Everyone's an Expert: The Mountain Caribou Conundrum
Patrick Garbutt | On 28, Dec 2016
A recent Facebook post by the Conservation Officer Service of British Columbia has raised some interesting questions about Mountain Caribou conservation efforts in BC.
There are certainly some facts regarding the decline of Mountain Caribou populations in the province, but it seems like these are overshadowed by many more opinions on both sides of the issue. Well, you know what they say; opinions are like a-holes, everyone’s got one.
At the core of the issue for sledders is the closure of mountainous areas to snowmobiling as a result of the purported effect of the recreation on those populations. That’s a problem for many sledders. Meanwhile, Conservation Officers in BC are required to crack down on motorized use in caribou closure areas, as part of the province’s recovery strategy under the Species at Rick Act.
It’s gonna get messy. But let’s get some facts straight first.
What the hell is a Mountain Caribou?
The Mountain Caribou is an ecotype of the Woodland Caribou, Rangifer tarandus caribou. The Mountain Caribou is listed as critically imperiled(1), having a population that has shrunk to less than 1600 individuals today, with those numbers declining rapidly in the last 20 years(2). Around 99% of this remaining population lives in the high, old-growth forests of Southeastern BC’s Columbia and Selkirk mountain ranges, which as sledders know, makes for pretty primo riding terrain.
All this is pretty well known and understood, and no one’s arguing that the Mountain Caribou population is in trouble. Herds are fractured and isolated from one another. Populations on the whole and within individual herds are declining to a point where they are no longer sustainable. But where to point the finger? Why is this happening, and who is responsible? Are sledders to blame? And why are we being asked to pay the cost with area closures?
What is killing off Mountain Caribou? Everyone’s an expert
There are four “generally” agreed upon threats to the Mountain Caribou. But this is where the issue becomes open for interpretation, because everyone’s an expert in their own mind. The stickiest point is motorized recreation aka mountain sledding, so we’ll hit on that last. The others are forestry, predators and *gasp* climate change. OMG, I can’t wait to read some of the far-out comments on this one!
As valleys become picked clean, logging operations continue to push higher upslope into Mountain Caribou habitat. Old-growth forests—on which the population depends for food in winter months—have been harvested to a greater degree than ever before, thereby reducing habitat. Forestry roads have been pushed close to alpine in many places, allowing easier access by humans and predators into traditional winter feeding grounds. It’s hard to argue these truths. Logging roads are how we get to the goods!
Well, as soon as people stop living in houses built out of wood and wiping their butts with toilet paper, this should no longer be a concern. But let’s face it, that ain’t happening anytime soon. Forestry is big business for the province and its people, and that’s not going to change on account of the government or anyone that collects a paycheque from the mill. Without forestry there is no doubt that there would be a significantly lesser impact on Mountain Caribou. But then we’d all be living in caves, so let’s look beyond this threat at the next on the list.
Wolves and cougars are the top predators of Mountain Caribou. Now historically, those predators tend stick to lower elevations where their favourite prey—deer, moose and elk—like to hang out. But once again, evil Mr. Forestry has changed the program for the worse by opening up the higher-elevation forest with clear-cutting. Freshly cleared forest promotes growth of delicious browsing greenery that draws ungulates up from lower elevations. And with the deer, come the predators—smack! into Mountain Caribou habitat.
Now, any expert hunter/keyboard warrior could spend a lifetime arguing how the Mountain Caribou move down into lower elevations in the spring and fall anyway. Or that game isn’t drawn higher up by roads and clearcuts, and so on and so forth. Hence one reason why this topic is such a hot issue.
What can be done? Well, some have called for further government intervention in the form of predator culls. There is already a wolf cull project currently in place in BC. Others have gone so far as to state that the entire wolf population should be culled. Solutions as to how this would even be possible, or why one species should be extinguished to save another at risk aren’t very often presented. But, as they say, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Maybe we should wipe out all the cougars too? Let’s import some cane toads while we’re at it. Moving on.
Okay, so more than a few sledders probably believe that climate change is either a) not real b) not caused by human activity or c) a conspiracy created by the Chinese government, or d) all of the above. Let’s not go there. Whether the climate is changing or not, Donald Trump isn’t going to stop flying around in his private jet so there’s not much we can do about this on a global scale. Sure, we can do things here at home, but that’s a controversial topic for another day at Mountain Sledder.
Motorized Recreation aka Snowmobiling
Now we’ve come to the hot topic of this issue. Does sledding have an impact on the decline of Mountain Caribou populations? The answer is… probably yes. Is it biggest factor? Probably no.
The argument is two-fold.
First, the anti-sledhead will argue that noise causes disturbance of the animals. That’s probably true. Certainly, every group has that one dickhead friend with an ear-shatteringly-loud can bolted on his sled and who loves to spin donuts 10 feet away from your group while they eat lunch. That shit is annoying, be you man or beast.
On the flipside of the coin, there are plentiful accounts of respectful sledders encountering groups of caribou and following the recommended procedure—that is to say, shutting down their sleds and waiting for the animals to move on—without any apparent disruption to their natural behaviour.
The argument is that disruptive noises cause caribou to move away—both horizontally and in elevation—into less productive feeding grounds. There is also the concern of animals being pushed into very steep terrain—avalanches being responsible for 15% of all fatalities of the Southern Mountain population(2).
This is probably a legitimate concern at least to a degree if not completely. Cold winter is a hard time for any creature to get by, but must be especially so for large animals that subsist almost exclusively on little strips of moss that grow on branches up high in the mountains. Surely the caribou would prefer to be away from the sight and sounds of sledders and feeling pressure to expend energy moving around must be detrimental.
However, there are also tales of a herd that makes its home on Queest Mountain near Sicamous spending its entire winter within earshot of the snowmobile cabin. Go figure.
So if noise is an issue, that must then raise the question as to why heli-ski operations are not impacted with closures in the same way as recreational snowmobiling? Anyone who has spent time in the mountains has surely heard and seen helicopters shuttling skiers and snowboarders to-and-fro their destinations all day long. Not only do helicopters produce deafening sound, but the thrum of their blades as they move through the air can be physically felt. Why then no legal restrictions on the use of those “motorized” vehicles? Hmmm, very interesting. Something to do with the economies generated by the heli-ski industry? You make the call.
The other argument is that snowmobiles create hardened tracks in the snow that allow predators to easily travel over the snow to get at caribou in their habitat. This one seems ripe for debate.
How many sledders have come across wolf or cougar tracks in the alpine? Probably not that many. Are predators really using snowmobile tracks to get to the caribou? Or does it just seem like something they might do in theory? Is that reason enough to pick snowmobiling as the only activity that we should try to restrict?
Here’s something to consider. Anyone who has ever taken their dog for a ski or splitboard tour knows that poochie can scoot just fine along a fresh skin track—let alone one that has set for a few hours. Doesn’t it seem hypocritical to argue that snowmobiles create predator highways through the mountains without conceding that a ski and snowboard uptrack does exactly the same? What about the tracks of heli-skiers? Do those not firm up enough for the travel of predators in theory? They do. What about the groomed roads built by cat-ski operations? Surely those are the Coquihalla of predatory super-highways.
So what now?
Alright, so these “opinions” don’t offer much in the way of solutions, but it goes to show that the issue isn’t quite as cut-and-dry as we are made to think. Is it fair for snowmobiling to suffer the restrictions of a caribou closure, when there are other activities out there that can have similar or significantly worse detrimental impacts on the animals?
Here’s my opinion, since we’re all in a sharing mood
It’s hard to concede, but yes, snowmobiling in the mountains is probably harmful to Mountain Caribou to at least a small degree. As unpopular as that opinion might be, the truth is that all human activities have a negative impact on wildlife, and that’s hard to get around. The problem is that we love playing in the same deep snow, wide open high-value habitat that Mountain Caribou require. Can’t we all just get along?
So what should be done about it? Well, the Government of BC has established over a million hectares of caribou habitat. That sounds like a lot, but that leaves precisely a gazillion other hectares of prime snowmobiling terrain for sledders to enjoy. There certainly is no shortage out there, unless you’re the guy that goes to Revelstoke and spends 5 days riding within 200m of the Boulder cabin.
Sure, to regulate only snowmobiling is unfair. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our part respectfully and stay out of Mountain Caribou closures. But let’s also continue to push for fairness. Let’s see that the true impact of our sport is studied, and that the protection of Mountain Caribou doesn’t become the responsibility of the sledding community alone. All backcountry user groups need to play a part, especially those ones profiting from their activities.
The way things are going it doesn’t look like Mountain Caribou are going to be long for this earth, which is a sad statement on our stewardship of this planet. So my opinion is that we should behave like the good people that we as a community of sledders know ourselves to be, and give the poor buggers a fighting chance while they still have a shot.
How you can do your part
Know before you go! Identify whether your riding area is within or near caribou habitat. For riders that use GPS, you can download caribou closure outlines to your GPS device so you’re know exactly where a boundary is on the ground.
GPS and Google Earth files can be found on the BC Fish, Wildlife and Habitat Management site here.
If you want to dig deeper into the issue of snowmobiling and Mountain Caribou management, check out this resource: Snowmobiling and Mountain Caribou: A Literature Review of Stewardship Practices
When snowmobiling near Mountain Caribou habitat, follow best stewardship practices:
- If caribou tracks are observed do not follow the tracks.
- If you see caribou, do not approach.
- If caribou are close, turn off your snowmobile and allow the animals to calmly move away.
- If by random chance you encounter caribou, leave the area.
— Patrick Garbutt
(1) Environment Canada. 2014. Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Environment Canada, Ottawa. viii + 103 pp