British Columbia May Kill Cougars, Wolves for Caribou Recovery

By Neville Judd

VICTORIA, British Columbia, Canada, October 25, 2006 (ENS) – A new government plan to save British Columbia’s threatened mountain caribou involves moving some predators and killing others. Critics say the government is scapegoating predators and a moratorium on logging plus habitat restoration in clearcut areas would do more for caribou recovery.

A team of scientists recommends killing the predators. In a provincial government Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan released Tuesday, the scientists suggest "more liberal hunting of cougars and wolves, as well as black bears. The targeted removal of individuals [cougars] or packs [wolves] would also be required in some areas."

The recommendations are the result of nearly two years of research on mountain caribou in British Columbia by a team of independent mountain caribou experts from BC, Alberta and Idaho.

"Based on the results of the independent science team's research, we believe we can successfully recover mountain caribou to sustainable numbers in British Columbia," said provincial Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell today.

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One of British Columbia's threatened mountain caribou (Photo by Terry Parker courtesy Western Canada Wilderness Committee)
Candace Batycki of ForestEthics, a nonprofit environmental organization with staff in Canada, the United States and Chile, told ENS today that Bell is scapegoating predators instead of protecting habitat.

"The minister seems not to listen to what his own scientists are telling him," said Batycki. "The solution lies in habitat protection, not blaming other animals."

Wildlife biologist Andy Miller of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee agreed, saying, "It is ironic that the BC government is going on a predator-killing campaign when the reason predator numbers have increased is because of clearcut logging."

"Clearcutting creates temporary habitat for deer and moose. Predators follow them, and sometimes create problems for caribou as well," Miller said.

"The way to deal with predators is to stop blaming them, and instead restrict the logging of low elevation caribou habitat," he said. "As clearcuts decrease, so will the deer, moose and their predators."

Miller said the worst part of the recovery plan is that no habitat protection is advocated for any of the caribou herds in southern British Columbia.

"This plan has little to do with science, and a lot to do with doing favors for the unsustainable logging and motorized recreation industries," said Miller.

The Wilderness Committee advocates a moratorium on all logging in mountain caribou habitat, and restoration of former caribou habitat in clearcut areas.

In September, ForestEthics was among five British Columbia environmental organizations that released a map showing that up to three million hectares (11,583 square miles) need to be protected.

The information for the map, said Batycki, came from BC government scientists and was intended for the provincial government’s mountain caribou science panel.

"They seem unwilling to address the habitat protection issue," said Batycki, who also questioned the makeup of the government’s list of stakeholders interested in mountain caribou recovery.

They include a heli-skiing tour company, the Council of Forest Industries and a tourism society.

"There’s a clue in the fact that the stakeholders have financial interests," said Batycki. "These are public lands, so why are economic issues represented among stakeholders?"

wolf

Timber wolves in British Columbia, like this one, could be targeted for killing along with cougars and bears under the BC goverment's caribou recovery plan. (Photo courtesy Western Canada Wilderness Committee)
The mountain caribou, Rangifer tarandus, is among the most migratory of all animals. These caribou feed on lichens, mushrooms, grasses, sedges and other green plants in the summer and twigs, horsetails, and willow in the winter. They are great swimmers and run at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour).

Mountain caribou are found in the east of the province from as far north as the District of Mackenzie down through the Kootenay mountain range and into the United States.

A decline in numbers over the past century has left BC’s mountain caribou population at about 1,900. This population was designated nationally as threatened in 1996, which means the province of British Columbia, a signatory to the federal-provincial 1996 Species-at-Risk Accord, is obliged to protect them and to develop recovery strategies.

To this point, those strategies do not appear to have been enough. Citing statistics that show that from 1996 to 2002 the caribou population dropped 17 percent, the the BC government’s independent watchdog for sound forest practices, the BC Forest Practices Board, said in September 2004, "The substantial and continuing decline in the mountain caribou population is serious and requires urgent government attention."

"Government will need to make difficult decisions in the short and medium term on issues such as habitat conservation, predator/prey management and recreational access to demonstrate a serious commitment to mountain caribou recovery," the Board advised.

Bell said Tuesday’s findings demonstrate that recovery of mountain caribou in British Columbia is possible over the long term.

"Now we need the input and support of environmentalists, First Nations, industry, tourism operators and communities to develop and implement a recovery plan in 2007," the minister said.

The science team divided the mountain caribou habitat area into 11 planning units based on geography. The team found that a minimum of 75 to 100 animals are required in a planning unit in order to maintain a resilient population.

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Heli-skiing in the mountains of British Columbia. Tour companies must share the land with threatened mountain caribou. (Photo courtesy Canadian Mountain Holidays)
Currently, only six of the planning units have herds greater than 75, with the largest herd containing about 717 mountain caribou. Each of the remaining five planning units has up to 37 animals.

According to the science team's research, potential recovery actions could include removing predators such as cougars and wolves that are known to kill mountain caribou.

Removal of other ungulates such as deer and moose from mountain caribou habitat is also recommended as well as more protection of core mountain caribou habitat from logging.

Further management of recreation activities in mountain caribou habitat, plus translocation of mountain caribou from larger to smaller herds, are also suggested.

"We're pleased to see the provincial government take the next steps in the caribou recovery program," said Dave Butler, director of land resources with the heli-ski tour company Canadian Mountain Holidays. The company is listed among stakeholders with an interest in mountain caribou recovery.

Butler pledged, "We're committed to working with them to ensure our operating practices are effective in preventing mountain caribou displacement in all areas of mountain caribou habitat."