MCP: Logging in Mountain Caribou Habitat

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.

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.

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.

Lumber yard in Revelstoke, British Columbia. The logging industry is a primary employer in much of the region.

Lumber yard in Revelstoke, British Columbia. The logging industry is a primary employer in much of the region.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The likely destination of the logs cut in the landscape above. Stacked lumber with floating logs beyond them close to Salmon Arm, British Columbia

The likely destination of the logs cut in the landscape above. Stacked lumber with floating logs beyond them close to Salmon Arm, British Columbia

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.

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.

Looking out across the section of the Columbia Mountains I explored within the home range of the North Columbia Caribou herd.

Looking out across the section of the Columbia Mountains I explored within the home range of the North Columbia Caribou 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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: Darkwoods Conservation Area

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

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

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.

Thunderstorm over the Darkwoods Conservation Area in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia

Thunderstorm over the Darkwoods Conservation Area in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The large round front print of a mountain caribou.

The large round front print of a mountain caribou.

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.

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.

Sunset on the dark woods of the Darkwoods Conservation Area.

Sunset on the dark woods of the Darkwoods Conservation Area.

Mountain Caribou Project: The Adventure Begins

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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!

Caribou country in northeastern Washington’s Selkirk mountains.

Caribou country in northeastern Washington’s Selkirk mountains.

Tracks of one of the members of the South Selkirks herd which travel back and forth across the USA-Canada border.

Tracks of one of the members of the South Selkirks herd which travel back and forth across the USA-Canada border.

Caribou trail in the Selkirk mountains of southern British Columbia.

Caribou trail in the Selkirk mountains of southern British Columbia.

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.

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.

Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. Mountain caribou populations are being closely monitored in even large wilderness landscapes such as in the Canadian Rockies.

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: