MCP Field Notes: Cariboo Mountains

I made my furthest trip north for the project to explore a small corner of the Cariboo Mountains, just south of the town of Prince George, British Columbia. In these mountains and across the Rocky Mountain Trench, in the Hart Ranges, caribou numbers are fairing a bit better than further south. However, with lots of room to spread out in the summer across multiple vast mountain ranges, finding them this time of year proved to be a challenge. During the summer mountain caribou disperse across the subalpine forests of these mountains in order to reduce the chance of being detected by predators. This strategy apparently also works effective for avoiding curious humans as well!

_10B0132 Looking across the Rocky Mountain Trench at the Hart Mountains from the Cariboo Mountains. The Fraser River oxbows through the trench which divides these two mountain ranges.
_10B0483 Treeline meadows and ponds where I searched for caribou in the area.
_10B0505 The wet meadow system was miles from the closes road or trail. With huge amounts of inaccessible forested landscapes to spread out in, mountain caribou can seemingly disappear into these mountains.
_10B0164 A double rainbow at sunrise precedes a violent thunderstorm that rolled across the landscape shortly afterwards.
IMG_4128 The closest I came to caribou on my excursion–some old scats found while out exploring.
_MG_0426 I stumbled upon this little black bear while walking back to my truck at the end of a long day in the field.
_MG_0370 Mount Sir Alexander, 10,745 ft (3275m) towers above the peaks around it in the Canadian Rockies, across the Rocky Mountain trench from the Cariboo Mountains.

MCP: Logging in Mountain Caribou Habitat

The timber industry has been the backbone of the economy in most of the interior of British Columbia for several generations. Industrial scale logging is also the primary source of the majority of challenges facing Mountain caribou. Because of this, sorting out how to protect caribou habitat while at the same time dealing with the demands of the very powerful timber industry (and modern civilization for that matter) for lumber has been an especially challenging task in attempts to conserve and restore caribou populations.

_10B9872 A log truck carrying western red cedar logs out of the home range of the Columbia North Caribou herd, past a sign warning motorists to watch out for wildlife on the road.

How well this has been done varies in different locations around the province. A few thing are clear. Mountain caribou depend on low and middle elevation old growth forests for early winter habitat, and high elevation old growth for winter habitat. Clearcuts and early stages of forest regeneration are prime habitat for moose and deer which attract attention from wolves and mountain lions who then prey on caribou more often in landscapes with a large logging footprint in them. Logging roads become access routes for humans on snowmobile in the winter to areas that are sensitive for caribou who are easily displaced by human recreation activities in the winter. A large amount of habitat has been set aside for mountain caribou which has curtailed logging in some areas and road use restrictions have been put in place as well. However, logging of both old growth and second growth forests continue in mountain caribou habitat in some places.

_10B9787 Lumber yard in Revelstoke, British Columbia. The logging industry is a primary employer in much of the region.
210B9811-1 Mill worker on his way to work at the lumber mill in Revelstoke, British Columbia, a town where both timber and tourism are major and at times competing components of the economy. Mountain caribou conservation has put stresses on both in terms of restrictions on logging as well as the heliski and snowmobile recreation which are big business in the area.

British Columbia is the last place in the Pacific Northwest with significant stands of old growth forest still slatted for logging, both on the coast and in the interior. Conservation groups have used caribou protection as a tool to curtail logging in these ancient forests, much the spotted owl was used in the United States several decades ago—imperfectly in both cases. With caribou populations continueing to decline in much of their range logging interests have started looking at having these restrictions lifted once the caribou disappear from an area while conservation groups are looking at what might be the next lever for protecting whats left of this unique inland temperate rainforest.

_10B1642 A recently logged second growth forest in the Seymour River watershed. Industrial scale logging which employs large machinery to cut and remove logs often leaves a devastated appearing landscape behind, including lots of wood cut and left on the ground, to expensive to transport out for the value of what can be made from it.
_10B0105-HDR The likely destination of the logs cut in the landscape above. Stacked lumber with floating logs beyond them close to Salmon Arm, British Columbia
_10B9749 Kim Shelton takes in the grandeur of a remnant stand of old growth western red cedar close to Trout Lake British Columbia. How we as a society place value on forests and trees such as these is highly varied. Whether places such as this, and the animals such as mountain caribou whom depend on them, will continue to exist in any significant quantity for future generations to argue about seems tenuous at the moment.

MCP Field Notes: North Columbia Herd.

The town of Revelstoke, British Columbia sits on the banks of the Columbia River. North of town, on both banks of the reservoir created by the impounded Columbia lives the North Columbia caribou herd. This herd has been fairing better in the past several years than many of the herds further south. The reasons for this appear to include a collection of issues including habitat protections, limits on recreational impacts from snowmobiling and helicopter ski opporations and a drastic reduction in moose populations (through human hunting) which has lead to a natural decline in wolf populations and in turn less pressure on caribou. This herd has also been the focus of a program to pen some of the herd’s pregnant females during the spring and early summer. The females and their calves which were born in the protection of the pen are released in the midsummer where they rejoin the rest of the caribou in the wild. This project is in its second year (Learn more about it at Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild). I spent three days in the heart of their range for this herd in the mountains northwest of Revelstoke.

_10B0721 Looking out across the section of the Columbia Mountains I explored within the home range of the North Columbia Caribou herd.
_10B0706 Numerous sets of fresh caribou tracks in the area told me I was in the right spot. Pictured is the hind foot of a bull caribou. Caribou are the only native North American hoofed mammal to regularly show dewclaws (the marks behind the main cleaves, feral pigs found in many places, though none in caribou habitat, also often register their dewclaws), though they show up more regularly in the fronts than hinds.
_MG_0255 Early one morning, close to first light, I caught my first glimpse of a mountain caribou, a bull with antlers in velvet. Female caribou also have antlers, though smaller than the males, another unique feature of this species.
_10B0687 The subalpine landscape that caribou appear to prefer is one made of dense forests and wet meadows. This is a species that is definitely NOT afraid to get its feet wet.
IMG_3983 The older tracks of a grizzly bear warned me that these creatures might be in the area. I spotted a mom and cub in the morning twilight on the day after I spotted the caribou. They didn’t spot me as they crossed an opening in the forest but also didn’t linger long enough for me to capture a photo of them. Though intrigued, I choose not to follow them to see if I might get another chance to see them. A little ways on I discovered the fresh tracks of a bull moose and calf heading into the same section of forest. An interesting story might have unfolded between these mothers and children of two of North America’s most ornery large mammals. I left this one as another one of the many mysteries that these dark forests hold.

The mosquitos and black flies were atrocious.

Mountain Caribou Project: “The Wet Belt”

Inland Temperate Rainforest and Caribou

Mountain caribou have a distinctive migration pattern which involves moving up and down in elevation twice a year. In the late fall and early winter, as deep unconsolidated snows begin to blanket the higher elevations in the mountains, caribou head down in elevation and seek shelter and food in late successional western red cedar and western hemlock forests. These cedar-hemlock forests are amazingly similar to the rainforests found along the coast in the Pacific Northwest, creating a very unusual habitat–interior rainforest.

_10B9749 Kim Shelton marvels at ancient trees. Mature stands of western red cedar such as this one, have become very rare in mountain caribou habitat because of their valuable timber.
_10B9555 A much more common sight in the southern end of mountain caribou habitat. Over a century of logging have left the majority of low and mid-elevation temperate rainforests in a fragmented state with few late-successional stands left. These landscapes provide less food, less shelter and greater access to competitive ungulates and predators into caribou habitat. As caribou move into remnent patches of old trees they become more vulnerable to predators as compared to when they could spread out across a larger and less predator rich environment.

Subalpine Snow Forests

As the winter proceeds and the snowpack builds, caribou head up in elevation to mature stands of subalpine forest dominated by Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir where they feed almost exclusively on black tree lichen which grows on these trees close to treeline.

_10B8581 Kim Shelton reaches up toward the black tree lichen which grows along the trunk of this subalpine fir. The height of lichen growth indicates the approximate snowline in winters in these forests. Note that the lower portion of the tree has been scarred by a bear feeding on the inner-bark of the tree.
_MG_9884 Black tree lichen on a subalpine fir, the chief food item in the winter diet of mountain caribou.

Forests, caribou, and people in a changing climate

Climate change models predict significant changes to the landscapes that caribou call home–with potentially much warmer and drier summers being possibly the most significant change to these landscapes. The impacts of a changing climate on both caribou and humans, who also depend on these forests for water which produces huge amounts of hydro-power in the United States and Canada, and wood which is the chief driver of the economy in this part of Canada, is not precisely known. It appears safe to say that it will add additional stresses to both the human and caribou economy.

_10B9704-HDR Streams like this one coming out of Waldie lake in the southern Selkirks are feed by winter snowpack which provides defacto water storage for hydro-electric projects downstream. Climate models predict that this water storage service will be significantly reduced as the regional climate warms.

MCP Field Notes: A Day at Devils Hole

text by Kim Shelton, photos by David Moskowitz

Monday morning David and I connected with Dark Woods Preserve manager Adrian Leslie at a coffee shop in the town Salmo. He was incredibly helpful, gave us a map, a forest service road radio to help us not get run over by barreling logging trucks and and then a tour of promising locations on the preserve. We toured through the miles of gravel roads of the Dark Woods preserve, a chunk of land with prime caribou habitat segmented by private land running right through the middle and countless clear cuts.

_10B8243 A cloudy day on Devils Hole, a subalpine lake in the Dark Woods Preserve.

That afternoon we walked out to Devils Hole lake, a subalpine lake in a remote corner of the preserve, at the end of over 30 km of logging roads. We went hoping to find caribou sign. What we found was ironic: an animal even more rare than the 12 Caribou in the area. We laughed at the rarity of them, wolverine tracks dotted the shoreline of Devils Hole lake.

_10B8139 The track of a wolverine along the shore of Devils Hole.

A white tailed deer grazed in the meadow on the opposite side of the lake as we snuck through the forest along a well used bear trail. Grizzly and black bear tracks marked the ground as we stalked along, pausing for Dave to get some shots of the deer as the mosquitos marauded us and we donned our head nets. We eventually spooked the deer and moved into the meadow to search for caribou sign. Nothing but more bear sign. As we made our way back along the trail Dave excitedly motioned me forward to see “screaming fresh” bear scat – right on the path we walked to come this way. A moment later a crack of breaking branches on the hill! I became very aware of the location of my bear spray on my body. The bear didn’t show itself and we made our way back to the vehicle, pausing to dunk in the lake and ease the itching of mosquito bites all over our bodies.

_10B8183 Wet meadows at the upper end of Devil’s Hole. The scared tree in the foreground is a favorite marking post of the local bears.

We drove back to our camp spot, through the nature conservancy – clear cuts and logging roads–always conscious of any tracks in the road dust. An incredible day but no mountain caribou.

We set a camera trap close to Devils Hole which I will check in about a month. Stay tuned for results! We set a camera trap close to Devils Hole which I will check in about a month. Stay tuned for results!

 

Mountain Caribou Project: Darkwoods Conservation Area

The South Selkirks herd is the last group of mountain caribou that still range back and forth across the international border between British Columbia and Washington and Idaho. Just north of the border Canadian Highway 3 crosses the Selkirk mountains over Kootenay Pass, where occasionally caribou are spotted by passing motorists, in Stagleap Provincial Park.

_10B7869 Caribou crossing sign close to Kootenay Pass on Canada’s Highway 3.

North of Stagleap, the Nature Conservancy of Canada has acquired a large parcel of land with the intention of preserving and restoring vital habitat for this herd of mountain caribou–the Darkwoods Conservation Area. However, these mountains are far from pristine–both the provincial lands and the Darkwoods Conservation Area are crisscrossed with forestry roads, and clearcuts of all sizes and ages. In many drainages, it is only the upper ends of the basin that have been spared cutting at one point or another. The Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased a large tract of land that had been previously managed for timber production. Since its purchase, along with stopping all timber harvest in caribou habitat within the preserve and protecting the existing uncut forest stands, the Nature Conservancy has been deactivating roads in caribou habitat.

_10B8328-HDR Thunderstorm over the Darkwoods Conservation Area in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia
_10B8680 Stand of mature western red cedar and western hemlock preserved within the Darkwoods Conservation Area. Late successional stands such as this one are very rare in the southern Selkirks after decades of logging and fires at low and middle elevations in the region.

This landscape creates a maze of fragmented forest types for caribou to navigate while also leading to increased moose and deer populations at higher elevations. Kim Shelton joined me for a week to help search for caribou sign and carry photo equipment on ridiculous buggy bushwacks to several promising remote corners of these mountains. In a week of searching, location after location, where caribou where once abundant, we discovered the tracks and sign of moose, deer, and elk but the only tracks we found of caribou in a week of searching were a set of old tracks close to Kootenay Pass on Highway 3.

_10B8042 Linear features such as this road and power line corridor in the range of the Southern Selkirk herd, often act as routes for wolves, who hunt caribou, and humans, who’s presence can displace caribou, to access mountain caribou habitat.
_10B8026 Wolf tracks along the road running alongside the power line corridor. The province of British Columbia has carried out extensive predator control in this area, killing wolves from three different packs in an attempt to protect the remaining 13 caribou in the South Selkirks herd. These predator control efforts have been extremely contentious amongst various groups involved in caribou conservation.
_10B852 Porcupine Lake in the Darkwoods Conservation Area. The Nature Conservancy of Canada completely removed a road that had been built into this lake to reduce human access and increase the quality of habitat for caribou in this subalpine basin.
_10B8426 A large clearcut south of the Darkwoods Conservation Area, outside of the preserve on private timber land. The  Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased Darkwoods to protect quality caribou habitat from ending up looking like this.
_10B7832 The large round front print of a mountain caribou.
_10B8416 Kim Shelton plowing through the subalpine brush in the heavily forested Selkirk mountains searching for signs of one the remaining members of the Southern Selkirks caribou herd.
_10B9582 Sunset on the dark woods of the Darkwoods Conservation Area.

Mountain Caribou Project: The Adventure Begins

Tomorrow I embark on a month of travels through the interior of British Columbia to learn about and photograph the world of mountain caribou. The mountain caribou of British Columbia, Washington, and Idaho are one of the most southern herd of caribou found anywhere on earth and their continued existence is threatened by a myriad of conservation challenges. Follow along here and on my instagram feed to learn more about these beautiful and endangered throwbacks to the Pleistocene. Over the course of the month, besides exploring and photographing in caribou country, I will also be meeting with people involved in caribou conservation and scouting for future trips to the region to fully capture the story of mountain caribou and the wild lands they call home.  Below are a few photos of mine from past trips to mountain caribou country. Many more to follow!

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IMG_0033_2-1 Caribou country in northeastern Washington’s Selkirk mountains.

 

IMG_0117_2-1 Tracks of one of the members of the South Selkirks herd which travel back and forth across the USA-Canada border.
IMG_0108_2-1 Caribou trail in the Selkirk mountains of southern British Columbia.
IMG_0410_2-1-3 Grizzly bear tracks just north of the Washington-British Columbia border. Grizzly bears are also a sensitive species in much of this region. Over the next month I will be exploring and documenting the ecology of caribou and how they interact with the mountains they call home, the other wildlife they share the landscape with, and the people that live, work, and play in caribou country.
_10B5020 Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. Mountain caribou populations are being closely monitored in even large wilderness landscapes such as in the Canadian Rockies.

Study Up! Learn more about mountain caribou here:

To learn more about the life history and conservation challenges of mountain caribou check out these websites as well:

 

 

 

Trailing Black Bears in the North Cascades

This spring I spent a week out in the field with several colleagues from Cybertracker Conservation honing our tracking and trailing skills following the trails of black bears on the western slope of the North Cascades. I put together a brief video describing the art of trailing and documenting some of what we discovered on our adventures in the temperate rainforest.

Interested in learning to trail bears and other wildlife? I offer custom classes in a wide variety of tracking subjects, including wildlife trailing.

Winter Mountaineering? Triple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak

The Pacific Northwest’s mild winter has created early spring conditions in the mountains–a more stable snowpack up high and little snow at lower elevations making access to the high country easier. This weekend Cam Alford and I trekked into the edge of the Enchantment range in Washington’s North Cascades to take a crack at the classic alpine mountaineering route Triple Couloirs. The route is one of several that ascends the northwest face of Dragontail Peak.

IMG_2107 Dragon tail Peak in the moonlight. The Triple Couloirs route starts in the obvious snow gully around the center of the face. Note the headlamps on the right side of the face. From our camp on the lake we watched a party retreat off of the face via multiple rappels in the dark.
IMG_2078 Cam Alford making his bed for our brief evening at Colchuck Lake, using our climbing rope as part of his mattress.
IMG_2114 Inspecting equipment for our early morning start.
IMG_2120 In the moonlight, Cam makes coffee for our pre-dawn start.
IMG_2145 After we left camp at 5 am, unfortunately, my camera stayed tucked in my pack until high up on the route as we navigated three pitches of ice and the first two couloirs. After safely navigating into the third couloir, with all of the significant technical obstacles behind us I snapped a few shots. Here Cam ascends steep snow towards the bottom of the third couloir.

IMG_2167

IMG_2181 Close to the summit of the Triple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak, Cam Alford looks out over the snow covered North Cascades.

A strait forward descent around the backside of the mountain brought us back to our camp and several grueling hours of hiking on a very icy trail and gated road got us back to our car and the end of 14 hours of almost continuous movement. Beers and burgers in Leavenworth shortly there after–sorry no photos of that either.

 

 

Time Lapse: 1,200 miles in the tracks of a lone wolf

With over half a year gone by since we completed the OR7 Expedition, our team has been busy working on the educational products which were a key motivator to take on the expedition to begin with. We have been delivering slideshows up and down the west coast and abroad (for a list of upcoming events I am speaking at click here, and for a complete list of all events by all our team members click here).

Reflections on the journey

The fact that OR7 found a mate and has produced a litter of pups in southwestern Oregon, well over 200 miles from the closest know breeding population of wolves demonstrates the amazing capacity for wolves to reestablish themselves in areas they have been absent from for decades. It also speaks to the excellent habitat condition for wolves which currently exist across much of the west including large sections of northern California. As has been made clear, in studies from around the globe, that large terrestrial carnivores play important roles ecologically in the natural systems they inhabit–especially in concert with each other. The re-establishment of wolves in parts of California, alongside the existing recovered populations of mountain lions and black bears in the state, would be a very real step forward towards creating more diverse, resilient, and self-regulating wildlife populations and biological communities in parts of California where humans have significantly altered the landscape through removal of some species and heavy management of others.

Wildlife and wild land conservation in the 21st century

The world is a very different place now than it was in the early 1900’s when the last wolves were being extirpated from the west coast. Human populations have shifted away from rural areas towards urban centers. Even in the last 50 years, since our society adopted the concept of protecting wild landscapes in the form of Wilderness, the world has shifted greatly. OR7 shows the scale at which we need to think about conservation and co-existance. Wolves speak to the very real limitations of Wilderness preservation. As we have begun to understand how interconnected ecological processes are we have learned about the vulnerability and ineffectiveness of islands of protected Wilderness. Conservation in the 21st century must look at protecting and restoring broad connected landscapes. With such a broad perspective on the types of lands that need to be incorporated into conservation planning, its impossible to consider removing human uses from all these areas. Because of this, modern conservation needs to take a hard look at the human-nature dichotomy which was enshrined in the Wilderness Act and move towards an appreciation that humans and human uses are part of the natural world. Rather than isolation of our impacts from nature and maintaining space for wild things like wolves in places far from where most people live, the way forward must be one of intermingled uses. A modern wolf like OR7 has learned to deal with a landscape covered with roads, high speed traffic, industrial scale agriculture and forestry. Similarly modern humans need to learn how to share the landscape once again with large carnivores, wild rivers, unmanaged forests, and landscapes with both the capacity to feed us, and preserve the diversity of life on which we as a species ultimately depend.

Expedition Time Lapse Video

Here is a time lapse of the entire Wolf OR7 Expedition created by my team member Jay Simpson and set to an original poem of another team member Galeo Saintz. Enjoy!

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