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.

 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.

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.

 Log truck carrying old growth logs into the lumber mill in Revelstoke British Columbia.

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.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

 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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

Big Cats, Big Roads, and Beachfront: Out and About with the Santa Cruz Puma Project

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In February I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in the field with the Santa Cruz Puma Project, an ongoing research program based out of University of California Santa Cruz. Along with learning about the general biology and ecology of mountain lions, researchers and graduate students are looking specifically at how these large cats interact with human populations, neighborhoods, and roads.

 The San Francisco Bay area is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States but still includes a matrix of open spaces and wild lands that mountain lions have managed to carve out an existence in.

The San Francisco Bay area is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States but still includes a matrix of open spaces and wild lands that mountain lions have managed to carve out an existence in.

 The primary study area for the project is the Santa Cruz mountains which run south from San Francisco. Plant communities range from redwood forests to arid chaparral and oak woodlands.

The primary study area for the project is the Santa Cruz mountains which run south from San Francisco. Plant communities range from redwood forests to arid chaparral and oak woodlands.

 On the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz mountains, residential areas intermix with parklands and forested mountains creating a fragmented landscape that mountain lions travel through carefully.

On the eastern edge of the Santa Cruz mountains, residential areas intermix with parklands and forested mountains creating a fragmented landscape that mountain lions travel through carefully.

 In order to get detailed information on the movements of mountain lions, the project live captures mountain lions and attaches a GPS collar to them.

In order to get detailed information on the movements of mountain lions, the project live captures mountain lions and attaches a GPS collar to them.

 Hounds are used to track the cat which typically climb a tree to evade the dogs. Researchers can anesthetize the mountain lion, give it a physical exam and secure a radio collar to the cat. Here roundsman Dan Tichenor  has just released one of his hounds on the fresh trail of a mountain lion.

Hounds are used to track the cat which typically climb a tree to evade the dogs. Researchers can anesthetize the mountain lion, give it a physical exam and secure a radio collar to the cat. Here roundsman Dan Tichenor  has just released one of his hounds on the fresh trail of a mountain lion.

 Treed mountain lion in a Pacific madrone tree.

Treed mountain lion in a Pacific madrone tree.

 Besides a GPS unit, the collars also include a radio signal transmitter which researchers can use to get close enough to the cat to wirelessly download data from the collar. Other collars have a transmitter which allows GPS data to be transmitted via cell service. All of the lions in the project with these collars are currently on a family plan I was told (seriously!). Here wildlife biologist Paul Houghtaling is attempting to locate a collared cat in a large stand of redwood trees.

Besides a GPS unit, the collars also include a radio signal transmitter which researchers can use to get close enough to the cat to wirelessly download data from the collar. Other collars have a transmitter which allows GPS data to be transmitted via cell service. All of the lions in the project with these collars are currently on a family plan I was told (seriously!). Here wildlife biologist Paul Houghtaling is attempting to locate a collared cat in a large stand of redwood trees.

 Once the data has been collected from the collar’s the detailed geographic information collected can be used to address a wide variety of research questions.

Once the data has been collected from the collar’s the detailed geographic information collected can be used to address a wide variety of research questions.

 One big question that the project is studying is about the diet of mountain lions and specifically where on the landscape they are hunting in relationship to various habitat types and levels of human presence on the landscape. Here field technician Chris Fust has used information from a collared cat to discover the remains of a deer killed by the mountain lion.

One big question that the project is studying is about the diet of mountain lions and specifically where on the landscape they are hunting in relationship to various habitat types and levels of human presence on the landscape. Here field technician Chris Fust has used information from a collared cat to discover the remains of a deer killed by the mountain lion.

 Another topic of great interest to the project and numerous other conservationists in the area are the effects of roads and highways on mountain lions ability to move around the region. I spent a day out in the field with Tanya Diamond (pictured here) and Ahiga Snyder from  Pathways For Wildlife  whom are studying wildlife crossings of numerous roads in the region.

Another topic of great interest to the project and numerous other conservationists in the area are the effects of roads and highways on mountain lions ability to move around the region. I spent a day out in the field with Tanya Diamond (pictured here) and Ahiga Snyder from Pathways For Wildlife whom are studying wildlife crossings of numerous roads in the region.

 Researcher Ahiga Snyder servicing a remote camera at a break in a fence adjacent to Highway 1 which wildlife have been using to access the roadway.

Researcher Ahiga Snyder servicing a remote camera at a break in a fence adjacent to Highway 1 which wildlife have been using to access the roadway.

 Sunset over the Pacific Ocean from Wilder State Park just north of Santa Cruz California. Stunning natural beauty has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the San Francisco Bay area for decades creating the current challenges the region is facing to conserve local wild lands and wildlife but also a human population deeply invested in the outcome.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean from Wilder State Park just north of Santa Cruz California. Stunning natural beauty has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the San Francisco Bay area for decades creating the current challenges the region is facing to conserve local wild lands and wildlife but also a human population deeply invested in the outcome.

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A Taste of the Canadian Rockies

Banff, Jasper, and Kootenay National Parks

This July I made my first trip to the heart of the Canadian Rockies, having previously only been as far north as Waterton National Park along the Canadian-United States boarder. Joined by fellow adventurer Marcus Reynerson, we departed Seattle on a sunny Thursday, bound for some of the tallest and grandest mountains in North America.

 The Kootenay River flows from the crest of the Rockies through Kootenay National Park to the west, its waters eventually joining the Columbia River and heading to the Pacific Ocean.

The Kootenay River flows from the crest of the Rockies through Kootenay National Park to the west, its waters eventually joining the Columbia River and heading to the Pacific Ocean.

 The massive peaks and glacier dwarf a canoe on Lake Louis, one of the most popular destinations in Banff National Park. Later in my trip I was joined by several family members who dealt admirably with my camera affliction, including here while on Lake Louis.

The massive peaks and glacier dwarf a canoe on Lake Louis, one of the most popular destinations in Banff National Park. Later in my trip I was joined by several family members who dealt admirably with my camera affliction, including here while on Lake Louis.

Wildlife of the Canadian Rockies in Banff and Jasper National Parks

Marcus and I spent a number of days exploring alpine tundra, high mountain meadows, wetlands and riparian corridors searching for tracks and signs of wildlife. Highlights included signs of black and grizzly bears, Canadian lynx, and lots of moose and elk sign. Feeding sign of several species of woodpeckers was another highlight in the dense spruce-fir forests which dominated much of the lower elevations of the mountains.

 This distinctive pattern on a lodgepole pine is the work of a red-napped sapsucker which drills into the bark to get the tree to exude sap. This sap attracts insects which the sapsucker returns to feed on. Jasper National Park, Alberta.

This distinctive pattern on a lodgepole pine is the work of a red-napped sapsucker which drills into the bark to get the tree to exude sap. This sap attracts insects which the sapsucker returns to feed on. Jasper National Park, Alberta.

Hoary marmot in Banff National Park

A hoary marmot scampers along an alpine ridge. Banff National Park.

 
Bighorn Sheep Ram

A mature bighorn sheep ram lifts his head to pick up scents on the wind. Jasper National Park, Alberta.

 
Clarke's nutcracker

Clarke’s nutcrackers are ubiquitous in the subalpine forests of the Canadian Rockies. Related to crows and jays, these intelligent birds often linger where people are abundant, hoping to score a free meal.

 
American pika

Likely the Rockies cutest mammal inhabitant, an American pika feeds on subalpine plants on the edge of an old glacial moraine. Pika are the mountain specialists of the rabbit family. Banff National Park, Canada.

 

Road Ecology and Wildlife Crossing Structures in Banff National Park

Given my involvement in an ongoing research project on wildlife and road ecology in the Washington Cascades (Cascade Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project), I was very excited to check out the crossing structures and fencing along Canadian Highway 1 which runs through the Bow River Valley in the heart of Banff National Park. The design of these structures was ground breaking work for the field and much of the design of our project in the Cascades was deeply influenced by this project.

Highway Crossing strucuture for wildlife

A number of crossing structures both over and under the TransCanadian Highway in Banff National Park allow wildlife to cross the highway and decrease the risk of wildlife getting hit by vehicles along the highway. Highways such as this can be a major obsticle to movement of many species across the landscape.

 

Fencing to keep wildlife off of the road along with crossing structures such as this wildlife overpass are part of contemporary efforts to reduce the impacts of roads on wildlife movement in critical habitat. Canadian Highway 1 in the Bow Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta.

 

Astounding mountain scenery

Find a few more images from my trip to the Canadian Rockies in my photography galleries.

Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park.

Still water reflects the evening light and mountains above Maligne Lake. Jasper National Park, Alberta.