Watch the full Wolf OR7 Expedition Documentary.
Text by Kim Shelton. Photos by David MoskowitzDay 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
Just a few days ago I my team and I stepped off the trail, at the end of over a month of biking and hiking at the southern end of wolf OR7's current home range. Over the weeks prior we traversed over 1000 miles on foot and bike, retracing the route this wolf took dispersing from where it was born in the Wallawa mountains of northeastern Oregon to northern California and back up into southwestern Oregon. Along the way we met numerous fascinating people whom live, work, and play in the landscapes OR7 traversed, observed bountiful wildlife, slept out under the stars and tried to experience the lands we passed through as the wolf might have.
With the expedition complete the team is now turning its attention to production of a wide variety of educational materials to help share the stories from our trip and create a forum for community dialogue around coexistence with large carnivores. Read more about the details of our trip and forthcoming materials at or7expedition.org.
This winter I have been running remote cameras of mine, and assisting the Ray Robertson and the United States Forest Service with the deployment of several others in various locations around the Methow Valley here in north central Washington. Remote cameras are considered a non-invasive research method, as they provide a means to monitor wildlife without having to handle or even directly observe them. Remote cameras greatly increases the amount of time we can monitor a location and also reduces our impact on the species we are studying by limiting the amount of time we are actually in the field in their habitat. Remote cameras, if set thoughtfully can also provide beautiful images that both document various species of wildlife while also illustrating their relationship to their environment and each other. Here is some of what we have been finding this winter here on the eastern slope of the North Cascades.
Productive remote camera traps aren't just created by sticking a camera up just anywhere in the woods. It requires careful observation of tracks and signs, knowledge of the target species biology and ecology, how to use natural and imported attractants, as well as specific tricks on how to get the most out of the equipment you are using in the field. Click here to learn more about remote cameras and other non-invasive wildlife research methods. David Moskowitz provides custom trainings on many of these methods and consulting services for projects looking to employ them effectively and efficiently in the field.
On November 21, I joined Radio West, a weekday radio show of KUER 90.1, a Utah based public radio station to talk about the historical and current role of wolves in the American west. Listen to the full show here: Return of the Wolves
Northwest Connections is an innovative organization which runs a variety of biological monitoring, conservation, and educational programs all revolving around the unique and wild landscape of the Swan Valley in northwestern Montana where they are based. In April, I delivered a Cybertracker Conservation Track and Sign Certification Event for them. A very talented group endured challenging field conditions (including about 5 inches of fresh snow Saturday night and Sunday!) and everyone in the group earned a Certificate. My friend and colleague Emily Gibson came along to take some photographs and I am grateful to her for sharing a number of the images for this post!
Level 2 Certificates Awarded: Jim Quinn, Trenton Harper, Scott Tomson, Andrea Stephens
Level 3 Certificates Awarded: Cassie March, Luke Lamar, Lara Arvidson, Mike Stevenson, Alissa Anderson, Rebekah Rafferty
For a complete list of certified trackers in North America visit trackercertification.com
Congratulations to all 11 folks who participated in the Track and Sign Certification Event in wild Swan Valley of northwestern Montana this past weekend, all of whom earned a certificate through Cybertracker Conservation!The event was hosted by Northwest Connections in the very quiet town of Condon. It was great getting to know more about this creative and inspiring organizaiton whose mission to "Integrate Science, Education and Community in the Conservation of Rural Working Landscapes". I highly recommend any and all of the various educational opportunities they have to offer and hope to be back there soon! A special thanks also to Nick Sharp, Wildlife Conservation Society Biologist, and Doctoral student at the University of Montana, who organized the event (and put in a stellar performance on the Evaluation!)Over the course of the two days of the Evaluation, participants were given 70 different questions about tracks and signs discovered in the field. Species varied from voles to grizzly bears and the handiwork of everything from a bushytailed woodrat to a backhoe. Along with covering as diverse a set of tracks and signs as is possible over two days, the evaluation includes questions ranging from very simple (such as a clear deer track) to very challenging (such as interpreting the behavior of an elk which had scraped bark off of the trunk of an aspen with its incisors). For more information on Cybertracker Conservation Wildlife Tracking Evaluation methods click here.
Here are photos of some of the things that were on the Evaluation and the questions about them. All questions are based on actual tracks and signs discovered in the field by evaluators during the Evaluation. After all of the participants have the opportunity to answer each question, the track or sign is discussed as a group and the evaluators carefully explain the correct answer and discuss why it could or could not be various other species, often using illustrations and other resources to help illustrate key features.
Interested in participating in a Certification Event or hosting one? Find a list of future events I am running at davidmoskowitz.net. Our North American website for all Tracking Certification events is currently underconstruction. Send me an email if you want to discuss details on hosting an event or links to Certification Events in other parts of the country!
Just home from a week and a half of adventuring in northern Wisconsin where I participated in a collaboration between Teaching Drum Outdoor School and Wilderness Awareness School on Wisconsin Wolf Tracking Expedition, joined by former Wilderness Awareness School Instructor and founder of the Earth Native Wilderness School, David Scott. Teaching Drum hosted the program which was held very close to the School's home base near the town of Three Lakes, Wisconsin. Despite unseasonably warm conditions on several of the days and a lack of fresh snow for the first half of the class, snow conditions allowed us to peice together some amazing stories about the wolves of the region and the other wildlife that share the North Woods with them.
Spent 4 of the last 5 nights out in the field, attaining a sense of oneness with the river, the tides, the migrating salmon, the moss and lichen cloaked trees of the rainforest, the bloodthirsty blackflies, and the ever present aroma of rotting fish carcasses--the good life. Several interesting encounters with wolves which I'm sure will make it into the book.Flying south tomorrow and home the day after. Now that all the field work is completed, I reckon I'll be chained to my computer for the next month and half writing. Don't think I'll be posting daily updates.
Heavy fog slowed our arrival at field sight. We likely scared them out of the stream when we showed up. Found a ton of headless salmon and a couple laying the grass still flopping. Got a few images of one animal. Heading back out this evening to camp for a few nights in an attempt to be out there at first light without disturbing them! Wish me luck! May be a few days before my next post.A raven taunts a wolf in morning fog.
Well, we were right to be hopeful. The wolves came. And the wolves caught and ate salmon. Right in the stream in front of the blind were we were set up to photograph. During the night between when we left at sundown and before we arrived at first light. We did watch one wolf skirt the edge of the meadow we are set up on later in the morning but didn't take any photographs.When we left the pink salmon were literally streaming into the mouth of the creek on the rising tide so we will see what tomorrow holds!
Rain, wind and looming deadline for three chapters of writing kept me in yesterday. Today Doug and I spent most of the day in the location we photographed the pups a week ago. Tons of pinks in the river and we heard howling just as we were packing up to leave at dark. Optimistic about tomorrow!Find out more about my project on Wolves in the Pacific Northwest!
Got 18 species on my bird list for the day including two new ones for the life list, a Black Turnstone and a Surf Bird. Lots of salmon in the streams we visited but the wolves have continued to be scarce.
A beautiful morning on the same stream I've been at for the past several days. The only wildlife activity was a tiny shrew that scampered in front of my small blind before disappearing into the tall grass. No salmon in the section of stream I was set up on today. Doug's dad, a commercial fisherman had a slightly better catch today, (about 26,000 pounds of salmon better) so I won't be going hungry tonight.
Spent much of the day back in the same location as yesterday. No wolf activity but the ravens and eagles where quite active further upstream. After three hours of sitting in my makeshift blind I wandered upstream to see what was so interesting and discovered the remains of about a dozen coho that had been killed by wolves the day before (likely around the time we were photographing the pups).For some more images of the area check out the awesome photos of Douglas Brown at his website: www.douglasjbrown.com
More info on my project at: davidmoskowitz.blogspot.com/2010/03/wolves-of-pacific-northwest.html
Doug and I walked into a area where he has found wolves fishing for salmon in past years to see if there were fish running in the stream yet. Apparently we weren't the only one's curious about it!
We discovered a stream in an inlet northeast of Bella Bella today in which the chum salmon have started moving into and spawning. Along the banks close to the mouth we also discovered about a half dozen carcasses that had been fed on by wolves and a couple of fresh scats.
Learn more about my project Wolves in the Pacific Northwest.