Close to Caribou

Text by Kim Shelton. Photos by David Moskowitz

Day two in the 2016 summer expedition of the Mountain Caribou Initiative: our mission is to set up camera traps in core home range of the Southern Selkirk mountain caribou herd a few miles from Kootenay pass, just north of the U.S. border.  My secondary mission is to keep up with David Moskowitz, scrambling up and down mountains while carrying a pack loaded down with camera trap gear. I’m constantly amazed at the terrain that these caribou seem unfazed by, and that we must traverse if we want to find sign of them.  It is absolutely rugged country and stunningly beautiful.

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Dave also seems to be unfazed by the terrain, scaling peaks and traversing talus fields at a doggedly consistent and efficient pace – a result of having made a living in the outdoors for two decades. His goals at first seem completely unreasonable to me. The day is long: 11 hours of bushwhacking, with intermittent pauses to investigate tracks and set up camera traps – and I keep up mostly because I’m too stubborn not to.  

 

_10B5398 The tracks of a wolf in a high mountain meadow in the Selkirk mountains.

At our first summit of the day, on a ridgeline south of Canadian Highway 3, we gaze down at a wetland meadow system far below. Somewhere down there we hope to find sign of one of the twelve animals in the South Selkirk herd. I’m scanning the landscape with my binoculars every chance I get as we descend the steep hillside, at times lowering ourselves down hand over hand using spruce branches or handfuls of pacific rhododendron, trusting the hardy mountain plants will hold our weight.

I “glass” the hills again near the bottom of our descent, having learned last year to always look twice after I scanned right over a camouflaged bedded down moose. I slowly check every suspicious looking rock, stump, and waving branch.

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A single white tailed deer feeds across the valley from us. According to the Wildlife Management Institute, white tailed deer were historically rare in this area but now comprise almost three quarters of the deer population in the Selkirk Mountains.  These deer, along with moose and elk, are considered “primary prey” for wolves and mountain lions, predators that weren’t so much of a threat to mountain caribou years ago, but with the fracturing of the inland temperate rainforest by clearcuts, roads and powerlines, “primary prey” moved in, followed by their predators.   

One of the main defense systems of mountain caribou is evasion of predators; carried by their massive hooves they retreat to snow covered peaks in winter and spongy marshlands in the summer, away from where other hoofed animals and their predators typically roam.  Naturally they become prey at times, but a large herd can replenish a loss. At twelve animals and with cows taking three years to birth their first calf, and then only one per year after that, replenishment is slow. Compared to a white tailed deer who can birth up to three fawns her first year, the Southern Selkirk mountain caribou herd is fragile to say the least.

In the marshy valley bottom mosquitoes descend upon us as we split up to scan the area for sign. I’ve given up trying to keep my feet dry as I squish across the meadow, searching for game trails, scat, tracks, rubs, browse sign. I did not expect to see bones. White and clean, I can immediately tell they are leg bones of an ungulate – a long legged, gracefully hoofed animal.  As a tracker, finding the remains of an animal always gets me excited. I crouch by the few bones and play out all the possibilities of what may have happened here.  Knowing that the rest of the carcass must be near by, I stand and move intuitively, loving the sense of calmness that takes over my mind and body when following animal sign. I walk right to the carcass; a large spread of fur and bones lies peacefully amidst a thicket of downed trees and branches on the edge of the marsh.

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Now my mind turns on, investigating. Lots of hollow fur, very light colored, the leg bones seem huge, too big for a deer…elk? Moose? The color of the fur is not right, elk are more red but I can’t remember how much white moose have on them. The leg bones are cracked, wolves and wolverines often crack long bones like this, bears do as well occasionally. Did they kill it or did they scavenge?

I take a stick and push the fur around, trying to find more evidence. Somewhere in my mind the debate of whether I want this to be a caribou or not is taking place.  The head is nowhere to be found, but I find a single dewclaw. It is very curved. My heart beats faster and sinks at the same time. But I can’t tell yet – the kill site is old and the only way to tell for sure is to take the time and research all the possibilities. So Dave takes pictures, and we bring this mystery out of the mountains with us.

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Norm Merz, a Wildlife Biologist for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, met with us the next day and confirmed that yes the carcass was that of a mountain caribou. He had been in there just days before and was awed that we happened upon the exact same place. He also confirmed our suspicions that  it was fed on by wolves and also by bears, but the exact cause of death is unknown. Biologists from the province of British Colombia had taken the head to investigate the sex of the animal. As both males and females grow antlers, the presence of single tine “spike” antlers on this carcass indicated that the animal was either an adult cow or young bull.  Norm expressed his relief in seeing that the teeth were sharp – this animal hadn’t spent years grinding lichens – it was a young bull. Norm noted wryly that any loss from this herd is problematic for their ultimate survival, but females, on whom the future growth of this herd depends, are especially important for herd survival.

Opposing feelings of celebration and tragedy once again battle inside of us.  This project has become such a contradictory experience. Constantly we search for success – but success is finding a dead bull caribou instead of a dead cow, or finding their tracks coming out of a clear cut. Failure is having spent all day in beautiful country – prime caribou habitat in the largest remaining inland temperate rainforest in the world – and finding absolutely no sign that caribou even exist.

I have never seen a mountain caribou. I have bushwhacked for miles, seen their tracks and their scat. I have stared at maps, seen photos, heard stories and even dreamt of them. But the closest I’ve ever been to a mountain caribou was touching the bones of a young bull from the elusive twelve animal strong Southern Selkirk herd.

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NOTE: Stay tuned for images from our camera traps in the months to come as we return to check them. Follow Kim on instagram at @barefootturtle, David at @moskowitz_david, and the project at #mountaincaribouinitiative for more images from mountain caribou country! Interested in supporting the project? We are still fundraising to cover our research expenses. Tax deductible donations can be made online through project sponsor, Blue Earth Alliance.

 

 

Spring In Mountain Caribou Country

Spring In Mountain Caribou Country

Text and photos by David Moskowitz

With the onset of warmer weather and longer days the snowpack is receding quickly at lower elevations while deep snows persist in the high country where mountain caribou spent the winter. In April, caribou from the North Columbia herd descend down to the valley bottom along the dammed Columbia River to feed on fresh growth. A trip that was once made through continuous stands of old growth rainforest is now a tour of clear-cuts, regenerating forests, and patches of old forest, ending with a swim across the hydropower reservoir.

In the spring, mountain caribou drop out of the high mountains to forage. Once snow melts at higher elevations they return to the high country for the summer. Mountain caribou feed in a low elevation clearcut. The high mountains in the background are where these animals spent the winter, and where they will return once the snow melts.

For the third year in a row, the non-profit Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild (RCRW) is looking after about a dozen pregnant female caribou from the North Columbia herd, in a large enclosure they built close to a remote section of the reservoir. Similar to the Klinse-za project further north, the goal of the RCRW is to increase the survival rate of calves during the critical period when as newborns they are most vulnerable to predators. While only a small part of what is needed to restore caribou in the region, this project has brought together the region’s diverse groups for a cause they can all agree on. This collaboration will hopefully yield better working relationships during more contentious conservation efforts.

_10B2578 The fence for the pen built to protect pregnant females and their newborn calves from predators peeks through the rainforest covered hillside above the pen.
_MG_0976 Several of the cow caribou inside the pen.
_10B2532 RCRW has pulled all the stops to make sure their guests are safe and well fed. Len Edwards, one of the “shepherds” charged with monitoring the captive caribou, walks the perimeter fence each morning to make sure the fence is intact. Besides a tall visual barrier, multiple strands of electrified wire ensure that predators stay out of the large enclosure where the caribou roam.

As always, a continuous stream of logs continues to flow out of this region, feeding BC’s powerful timber industry. The bears are out of their dens and looking for food in melting avalanche chutes and wetlands along riparian zones.

_10B1067 This cut block within the North Columbia herds home range was cut last summer. I found tracks of a mountain caribou wandering out of what had been excellent caribou habitat until just recently.
_10B0195 A story in footprints: Tracks found on the access road coming out of the above cut-block. The footprint of a mountain caribou is joined by the trail of a large black bear and the faint prints of a grey wolf. Wolves are effective predators of adult caribou, while black bears and grizzlies can take a massive toll on calves–the reason for the penning project going on in the nearby mountains.
M2E47L161-160R410B315 A moose captured on a camera trap I set up to monitor the rainforest’s wildlife. Dense forest and thick brush make spotting wildlife difficult. The bright patch on this large, creek-side cedar tree is from the biting and rubbing of bears. Moose use the dense riparian forest as refuge, and venture out into clearcuts and logging roads to forage on the abundant brush growing in these openings.
_10B0042 Another story in footprints. The tracks of a moose, a wolf, and a mountain lion. Moose populations, driven by logging, drive predator populations which in turn affect endangered caribou, leaving a tangled web of ecological relationships tricker to pick apart than these maze of footprints the animals themselves leave behind.

Klinse-Za Caribou Maternal Penning Project

Text by Marcus Reynerson. Photos by Marcus Reynerson and David Moskowitz. Video production by Colin Arisman/Wild Confluence.

In mid-march, our team headed to Chetwynd, BC to visit and observe the Klinse-za Maternal Penning Project. This project is attempting to decrease caribou calf mortality rates in the Klinse-za mountain caribou herd of the South Peace River region of BC. The project was developed by the West Moberly First nations and is supported by the Saulteau First Nations. Additionally, the team consists of a coalition of biologists, provincial government officials, and forest industry representatives that are offering support. This penning project is one of two ongoing in British Columbia and, according to Scott McNay, was instigated because of the local First Nations’ strong desire to protect the specific caribou that exist in their traditional territory.

Resource extraction and human recreation are the fundamental pressures leading to the decline of mountain caribou populations. By destroying refuge habitat, encouraging increased populations of other ungulates which attracted predators into caribou habitat, and creating landscape features which are easy for predators to travel on, logging, mining, road construction and winter recreation activities have caused a significant shift in predator-prey dynamics between caribou and the native predators in these mountains. This new ecological reality is having a direct impact on calf mortality in numerous herds across mountain caribou country. Pregnant females and newborn calves have been recognized as the most vulnerable segment of mountain caribou populations due to this elevated rate of predation. This penning project is one of several emergency measures being undertaken as last-ditch efforts to give calves a higher chance of surviving predation. I wrote about another one of these measures, supplemental feeding, in a previous blog post.

_10B8098 Winter mountain caribou habitat in the Hart Range, BC. Photo by David Moskowitz.

The Klinse-za project is on the east slope of the Hart Range, the northern extension of the Rocky Mountains. The team’s goal is to capture pregnant cows, observe and feed them until they give birth, and keep the pairs enclosed until they are large enough to have a better chance of avoiding predation (Some herds of mountain caribou have been found to have no calf survival in the wild because of unnaturally high predation rates). The project is energy intensive, financially expensive, and highly invasive to the animals. While initial data are suggesting that it is having a positive impact on the herd’s numbers, it is certainly not a sustainable long-term solution. The First Nations partners aim to take steps to avert extirpation of the Klinse-Za herd and demonstrate the viability of maternal penning to help bolster other vulnerable caribou populations in the region.

The project is being lead and driven by the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations and is being coordinated by Scott McNay and Brian Pate of Wildlife Infometrics in Mackenzie, BC. West Moberly hired this team to help them oversee these efforts as they attempt to bring back the herds of caribou that have dwelled in their ancestral lands for generations. According to Harley Davis, one of the Saulteau project representatives: “The caribou are something special to our people here. People have sustained themselves off of caribou for thousands of years around here. They’ve provided us with food, clothes, and sustenance, and now that they’re in need, we feel like we’ve got to give back.”

How It Works

Of the herd of 55 animals in this region, about 18 cows are collared. The team assumes these cows could potentially be pregnant, and over the course of two days, tracks these cows in helicopters through high-elevation alpine terrain. After they find the individuals, a biologist shoots them with a net gun from the air, jumps out of the helicopter, and holds the animal until another helicopter lands with a veterinarian who delivers a nasal tranquilizer. The net is removed, the animal is hobbled at its feet for it’s protection and the vet’s. It is loaded into a helicopter and flown down below tree line. The helicopter lands at a site near an 18-acre (7 ha) pen where it is off loaded onto a snowmobile and sledded into the pen. Here the head veterinarian for the province, Helen Schwantje, leads a team in weighing the animal, drawing blood, checking teeth, taking hair and stool samples, and re-collaring the animal. They then give a reversal drug, and after about 5 minutes, the caribou gets up, finds her legs, and trots (or in some cases lopes) off into the pen. In May, the cows will give birth to calves, and the pairs will continue to live in the pen until the calves are about 6 weeks old, when they will be released. During this time, a team of “shepherds” from the Saulteau and West Moberly live in small cabins nearby, with no electricity, and tend the fence, keep predators away, and feed the cows and calves highly nutritious feed. The cows are slowly transitioned from their natural diet of lichen to specialized highly nutritious rations, which they will consume until they are transitioned back to lichen before release.

IMG_1516 A herd of caribou on a high alpine ridge. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.
_MG_9688 One of the transport helicopters lands on an alpine ridge in order to get set up for a capture. The clearing behind the ridge is a large high elevation clearcut, one of many in the area which have contributed to the need for the penning project. Photo by David Moskowitz
IMG_1092 A caribou is offloaded from a helicopter and prepared to be transported to the pen. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.
IMG_7463 Biologists Brian Pate, Line Giguere, and Doug Herd intake a pregnant cow caribou. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.
IMG_1307 A view of the 18 acre pen. On the left, a group of biologists and veterinarians work on a caribou that has just arrived. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.

This was an amazing, beautiful, and sobering experience to witness. Seeing these incredible animals captured and penned was immensely impactful. There was something about the sight of a magnificent wild being handled in this way that hit me hard. While the intentions of this process are good, and while I could understand it intellectually, to see it in person touched my heart in a very different way – in a way that begs the question – What the hell have we done to get into this situation? And what the hell are we going to do from here? Not just for caribou, but for the whole damn living world?

While it was challenging in many ways, I’m grateful for the dedicated team of people working incredibly hard to keep these animals around. Here in the third year of penning, the team has seen the herd grow from 36 individuals to 55, in no small part due to these efforts. According to Brian Pate: “All the animals released last year are still alive and the calf survival in the wild is improving.” While that does not sound like much, at this critical point it doesn’t take much to be impactful. Efforts such as this, while definitely not a long-term solution, are playing their part in making incremental progress. However, we have much bigger questions to ask. What happens after this project runs its course? As Project Supervisor, Scott McNay said, “We can’t keep projects like penning and predator control going forever. These measures eventually have diminishing returns. At some point, we’re going to need to ask ‘What’s next?’” This question was strongly reinforced by the reality that, according to two supervisors from the local lumber mill in Chetwynd who didn’t want to go on record, the entire log yard for the mill was filled with “first cut” trees from the surrounding region. As new roads and clearcuts gets punched into the landscape, we are apparently continuing to exacerbate a situation we are also working so hard to correct.

_MG_9160 Lumber mill in Chetwynd British Columbia. According to two employees of this mill, most of the logs coming into this mill are from previously uncut forests in the region. According to these employees, Lowes in the USA is the chief recipient of the high grade dimensional lumber produced here. The lower quality lumber is shipped to China. Photo by David Moskowitz.

Tough questions are coming, indeed. We Humans have used our minds and creativity to do things no other species has been able to do. It’s the use of these faculties that have got us to where we are now, for better or worse. We need to start using this creativity and ingenuity to make the changes necessary to protect and honor, not just caribou in the long-term, but to protect and honor the entire ecosystem that many species call home – including ourselves. Harley Davis’ words sent me home thinking and feeling a lot: “Without the animals, and without the trees and the forest, our culture wouldn’t survive. All animals, not only caribou, are part of our makeup. We need them as much as they need us.”

IMG_1157 A cow caribou just awoken from the process and gaining her bearings in the pen. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.

Acknowledgements

On behalf of the MCI, I’d like to thank the Klinse-Za Penning Project team for allowing us to come in and observe this very sensitive effort. We know it takes a lot to manage the logistics of this monumental effort, and having a team of photographers and videographers there is yet another layer to manage. I want to give a special thanks to Brian and Karyn Pate for their hospitality while we were there and letting us stay at their home in Chetwynd. Thanks for the gracious hospitality and all of the stories and learning.

Value learning about stories like this? Please contribute to our ongoing fundraiser through Kickstarter (http://kck.st/1XibZEW) so we can continue to collect powerful stories like this one and get this story out to as large an audience as possible!

Should there be a wolf cull to support Mountain Caribou Recovery? Why We Think there are More Important Questions to be Asking.

written by David Moskowitz, Creative Director

Mountain Caribou Initiative has received a number of inquiries about our position on the current wolf “control” activities being carried out in British Columbia in relationship to caribou conservation. This is a subject that has generated a great deal of interest, concern, debate, and strife for a great many people concerned about the plight of both caribou and wolves and the future of the very unique ecosystem in which mountain caribou reside alongside wolves.

Some Background

The relationship between wolves and mountain caribou was actually how I became interested in the story of mountain caribou and the inland temperate rainforest. In my most recent book, Wolves in the Land of Salmon (http://davidmoskowitz.net/publications/wolves-in-the-land-of-salmon/), I spend the better part of a chapter exploring this topic and introducing the reader to the landscape, and the human caused changes to this landscape which have been devastating to both caribou and to the globally unique ecosystem on which they depend. In this chapter I explore the science behind predator-prey dynamics which drive the interactions between wolves and the other large carnivores in this ecosystem and the suite of large prey animals on which they depend which includes primarily moose, deer, elk, and caribou. I carefully review the relationship between human caused changes to the landscape (primarily logging) and changes in the interactions between these predators and prey species.

In Wolves in the Land of Salmon, I carefully lay out how habitat changes from logging and other human impacts have lead to the decline of mountain caribou. Some conservationists believe that the cessation of habitat destruction and the removal of other human stresses to caribou is what we should be doing. Others believe that short-term predator control (killing of native predators in places where they are eating endangered caribou) is required to ensure that the caribou don’t disappear. In the book, I share information from an interview I did with the head of mountain caribou conservation for British Columbia regarding what the province states they are actually doing in this regard.

In the three years since that book was published, this issue has not resolved itself. It has actually become a much more contentious subject. It has fractured what was a very powerful coalition of conservation groups who worked together to promote mountain caribou and forest conservation in the United States and Canada. The province of British Columbia states that they have protected all of the habitat that needs to be set aside for caribou and are carrying out predator control efforts in a precise, targeted, and ethical manner. Some conservation groups and scientists have taken the perspective that this is generally the case. Other researchers and conservation groups have strongly disagreed with this perspective.

Our Stance: If you want us to tell you what to think, you will likely be disappointed.

Our goals with the Mountain Caribou Initiative is NOT to tell people what is right or wrong, what should be done, or should not in regards to predator control, timber extraction, winter recreation, or carbon emissions. We are working to bring our audience our direct observations of what is going on on the ground in this ecosystem. We are working on creating engaging educational content that helps explain what the situation is on the ground right now and how humans have created the problems that caribou and their ecosystem are now facing, as well as shares the responses that humans are having in attempts to address these challenges. In carrying out our research we are working hard to allow the various interest groups involved to share their perspectives. These perspectives will be woven together with a sound foundation of conservation science and culture context to help provide a framework for our audience to interpret these various perspectives.

We believe that the best thing we can do to support the conservation of this animal and its home, is provide our audience with clear, honest, and as unbiased as possible, material so that our audience themselves can come up with their own conclusions about what should be done and help move us in that direction.

Our material will not present the killing of wolves by the province of BC and Alberta as right or wrong. It will explain the various motivations, perspectives and results of these actions that will include the science behind it, as well as the politics, and various perspectives on the ethics of it. I believe the most powerful story and thing for people to understand about the predator control going on related to mountain caribou is about how we got to this point and how the use of such an extreme “conservation” action is being used in conjunction with, or possibly instead of, the long term corrective measures that could ultimately return mountain caribou populations to self-sustaining levels. I don’t presume to know what other people should think is right or wrong. I know myself what I think, but my goal here is provide our audience with the opportunity to look into the world of mountain caribou themselves so that they can sort out for themselves what they believe, how they think we should weigh the merits and downsides of various options, and ultimately to understand that this is a story with no neat and tidy answers. We have meddled with this ecosystem, and indeed this entire planet, so much, that every action we take, even with the best of intentions, is fraught with more problems for us to sort out.

Who is our audience?

We are striving to make our material engaging to people from a wide variety of starting points when it comes to thinking about conservation topics: people who love wolves and people who do not, people who know what a mountain caribou is and people who do not, hunters, people who put a roof over their family’s head working in the timber industry, people who build roofs for other family’s heads, people with a home built of wood, environmental studies students, politicians trying to educate themselves about a very challenging subject, powder hounds that wander what sort of animal left the tracks they just skied or snowmobiled over….to name just a few.

 I believe that democracy works best when people are educated well and inspired to take responsibility as citizens. It is our goal to provide educational material that will be engaging to many different types of people with many different starting points about what they believe about how the world works and what is right and wrong. After engaging with our resources, it is our goal that our audience will be more informed about the complex ecosystem that caribou live in, the many many ways that humans affect this place, and the options and potential outcomes from various paths forward. And finally, our goal is to translate this knowledge and engagement into actions that will move us towards more aware and responsible use of the fragile resources that we now wield so much power over as a species.

What are our biases?

As I wrote in the introduction to Wolves in the Land of Salmon, “Go See For Yourself”, while scientists and reporters who do their job well seek to provide unbiased material, we all carry biases with us that act as the lens through which we see the world and communicate about it. One way that contemporary social scientists address this issue in their research is to state clearly their background and experience so that the person reviewing their research can also understand the perspective from which it was carried out. I have worked intimately with wolves in my work as a biologist, a photographer and as a conservationist working for protections for endangered wolf populations in the United States. As such, I have a great deal of personal connection to wolves in this region, as well as now caribou as my personal experience with this animal has been growing through this current project. Landscapes where large carnivores and other large mammals roam bring an excitement about the world around me that is different then any other experience I have had in my life. Part of my sense of what it means to truly be alive in the world, is to be able to share it with the wide variety of wildlife that have lived along side us humans for millennia…and this is a huge part of my motivation for working on projects such as the Mountain Caribou Initiative.

 

What are the question that we hope you will be asking:

How can we best move towards conservation stratagies that address whole ecosystems rather than individual species?

How can be best learn from our past mistakes and step up to the daunting challenges of conserving biodiversity in the 21st Century in a multi-faceted and complicated human society?

I hope the story of mountain caribou can act as a case study for us to learn from so that we can approach the many other conservation challenges we are going to face in this century with more foresight, and a higher degree of understanding of the importance of looking at whole systems rather than individual species to create lasting solutions for the problems we have created.

Wildlife and wildland conservation rarely works in the long run if it does not address the needs and concerns of the people who’s lives it affects. We live in diverse human society and because of this we have very different life experiences and cultural references for how we interpret the world. Lasting conservation efforts typically rely on solutions that bring people together rather than divide them. As people interested in seeing biodiversity and ecosystems protected in the years, decades and centuries to come, it is our goal to help be a part of creating conversations that mend wounds, build bridges, and create accountability within our society on local, regional, and global levels.

Editorial Control of our Content

We are grateful for the support of the numerous individuals and organizations that have backed our project in many large and small ways. This collection of people and groups contains a very wide variety of perspectives on the subject we are working on. We appreciate the candid discussions and sharing of experiences, knowledge, and resources we have received from many sources.

As with all of my past projects, we will work diligently to have all of our durable products, such as published articles, photo essays, and video content, reviewed by a wide variety of professionals to ensure the accuracy of the material we present. We however, maintain absolute editorial control over the content and messages we present to our audience, which at times will include material which some of our supporters may take exception to and challenge us on. We welcome your questions and concerns, to help us continue to learn and grow in this journey of discovery and to support the continued use of critical thinking skills which we believe are paramount to success in our efforts to act with reverence and respect for all of our neighbors, and hold ourselves as a society and a species accountable to a higher level of behavior when it comes to how we use the formidable power we have amassed on this planet.

THANKS!

Thanks for taking the time to look at our material. I sincerely hope you see value in the work we are trying to do and will financially support our project and share our work with others. Please let me know if you have any other questions. This is a story that I believe deserves thoughtful answers not soundbites.

Learn more about Mountain Caribou Initiative at davidmoskowitz.net/mci 

Support our Kickstarter Campaign

What is conservation? A View Into the Human Economy in the Heart of Mountain Caribou Country

What is conservation? A View Into the Human Economy in the Heart of Mountain Caribou Country

Revelstoke is a small city in the heart of the Columbia Mountains, about an hour west of Rogers Pass on the Trans Canada Highway. During my recent stay in Revelstoke, British Columbia, the most thoughtful description of the economy was shared with me by Michael Copperthwaite, the General Manager of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation. He described it as a resource extraction town with a veneer of ecotourism. A few days in town will confirm that both of these industries have a strong presence in the community. You can watch log trucks, loaded with old growth cedar, roll by to the mill on the south end of town, while stop by one of several excellent coffee shops before your hike, climb, ski, or mountain bike ride. Your helicopter flight to a day of heli-skiing might take you over the hydropower dam on the Columbia River, 5 minutes outside of town. Your day of lift access skiing at the local resort will provide you outstanding views of mountainsides oddly decorated with a patchwork of clearcuts, spreading out in every direction around town. There are two national parks right outside of town, one of which is bisected by the Trans Canada Highway, Canada’s most important ground transportation route.

_10B8736 Deep powder snow, and seemingly endless mountains to explore it in, attracts the booming winter tourism economy in Revelstoke. Colin Arisman carves some powder in Glacier National Park.
_10B8390 Log truck carrying old growth logs into the lumber mill in Revelstoke British Columbia.

Every inch of this landscape is traditional habitat for mountain caribou. Revelstoke is in the heart of inland temperate rainforest and, as any visitor will tell you, is very, very wet. Caribou here exhibit the double migration pattern typical of the ‘mountain’ ecotype: spending a chunk of the spring and fall in the valley bottoms, and the summer and winter at high elevations. The two caribou herds in the region are fairing quite differently. The Columbia South herd is heading quickly towards extirpation, with the province listing only 5 animals and having no plans to augment the herd. The Columbia North herd has been the focus of a great deal of attention, and by most estimates its size has “stabilized” with well over 100 animals. The general consensus is that its prospects are better than most.

Old Growth reserve set aside by RCFC Looking up through the canopy of old growth western red cedar forest. Though cutting of old growth in this area is still common, this particular stand, within the forest tenure of the Revelstoke Community Forest Cooperation, has been set aside and will not be cut.

During 2 weeks in town this winter, I interviewed and/or spent time in the field with folks working in the local timber economy, members of the local Revelstoke Snowmobile Club, and several folks involved in the heli-ski industry. I also met with the Board of Directors for the non-profit Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild project which is spearheading the experimental program north of Revelstoke to hold pregnant caribou in pens for the period before and after they give birth to protect the cows and calves from predators during the calving season. This project has received the wide support of just about every element of the local community and has served as an opportunity for collaboration and relationship building between various segments of the community who are traditionally at odds with each other.

_MG_8589 A number of companies offer heli-skiing from Revelstoke, and the sound of helicopters flying is part of the winter ambiance in town and the mountains around it.
_10B8356 Daniel Kellie (left), owner of Great Canadian Snowmobile Tours and president of the Revelstoke Snowmobile Club, and club members Ron LaRoy (center), and Brad McStay lean on the front of one of the clubs groomers used to maintain the network of snowmobile trails the club manages all winter. Daniel noted that interest in snowmobiling in the Revelstoke area is growing, adding pressure to the areas currently easily accessible and legally open to to snowmobiling, a number of which have known mountain caribou populations.
_MG_8527 The long line waiting for the start of the ski lifts at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. The line was twice this long before the lifts started, as people wait for access to fresh high-mountain powder.
Second growth forest that has been cut, with skid roads and small adjacent openings. Kevin Bollefer, the operations forester for the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation snowshoeing through one of the stands the corporation has recently harvested in. Kevin and the Community Forest are working on ways to carry out economically viable timber harvest which minimize impacts on caribou. He explained that this is easier to do in locations with high value timber. Locations where the value of the trees is less means that clearcuts are often the only viable option for logging, a result of a combination of market forces and British Columbia’s forest management regime.

Another point that everyone agrees on is that the economy of this community is intimately tied to the natural resources that surround it, from the power of the Columbia River to the deep powder of the numerous mountain ranges. And everyone also understands that, economically, while things are well now, there are problems on the horizon that will need to be reckoned with. As Ian Tomm, Executive Director of the Heli-Cat Canada Association put it, in regards to the heli-ski industry specifically, “Everyone in this industry is pro-conservation. The trouble is in the details of what is conservation.” What is conservation? Each interest group I met with had their own ideas about the problems and potential solutions. Caribou conservation efforts have changed business as usual for everyone in this community, and for the most part everyone is looking forward and attempting to find ways to pro-actively adapt to the changing ecological and business climate.

_10B1919-Pano A beautiful day high up in the Columbia Mountains north of Revelstoke, British Columbia.

Over the months to come myself and my collaborators will be returning to the area to collect more material for this story, and to learn more about the ecological interactions between mountains, rainforest, caribou, and humans in this stunning and confusing corner of mountain caribou country.

_10B0033 Ryan Dunford playing in the subalpine on a snowmobile in the Frisby Mountain, just west of Revelstoke.

A Progressive Approach to Forestry In Mountain Caribou Country

Text and photographs by David Moskowitz

At the northern end of the home range of the Southern Selkirks herd of Mountain caribou, a progressive experiment in community based forestry and watershed management has been underway for the past 25 years. I spent a morning out in the field with the forestry manager for the Harrop-Procter Community Forest, visiting a timber harvest. In the afternoon I visited their small scale mill where they process many of the logs they harvest, producing a variety of high value wood products.

_10B7434 Forestry manager Erik Leslie (left), reviews a map of the Community Forest’s tenure with two board members. The beautiful wood table in their office meeting room is built from wood from their mill.
_10B7627 Much of the low elevation forest managed by Harrow-Procter was burned over in the early 1900’s and is now dense second growth mixed conifer forest.

While Community Forests make up only a small portion of the timber harvest allotment on public lands in British Columbia, they represent a significant move towards connecting local communities to management of the forests that make up the watersheds and forests in which they live and put a mandate for social and environmental values centrally into the matrix of how logging operations are designed and implemented. The incorporation of a small mill into the business structure of the Harrop-Proctor Community Forest allows the company to create value added products from many of the trees they harvest and increase the number of local peoples employed. Mill manager Rami Rothkop noted that the Harrop-Procter runs about the same amount of wood through their mill in an entire year as some of the largest mills in the province do in a single shift, while both mills employ about 7 people for running the mill. He notes that while this might seem “inefficient” on one level, it also means that you need a lot less cut trees to create the same number of jobs in the local community. This also gives the business the opportunity to be more selective in what, where, and how they log in the watersheds that not only provide them with trees for the mill but also their drinking water and provide habitat for Mountain caribou and many other species of wildlife.

_10B7552 A self-loading logging truck is loaded with western red cedar logs bound for a local mill which specializes in cedar products. Logs are sorted in the field with various logs going to the Community Forest’s own mill or other mills in region depending on the species and quality of the logs.
_10B7918 A log being run through the small saw which is the center of the company’s mill. Each log can be processed to produce the highest value product possible based on the species, size and quality of the specific log.

The history of the creation of the Harrop-Procter Community Forest is an inspiring story about a community stepping up to take action for the ecological and economic health of their watershed and community. Along with economic vitality, the Community Forest is also working hard to manage their forests to deal with the challenges of climate change which are quickly changing the conditions literally in their backyard. A substantial part of the watersheds they permitted to log on is set aside as caribou habitat by the province. Other parts of the area have been set aside by the business itself for its value for protecting the integrity of their watershed.

_10B7864 Finished tongue and groove cedar ready for sale. Customers come right to the mill to select the product they want or can submit custom orders which the company can mill to the specifications set by the customer.

I will be returning to learn more about this inspiring project in the months to come. Stay tuned.

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Mountain Caribou Herds: A Single Organism

Mountain Caribou Herds: A Single Organism

text by Kim Shelton

Recently, I was listening to a podcast by Richard Nelson, a cultural anthropologist who studies human relationships with the natural world. He was recording in the midst of a great caribou migration up in Alaska.  As he spoke I could hear the clicking of their hooves and their grunting. His description was so vivid that it felt like I was there in his shoes, being overwhelmed by the smells and the vibration of the earth.  He said at one point that observing the caribou made him think that each individual caribou is really just a single cell in a bigger organism.  According to Nelson, so much of their existence and identity is wrapped up in being a part of the herd that when one gets separated it’s hardly even a caribou anymore.

Mountain Caribou don’t migrate vast distances like the Barren Ground Caribou do, but they are herd animals and they migrate through the elevations, up-and-down, twice a year. Listening to Nelson’s account, I recalled searching for the South Selkirk heard with Dave this summer, a group with only about thirteen individuals at the moment.  We were searching for them during the summer so we could get up into the mountains without the snow to impede us.  This is also the time of year that Mountain Caribou disperse to avoid predators, so they were extremely difficult to find.  As opposed to forming a cohesive unit like they would during the rut in the fall, these few animals were scattered across a patchwork quilt of clearcuts, highways, and intact subalpine forest. They were miles away from each other. Despite their being only thirteen caribou remaining, I wondered why they weren’t travelling together.  In a more stable population these Caribou would still be spread out, but would they be completely alone? To a caribou does thirteen even feel like a herd when the comparison is hundreds, even thousands?  How big must a herd be to have a gravitational pull on the individual to the whole?

_10B8486-HDR Sunrise over the Selkirk mountains in the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Darkwoods Conservation Area.
_10B8418 Kim Shelton bushwhacking through the southern Selkirks during our attempts to find sign of members of the South Selkirk Caribou herd.

Dave and I were invited to explore the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Darkwoods Conservation Area to search for signs of the South Selkirk herd. Several of the animals in this herd are fitted with GPS collars so wildlife managers can track their movements. Even knowing general locations where a caribou had been recently, in days of searching, we couldn’t even find fresh sign of a caribou from the herd, let alone see an actual animal. I thought about how it might feel to be an animal whose entire identity is dependent on the existence of the herd, and to be roaming the land alone.  What is a caribou without it’s herd? To me, it meant they were un-findable, invisible, seemingly mythical. It’s almost like they’re already gone.

I wonder about the South Selkirk Herd’s will to survive when they’re living life so far from their evolutionary blueprint—in such small numbers at the very southern tip of the caribou universe.  How much fight is in them, how much resilience is left as a single cell, disconnected from a greater organism?

This spring we will be headed out on another expedition to Mountain Caribou country, this time further north where populations are larger. Stay posted for updates on how these herds travel together and disperse.

MCP Field Notes: Visiting the Kennedy Siding Herd

MCP Field Notes: Visiting the Kennedy Siding Herd

Text by Marcus Reynerson

In late November 2015, Dave and I embarked on a short and spontaneous trip up to central British Columbia to search for mountain caribou in their early winter habitat. Many miles on the road, numerous podcasts, sub-freezing temperatures, and Coconut Cream Pie defined the contours of our journey to photograph Rangifer tarandus. We traveled to the northern extent of mountain caribou range in the Rocky Mountain Trench so we could catch a glimpse of the Kennedy Siding herd – a group of just under 50 animals that reside south of Mackenzie, BC.

_10B1870 Two bull’s from the Kennedy Siding herd sparing.
_MG_7683 A glimpse into fall field conditions for caribou and photographers alike. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.

In the heart of country dominated by the logging and pulp industry, Mackenzie was first settled in the mid 1960s after being established by British Columbia Forest Products. The town boasts itself as home to the “world’s largest tree crusher” – a massive mechanical beast, that proved to be inefficient and, by most accounts, inept in its bid to clear land when the massive Williston Reservoir was constructed adjacent to Mackenzie. While the piece of machinery itself – the Le Tourneau G175 – was, indeed, impressive at 175 tons, there was an air of awkward heaviness pervading an industry town existing specifically so people can pull up a forest like old carpet. A little online research led us to this meditative video of tree crushers doing what they do best (crushing trees). This is, perhaps, representative of the general headwind that the slim Kennedy Siding herd is facing as it tries to carve out an existence here.

_10B1526 Marcus Reynerson following the trail of several caribou through fresh snow.
_10B1536 Marcus Reynerson inspecting where a caribou dug through the shallow fall snow to access forage, in this case terrestrial lichens.
_MG_8280 Several members of the Kennedy Siding herd in the thick pine forest characteristic of their late fall-early winter habitat.

We were fortunate to visit with Doug Heard, a wildlife biologist from the University of Northern British Columbia, who helped us find the local herd in a large pine flat near Mackenzie. Doug is currently spearheading an experimental feeding program for the Kennedy-Siding herd, to see if this might increase the fitness and survival rates of members of this herd. While the long-term hopes of Caribou survival depend on far greater and more complex conservation issues – industrial logging, oil and gas extraction, winter recreation by humans in caribou habitat, and climate change – shorter-term “stop-gap” tactics are under way to help these animals hang on in the meantime. Doug has had his hands in many of these efforts, including maternity penning, predator control, and feeding regimes. It was a great pleasure and privilege to spend a few days with these animals and observe them. I’m grateful for Doug’s hard work and heart he is bringing to his work with the Kennedy-Siding herd.

_10B0239 Biologist Doug Herd helping us get oriented for our field trip at his home office in Prince George, BC.
P1090799 David Moskowitz braves a fall snow-storm to capture caribou photos. Photo by Marcus Reynerson.

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At Work In the Woods

At Work in the Woods

Small Scale Forestry in Northern California

Photos and text by David Moskowitz and Matt Nelson

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and drive north. 100 miles later you find yourself in the quiet old mill town of Annapolis, two hours and a world away from the international city spectacle that is San Francisco. Set back from the coast, away from California State Highway 1 and the tourist traffic which streams up and down it, Annapolis is a town that has about as much in common culturally with San Francisco as it does with Berlin—that is to say, not much. Hunting, fishing, mushroom picking, and pot gardening supplement the local economy and social hour conversations often return to the backwardness of Sacramento and Washington D.C. laws and regulations which seem to fit the tastes of an urban population more than the needs of rural people still trying to make a living off of the land.

Trimming the thick bark on the trunk before setting the face cut.Annapolis sits surrounded by steep sloped hills alternately cloaked with dense scrub, redwood, Douglas fir, and tanoak forests. Trees have been the heart of the town’s economy since its inception. The town’s first European-American settlers planted apple orchards, drying and shipping the fruit back to the eastern United States. Paired with the fruit trees was the tanoak bark industry. Annapolis is full of tanoak trees (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) which get their name from the high concentration of tannins in the bark. Tanoak bark was the mainstay of the leather tanning industry in the late 1800’s when Annapolis was established. Bark would be chopped off standing old growth trees and hauled out of the woods by horse drawn wagons. Amazingly, when some old time locals bought land that was mostly inland redwood, people laughed at them and said “there’s no tanoak on that land”.

The tanoak bark industry dwindled in the early 1900’s but in the middle of the twentieth century, Annapolis became a logging and mill town, growing with the boom in redwood logging which ultimately saw the destruction of all but a handful of old growth stands of these iconic trees found nowhere else in the world. With the liquidation of the old growth and increase in environmental regulations the local timber industry collapsed in the 1990’s. The lumber mill closed over a decade ago, leaving the town in a state of transition again, now away from forestry. Compared to its heyday, the town looks empty, comprised now mainly of people content to make a living doing odd jobs and eking out an existence in a backwater of our world’s globalized economy, along with a smattering of wealthy Californian’s from elsewhere looking for an escape from urban life.

Perhaps the most dangerous time for felling large trees, as the tree begins to lean as the back cut approaches the face cut. Josh prepares to step away quickly.

Amidst this change, Rogers and Son Forest Products has built a small 21st Century timber business based in Annapolis, diversified to meet the demands and resources available in the modern world. Specializing in small and custom jobs, Rogers and Son is known for the high quality of their work. Their projects span from small-scale timber harvest to forest road repairs for salmon habitat restoration, to firewood production. They do business in redwood burls, going into cut over lands and pulling out the massive oddly shaped stumps and shipping them off around the world where manufactures produce things such as dashboards for Rolls Royce, guitars, furniture and many other specialty items. Tanoak stands become firewood bundles purchased for $5 on the side of the road on the way to a family camping destinations along the coast. Tall straight-grained Douglas firs are trucked down to the port in Oakland where they are shipped out raw across the Pacific to Asia. Single redwood logs are custom harvested, delivered and installed for high-end landscaping and construction projects for wealthy Californians on the coast. You won’t find them on the internet. The company doesn’t have a website, succeeding on word of mouth jobs and the shrewd business sense of owner Darrel Rogers.

Regardless of the novel products and destinations the 21st century requires for a forestry company, the ongoing infatuation people have with wood products means that there is still work to be had in the woods around Annapolis for at least a few folks cutting trees. On a warm fall afternoon we joined timber feller Josh Spacek, and watched him drop 150 foot Douglas firs on a forested ranch just outside of Annapolis.

_MG_7641-12Josh was born and raised in this part of rural California. His grandfather was a logger and mill owner north of Annapolis in the coastal town of Manchester. His family emigrated from Wisconsin where some of the last big tree logging in the eastern United States happened. As the primevil forests of the upper Great Lakes disappeared, many logging families came to California for the promise of work in the logging camps. Josh loves these hills. He’s an avid deer hunter and steelhead fisherman. As tough as he is, he’ll leave a tree he’s supposed to cut if he sees a bird nest with eggs in it. He’s been falling timber for over a decade and before that he was a tree climber and trimmer. Now he’s known for being the best man to take down dangerous, difficult, and really big trees. He’s also a father of three little ones.

Running the saw blade down the trunk to save the energy of having to carry it. Behind him, Josh is running out a tape measure to determine where to section the trunk.

"Bucking the tree". Careful not to pinch his saw blade, Josh cuts the trunk into sections for transport.

While laws, ethics, and tools have evolved over the generations, its not just people’s love of wood products that persists but also the love and desire of some of us to work in the woods, carrying on a tradition that goes back thousands of years to the stone age, when humans hafted stone tools and employed careful burning to bring down big trees. Then as now, these trees produced everything from cooking utensils to homes. As Josh walks into the woods, a three-foot bar chainsaw over his shoulder and dog on his heels, behind him are generations of woods workers who did the same. What lies ahead for this profession is as uncertain as the future of towns like Annapolis.

_MG_7678-20

Bio

David Moskowitz is a photographer and biologist based in north-central Washington. He is the author and photographer of two books, Wolves in the Land of Salmon and Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.

Matt Nelson is a lifetime resident of Annapolis. He works in the logging and construction fields as well as in outdoor education, and wildlife conservation and research.

The whole process of gunning, felling, limbing and bucking the trunk took Josh about 15 minutes for this tree.

_10B7879-3Josh's dog Sis wanders the woods during the day while Josh fells trees.

MCP: Cowboy Coffee

Mountain Caribou Project presents: Cowboy Coffee

Everything you ever needed to know about making a really bad cup of coffee in the wilderness….and a little bit about endangered mountain caribou too!

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