Every year Canada’s wildlife draws thousands of visitors to mountain parks, Hudson Bay and into the backcountry. Our wildlife, however, are not just integral for national tourism. They are our canary in the coalmine and indicators of the health of our environment and are under serious threat. Human encounters and shrinking habitats due to habitat disturbance, natural wildfires, flooding, or pollution are endangering wildlife.
A three-part blog series considering current issues facing Canadian wildlife and how you can be involved to protect them and the environment we share with them.
A question that was recently posed to me as an outdoor recreationalists and professional skier - do you think that it is fair that your lifestyle has such a high impact on local wildlife? Is your enjoyment on skis, bikes or hiking up mountains more important than the survival of a species? It was a confronting, especially as this lifestyle is also my career. At the time I dodged the enquiry but it later came back to haunt me and I started to wonder how I actually fit into this issue and what impact my actions were having.
I live in Revelstoke, an area that is currently at the center of a provincial debate about protection of endangered species, specifically the Southern Mountain Caribou. This species, which used to be so abundant in British Columbia and Alberta that they were often referred to as ants due to their large numbers, are now seriously endangered. Today almost every herd is in decline and three herds have become extinct. It is a contentious issue as there has been a call for the federal government to issue an emergency order under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) to protect what critical caribou habitat that is left. While this would be a win for the species, it would enforce limitations on many industries including that of forestry and outdoor recreation in the affected regions.
Circling back on my primary question, is it fair that our passions, lifestyles and livelihoods are impacting a whole species in such a profound way? I fielded the questions to other locals and got some interesting reactions. A) How does my activity actually affect them? B) If they are so close to extinction, how will any change help the Southern Mountain Caribou? C) If I do make individual changes, how will it make any difference in the big picture?
In order to shed some light on the current situation, I reached out to Charlotte Dawe from the Wilderness Committee, a charitable organization whose primary focus is working towards a Canada where wilderness and wildlife thrive for the benefit of all.
Photo: Sabine Burns
What is driving the current decline of Southern Mountain Caribou?
[Charlotte] - It is well understood that human impact, principally extractive industry, as well as outdoor recreation in Southern Mountain Caribou environments have a negative impact on their habitat. Logging and fossil fuel extraction are the main perpetrators. Southern mountain caribou need forests for a source of their main food in winter – tree lichens.
Consequently, due to the continued logging of their forest habitat, the southern mountain caribou population is declining and is now down to less than 3,800 animals scattered in small herds over a vast mountainous area. Furthermore, greater access made available to predators through logging roads or paths being packed down by sleds and ATVs also have an impact.
Some herds have died-off completely, killed by predators and starvation. With the increase of urban and recreational areas, the herds have smaller and smaller spaces to live in and be safe. It is no wonder that we are seeing a decline in this species.
Watch short film about current state of Wells Grey Caribou Herd.
How does climate change affect this species?
[Charlotte] - While there are specific effects of climate change on the Southern Mountain Caribou herds, for example, a lower snow pack make it difficult for caribou to reach lichen on trees in the high alpine. But indirectly climate change magnifies all the other threats. I like to think of climate change’s impact on the species in terms of the game KerPlunk…
..You know the one with sticks and marbles, where you pull out one stick at a time, trying to not drop the marbles…..
Climate change is to this issue, as a toddler is to a game of KerPlunk. Unpredictable. They could all of a sudden rip out five sticks at one go. This greatly reduces security and puts much more pressure on the remaining things that the caribou need to survive, such as an intact environment, safety from being killed or hunted, sufficient resources and an undisturbed habitat. Just like a toddler, climate change is hard to control, where as these remaining things we have much more control over. That is why it is so important to take action on them.
That is not to say that climate change has no impact. Ecosystems are resilient but they have a tipping point. Once they cross over the threshold to a different state, it takes a large amount resources and effort to bring that ecosystem back, and sometimes it’s impossible. Fighting climate change is integral to the survival of all species including humans.
Photo: Sabine Burns
What is the point of trying to revive a species that is so close to extinction?
This mindset in generally is a slippery slope to not caring or putting zero effort into protecting anything. First of all, there are many examples of action having positive affects on endangered species. At one point Sea Otters were extinct in Canada but thanks to positive actions to protect their habitat they are now quite abundant. It’s our responsibility and in our power to bring them back.
Furthermore, as we see more species on the endangered or extinct list it is easy to become complacent about protecting them. However, it is important to realize that the decline of a species like the Southern Mountain Caribou is like a canary in the coal mine. Their habitat is vast and remote, which makes it difficult to track the health of the ecosystem but when we see their population declining it is a signal that it isn’t functioning in the way it is supposed to be. What we need to keep in mind is that those ecosystems also support us, as species slip away; it is a reminder that we are also species; we are not exempt from the extinction train.
What are some things that we can be doing to protect the Southern Mountain Caribou?
While restricting access to outdoor recreationalist in critical habitat is a hot topic, I believe it is possible to manage this issue with open discourse, planning and compromise. There is no reason we can’s have both backcountry recreation and caribou survival. However, the impact that logging and fossil fuel extraction is having on this species is the major threat to caribou. It must be reduced and critical habitat needs to be restored if caribou are to survive. Some of the key things we need to do are:
• Create a program to close and restore the thousands of kilometers of old logging roads that crisscross Southern Mountain Caribou habitat. This can deter predators to accessing caribou habitat up to 70%. While it is important to protect the caribou from predators, culling off their predators like wolves is just a Band-Aid solution.
• Reviewing the process of new logging permits under consideration of environmental requirements necessary to protect endangered species on mapped Southern Mountain Caribou critical habitat, especially old growth forests. A recent investigation by the Wilderness Committee has revealed over 3,000 cut blocks that are either already logged or about to be logged in Southern Mountain Caribou mapped critical habitat. These logging permits have all been issued by the BC government since 2012.
• Create a dialogue and work with communities, outdoor recreation groups and recreationalist to come to a compromise to protect Southern Mountain Caribou critical habitat, while still making it possible for people to enjoy the outdoors. For example, if certain critical habitats become restricted for snowmobiling, find another low-impact area that could be opened in its place. The answer is not “no more recreation ever”, it’s thinking pro-actively about which places are best suited for high impact recreation.
There's more to learn
If you are interested in learning more about this issue, check out the Wilderness Committee here!
About Nat Segal
Nat Segal is a professional skier and producer. Originally from Australia, she is known for her high energy, adventurous spirit and driven personality. For six years Nat traveled the world as a top competitor in freeride skiing events taking podiums on both the Freeride and Freeskiing World Tours. She has since shifted gears away from competition towards film, writing and ski expeditions." www.nataliesegal.com | @nat_segal