Your FAQs Answered: Mountain Caribou

Photo Credit: David Moskowitz

Eddie Pertyshen

Inspired by a recent Q&A with a local university student, Wildsight sat down with our Conservation Coordinator, Eddie Petryshen to unpack some of the issues on mountain caribou recovery. Read on for help in navigating this complex issue, especially as different sides become increasingly polarized in the wake of the government’s newly proposed recovery plans.

Now is the time to act. The government is asking for comments on the draft plan, and has extended the deadline to May 31 in hopes that our communities will get informed and provide meaningful input. For support on providing feedback, refer to our partner group’s analysis, West Coast Environmental Law.


W. Why is protecting mountain caribou important?

E. Caribou are an indicator species—the “canary in the coal mine” of ecosystem health—as they depend on the health of BC’s Inland Temperate Rainforest. As such, the decline of mountain caribou has mirrored the destruction of the Inland Temperate Rainforest ecosystem. As industrial disturbances from activities like logging, oil and gas, mining, and intensive recreation increases, caribou populations decrease. These herds, once widespread in our Columbia Mountains and now reduced to tiny isolated herds, are an indication that we are facing an ecosystem in crisis.

In 2007, Wildsight played a part in the provincial Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan that set out to recover deep snow dwelling caribou back to a target of 2,500 animals.That plan protected key high elevation habitat, but unfortunately much of the habitat was already degraded and some herds were no longer viable. This plan includes an economic and social compromise, and while the plan was a major step in the right direction, it has failed to recover caribou as we have less than 1,200 deep snow dwelling caribou today.

For Wildsight, caribou protection plans have always been about protecting more than just caribou. In BC, we don’t have strong protections for old growth forests and ecosystems on crown land—and caribou protections have protected a major piece of the Inland Temperate Rainforest, it’s old growth, and all the critters that depend on it.

Now that the herd is no longer in South Selkirks and there’s only one bull left in South Purcells there will be significant pressure from industry and users to remove protections. In the short term (next few years) we have been assured by the province that habitat protections for the South Purcells and South Selkirks will stay in place in all habitat areas. But in the long-term these protections are certainly at risk, and this is of concern for Wildsight.

Which leads us to where we are today. Provincial consultations are now underway on two draft plans that will set the stage for future actions for the recovery of Southern Mountain Caribou.

W. I understand the herds in the South Purcells and South Selkirks were extirpated this past winter. Are there any efforts to reintroduce caribou back to this region?

E. Caribou across the province continue to be displaced from their critical habitat as our human footprint grows unabated. In the South Purcells and South Selkirks the major issue is—will these landscapes ever be conducive to caribou again?

The loss of caribou in these two areas was tragic, but predictable given the state of the landscape, the low animal numbers, and the continued change in predator prey dynamics as a result of logging and increased access into areas.

Climate change remains the big and major unknown factor in terms of what it will mean for our ecosystems and for the future of caribou in BC. Most climate models are predicting a major loss of the Engelmann Spruce Subalpine Fir BEC Zone throughout our region, which is the habitat that caribou rely on for most of the year. We know that these ecosystems are going to continue to change, but the extent to which is unknown.

Another big factor is where would we get the animals to reintroduce caribou if/when these landscapes become suitable habitats? There is no surplus of mountain caribou anywhere. Wildsight has been pushing the province to start a captive breeding program so you could have a source population to translocate caribou back into places where they are likely to succeed.

W. What has to be done to protect BC’s mountain caribou?

E. If caribou are to survive in BC, well researched action plans—like those proposed in the Draft Partnership Agreement between BC, Canada, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations—must be implemented. Of course these actions for caribou will lead to minor reductions in timber supply and some recreational use will need to be relocated. However, these actions will not close mills nor the backcountry. Updates to land use plans are necessary in locations across the province if we are to recover wildlife populations into the future.

W. What is Wildsight’s stance on the draft agreements?

E. In the end, the decision makers are the governments—the province, the federal government, and First Nations.

We support the proposed Draft Partnership Agreement between B.C., Canada, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations which is a comprehensive action plan that will help recover caribou in the Peace region. Current recovery efforts lead by The Saulteau and West Moberly Nations’ in central BC brought the Klinse-za herd from 17 individuals in 2014, to over 70 caribou in the herd today. These recovery efforts, which included strong habitat protections, restoration of the landscape by closing and rehabilitating roads, a maternal pen and a predator control program, are beginning to show that mountain recovery is possible—even in heavily impacted landscapes. This type of comprehensive recovery effort needs to be expanded to other parts of the province.

The second Agreement is Section 11 that covers all southern mountain caribou in the province. It is a step in the right direction—but has no action plan. Actions will come with Phase 2 of the herd planning process, but that is still a long way away and caribou require immediate action now.  

Given the effects of poor management of our natural resources, climate change, and the ever increasing human footprint, if we want healthy wildlife populations into the future we are all going to have to sacrifice in terms of how we use the land—and some difficult decisions are going to have to be made by government.

W. Anything to add?

E. The major issue is really around how are we managing natural resources, ecosystems, and wildlife populations into the future. Habitat loss has been taking place very rapidly, and wildlife, not just caribou, are in steep decline. No habitat, no wildlife. Management that sustains both our communities and wildlife has been derailed for far too long by policies that favour large industry and uncontrolled recreational use.

We need a major paradigm shift in this province. Instead of looking at wildlife or biodiversity as a constraint on timber supply or oil and gas or mining we need to start looking at what wildlife and our ecosystems need to thrive and then we can give mining or forestry its fair share.

W. Thank you, Eddie!