Guest blog post by Marcus Reynerson; photography by David Moskowitz
Marcus Reynerson joined me for a week and a half on the Mountain Caribou Project in the Columbia mountains and Rocky mountains last month. Here are a the first of his reflections from our time in the field.–DM
Humans. Sometimes I find myself so unimpressed. After driving kilometer upon kilometer of BC logging roads though a clear-cut landscape, parts of which were old-growth inland temperate rainforest just 5 years ago, I could not escape my disappointment with Homo sapiens. It boggles my mind to think about how often we accept and value short-term gains at the cost of our long-term future. At the cost of our health, our children’s health, and the health of the planet that gives us life. The more blunt thought that pervaded my travels: “We are just a bunch of dumb apes.”
Dave and I were on the trail to find sign – and eventually a live sighting hopefully – of the elusive mountain caribou. Dave was in the field for almost three weeks when I joined him in the Columbia mountains of southern British Columbia. Mountain caribou have developed a survival strategy that is based on being extremely hardy. Basically, they’ve adapted to thrive in environments that are marginal at best for other similar species. Unfortunately, Humans have heavily encroached upon an already hard-pressed landscape. Places ideal for these caribou to call home are dwindling at a precipitous rate. Climate change is taking a strong toll. As the temperature warms, plant communities and ecology are rapidly changing. In some places, the moist cool sub-alpine meadows that have historically supported caribou are disappearing as they become more forested. Overharvesting of timber is creating habitat amenable to deer, elk and moose, which bring predators that are following these ungulates into closer contact with caribou.
It was an incredible tension that I felt cruising the logging roads of British Columbia. For some reason, the province is still harvesting old-growth trees. I found myself incredulous that this was happening still in 2015. The valleys where caribou call home are so beautiful, while at the same time so sad and tragic. Such beauty and devastation all in one place, as far as the eye could see. I’m excited to dig deeper into this story. And I’m also nervous. While it’s a story about the Mountain caribou, it’s also a story about humans. I’m so impressed with the former. At this point I can’t say the same about the latter. More thoughts to come…
When Marcus Reynerson isn’t waxing philosophical on the role of humans and caribou in the world, he is the coordinator of the Anake Outdoors School at Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall Washington.
After 28 days searching for mountain caribou, exploring the places they call home, or have recently disappeared from, here is a summary of some of what I discovered:
Caribou do not mind getting their feet wet, and you better not either if you want to go where they go.
If you are in mountain caribou habitat, there is a pretty good chance you are either getting harassed by mosquitos, enduring a cold wet summer storm, or both.
There are a lot of long logging roads in western Canada and if you are going to find mountain caribou, it will likely be all the way at the end of them, where clear cuts give way to the last stands of uncut forest at the tops of mountain valley and along ridge-lines.
The threats to mountain caribou are varied across their range and even huge national parks and provincial preserves are not necessarily effective by themselves to protect these animals.
Climate change is here now.The effects of climate change are readily apparent already in many places where mountain caribou live.
Doing nothing is doing something, but perhaps not the something we want to do. Without landscape level conservation measures and ongoing agressive management of caribou and other species of wildlife caribou are ecologically connected to, mountain caribou will likely disappear very soon from much of their current range, as they already have from many places they recently existed. Much of this management is controversial and/or highly invasive to the wildlife and the humans who live, work, and play in caribou habitat including things like culling moose and deer populations, killing entire packs of wolves, landscape scale cessation of logging and or oil and gas mining activity which is the basis of the regional economy, restrictions on winter recreation activities, also an important regional revenue stream.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.