to increase populations of moose, deer and, consequently, wolves. That increases predation of the caribou.

Opening up the local hunt for moose and deer, and establishing a sterilization program for wolves, would have a similar effect.

“But the government is putting the wolf program forward and the other things are not being looked at,” Goward said. “You can kill the predators until the sun goes out, but if you don’t take other actions, it’s not going to help the caribou in the long run.”

Canfor holds timber rights to the critical forest areas and has stated that it has no immediate plans to log, but Goward is not reassured. With the species so reliant upon old-growth forest, the population could become resurgent in 20 or 30 years as the forest of the Upper Clearwater Valley reaches that stage, he noted.

In that event, Wells Gray could become a final sanctuary for mountain caribou. The question is, can the herd withstand predator pressures and habitat loss long enough to survive until then?

Goward points to the impact of snowpack variation from year to year. A heavy snowpack year followed by a light snowpack is the fatal combination he believes could ultimately send the population into oblivion.

“Will such a combination happen between now and the time when things improve? With global climate change, there’s a pretty good chance it will.”

About 1,000 people visited the park last summer to participate in various natural history events. They gave Goward, a former park naturalist, some hope for change.

“I never heard anybody feel anything less than horror that this should be happening. Somebody has to speak out or we’ll watch it gradually disappear.”

As for the more northerly boreal caribou, an initial assessment of a federal recovery program gives most provinces a failing grade.

“Rudolph’s Canadian cousins are in trouble and we implore all the provinces and territories to improve their efforts over the next year in conserving them,” said Eric Herbert-Daly, national director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, in a news release.

“If they don’t act soon, Canada’s chances of saving this species and some of the world’s most significant remaining intact wilderness areas will be doomed.”