Throughout the high unforgiving peaks of the Selkirk Mountains, a survival story is happening. This is the story of Mountain Caribou, a true mountaineering species built to live in the harsh conditions of the high alpine.
Caribou numbers there have been dropping steadily over the last century. In the last ten years, aerial surveys have been used in the south Selkirks to keep track of the Mountain Caribou population. The numbers have significantly dropped from around 38 in 2009 to the most current count of just 18.
Of the current population, six have radio collars on them to track their movement and help us understand how to better manage the herd. Recently one of the collars was sending a mortality signal, a result of wolf predation. Herein lies one of the problems.
Mountain Caribou are a different ecogroup of Woodland Caribou. They differ from other caribou in the way in which they use their habitat. These caribou require large tracks of mature coniferous forest for food. Each year, they migrate down from mountains in late fall to forage ground forbes and lichens. During the middle of winter the caribou migrate back up to higher elevations where the snow is deeper and can now support their weight. By not sinking in the snow because of their big feet, they can now reach lichens that grow high on trees. These lichens are what sustain the caribou through the harsh winter and only grow on large mature coniferous trees.
The decline of these caribou comes down to a multitude of different factors that are pushing the caribou in the Selkirks to the breaking point. A large part of the decline of these animals is indirectly related to logging in the area. Logging takes out large tracts of old growth forest and creates a patchwork of different habitats on the landscape; thinned stands, cleared stands that rebound with a lot of new vegetation filling in for the taken trees. This patchwork becomes very attractive to a variety of species like deer, elk, and moose. More ungulates means more predators, like wolfs and cougars, adding more predation pressure onto the caribou.
Another factor affecting caribou in the area is snowmobiling. As stated before, caribou like to be up in the high alpine areas where there is a lot of lichen, but people like to be up there as well to snowmobile. Snowmobiles pack down the snow and make it easier for predators to access caribou. Also the noise from snowmobiles forces the caribou from their suitable habitat.
A lot of work is being done to try to help protect the mountain caribou. In 2005, the B.C. government started the Mountain Caribou recovery program. This has helped to protect 2.2 million hectares across the province, of which 95 per cent is highly suitable habitat for Mountain Caribou. Additionally, the government has put restrictions on snowmobiles, limiting areas that they can recreate, including the upper reaches of the south Selkirk mountain range. In 2009 the Nature Conservancy of Canada bought 55,000 hectares of land on the east side of the south Selkirks called Darkwoods. This area is a vital corridor for the mountain caribou between the summer and winter feeding grounds.
Probably the biggest problem for the caribou is that their numbers are so small. Any further mistakes we make or that happen naturally could wipe them out completely from the Selkirk Range. The logging can’t be undone and those additional predators will continue to exist and potentially take more of the caribou. An avalanche could take the whole group out in one fell swoop. These are anxious times for this local population. Is it time to admit that this population isn’t viable, scoop them up, and drop them off with another, more healthy population?
Riley Rollick and Ben Gorrod are second year recreation, fish and wildlife students at Castlegar’s Selkirk College.