Bull mountain caribou – Photo by NCC
Credit: Bull mountain caribou – Photo by NCC

I had a conversation recently with a scientist that sent a chill down my spine.

Chris Johnson, a University of Northern BC biologist, is the lead author of a paper called Witnessing Extinction, which was published in April of 2015 in the journal Biological Conservation. In the study, he and his co-researchers closely examined five sub-populations of BC’s embattled mountain caribou in northeast Peace River country, and concluded, “At current rates of habitat loss and population decline, these caribou are unlikely to persist.” Furthermore this extinction event would represent, “The first empirically documented extinction of a mammalian designated unit in Canada,” Johnson wrote. 

In other words, it will be the first distinct population of a mammal in Canada for which, should it disappear as current trends suggest it will, scientists will be able to say they documented its downward spiral from healthy and sustainable to extinction in a relatively short span of time. Extinction, as in vanished from the Earth.

This latter point struck me in a profound way. Mountain caribou are a subspecies of woodland caribou that have evolved to occupy high-elevation old-growth forests, where they subsist on arboreal lichen. It’s a very tight and specific ecological niche that we now know leaves little wiggle room for this ungulate in terms of adapting to human disturbance. The predator-prey dynamic has been altered by decades of rapacious clear-cut logging, road building, power-line construction, mining and other types of industrial economic activity. Moose and other ungulates are drawn to stands of young second-growth forest rich in browsing opportunities, in turn attracting predators like wolf and cougar. Consequently, mountain caribou, people-shy and extremely sensitive to habitat disturbance, have been shoehorned into ever smaller fragmented habitats, where recreational pursuits like heli-skiing, snowmobiling and ATVing are known to further add to the stresses already faced by this animal. 

The plight of mountain caribou is, in many ways, an old story. The federal government’s Species at Risk Act listed mountain caribou as threatened, and in 2007, BC launched the Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan, aimed at restoring the estimated total current provincewide population of 1,500 mountain caribou to pre-1993 numbers of 2,500. So far, the government has made considerable progress on the habitat front, protecting more than two million hectares from logging and road-building and another 1.2 million hectares from motorized recreation. Despite these measures, certain caribou populations continue to decline; at last count the South Selkirks herd, another one on the edge, had dwindled to a mere 18 individuals.

So the BC government, in an act of desperation to save this ungulate, has institutionalized a practice that has been underway for many decades in Canada: the killing of wolves that naturally prey on mountain caribou. Last year, government-hired sharpshooters shot 85 wolves, but who knows how many were actually killed by hunters and ranchers, many of whom consider wolves a threat or a nuisance. This publicly unpopular and emotionally charged policy has garnered worldwide attention and criticism. Oddly, there is little in the way of sound science to suggest that shooting wolves will save caribou. In fact, there’s even some evidence that disruption of complex wolf pack social dynamics could actually disperse individual, or lone, wolves wider across the landscape and lead to even more predation. The BC government even questions the wolf cull as a caribou conservation measure in the Wolf Management Plan, the very policy paper that enshrines the kill. Still, the government forges ahead with the wolf kill. As Ian McAllister, longtime Great Bear Rainforest activist and author of The Last Wild Wolves, told me: “Nobody wants to be environment minister in BC when mountain caribou go extinct.” Indeed, that would be a stain on any politician’s resume.

Johnson, from UNBC, believes killing wolves will, at best, be a short-term solution to mountain caribou decline. Without some very hard landscape-scale decisions about where we log, mine, build dams and recreate, he says it will all be for naught and mountain caribou will go the way of the proverbial dodo bird. 

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, half of the world’s 5,491 known mammals are declining in number; one-fifth are in danger of disappearing forever. We as a society face a troubling dilemma that boils down to how much economic activity and opportunity are we willing to forgo to save threatened species? Will we make concerted and profound adjustments to the way we live upon the land, or simply let the mountain caribou—or the hundreds of other mammals worldwide—vanish forever? Or even worse, will we resort to killing one animal to save another? I’m afraid we’ll face such moral and ethical questions with increasing regularity and when the costs/benefits are weighed, some species won’t make the cut. Our inaction will be like signing a species’ death certificate. 

Animals have an intrinsic and ecological value that doesn’t factor easily into such socio-economic calculations. I have visited places many times where large mammals have been nearly, if not entirely, extirpated. Developed countries like Germany; so densely populated and industrialized that seeing a predator in the wild would be like winning the wildlife lottery (no wonder Germans flock to Canada for the sometimes life-altering experience of witnessing a fully functioning ecosystem of predator and prey). I’ve also spent time in countries like Guatemala or El Salvador, where the effects of human poverty and desperation, war and official corruption have driven most mammals off the map. There is something profoundly empty and ecologically bankrupt about such landscapes. It’s similar to the ghostly feeling you’d get stumbling across on old trapper’s cabin that had been suddenly abandoned, but with its rudimentary contents left in place. One of the reasons I go on outdoor adventures is to feel the buzz of a wilderness that is alive and humming: to see wolf tracks in the intertidal mud of a coastal estuary, to watch a wolverine effortlessly scale a glacier and disappear into the valley beyond, or see the warm breath of a bull moose condensing on a cold winter morning. 

In Canada—and in BC particularly, with its astonishing diversity of landscape and associated species—we have an opportunity, or rather an obligation, to do our utmost to preserve mammalian species. But it is far from an enviable task for any politician in the position of having to balance corporate pressure and interests with critical conservation concerns like the mountain caribou, which will be a litmus test of our commitment to save a species. It can also be a strangely abstract pursuit; advocating for the conservation of an animal that most of us will never see. However, for me, simply knowing that mountain caribou are still out there, and hopefully one day thriving again, is reward enough.