Environment: Business interests clash with caribou survival

As efforts to conserve the province's dwindling southern mountain caribou population gather steam, heli-skiing and forestry are two of the industries that are feeling the squeeze

Credit: David Moskowitz

As conservation efforts for the province’s southern mountain mammal gathers steam, heli-skiing and forestry are just two of the industries feeling the squeeze

Ross Cloutier wants to help save B.C.’s southern mountain caribou—but not at any cost. Renewed efforts to protect the threatened animals could hit his $150-million industry hard, says the executive director of Helicat Canada, which represents the country’s heli-skiing and catskiing operators.

“Things are happening very fast right now, and we have some real concerns that decisions are being made based more on opinion than science,” explains Kamloops-based Cloutier, whose group’s members include 30 companies in B.C. “I think all sectors have a part to play in mountain caribou, and our industry is definitely willing to be a partner.” 

There’s no time to waste. Last May, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna put B.C. on notice: do more to save the mountain caribou, or Ottawa will use the Species at Risk Act to impose conservation measures. Cloutier has been lobbying on Helicat’s behalf as the provincial government scrambles to reach a bilateral conservation deal with the feds.

Saving the mountain caribou will require uncomfortable choices between economy and  ecology. Since 2006, the province, the federal government and industry have spent more  than $12 million on caribou conservation efforts such as controversial predator culls,  maternal penning (providing predator-proof corrals for mothers and their calves), and  radio collaring of wolves and caribou. B.C. has also set aside some 200,000 hectares of caribou habitat outside national and provincial parks, using a government action regulation (GAR) to prohibit logging. 

Helicat Canada members already follow special mountain caribou operating guidelines,  including a minimum 500-metre flight distance from the animals, and offer special training for pilots and guides. They’re willing to do more. For example, the province recently  agreed to share caribou collar telemetry data, something the industry has been requesting for years. Cloutier says that will enable Helicat to conduct a “real-time ski run management trial” this season.

In most areas south of Prince George, though, the mountain caribou continue a slide toward extirpation, when a species ceases to exist in a geographic area of study. The South Selkirks herd has dwindled to just three, not an ecologically viable population by any measure. 

“This is an important species to the federal government,” says Robert Serrouya, a University of Alberta biologist who has researched large mammal ecology for two  decades and directs the Caribou Monitoring Unit, a group of scientists organized by the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute to support caribou recovery in Canada. “It’s a very complex conservation problem.” 

In winter, woodland caribou survive almost entirely on boreal lichen found only in old-growth forests. Loss of this habitat thanks to logging and other resource industries is  largely responsible for the animal’s decline.

However, climate change and degradation of this critical caribou habitat have resulted in  a cascade of other factors that has upset the natural wildlife balance in some areas, leaving the remaining caribou highly vulnerable to predators. Logging gives rise to growth of young trees and underbrush that attracts large numbers of other ungulates like whitetailed deer, which in turn lure wolves, cougars and bears into caribou country. 

The federal map of critical mountain caribou habitat and the provincial draft mountain  caribou herd management plans, released last November, are alarming, according to  Helicat Canada’s Cloutier. Six operators could be put out of business and others impacted, he says, potentially resulting in $55 million in lost revenue and 500 job cuts.

Commercial powder skiing isn’t the only concerned sector. The Council of Forest Industries (COFI) has warned the federal and provincial governments against any new caribou conservation agreement that focuses too heavily on habitat protection.

“Management of the caribou file is extremely complex, and we believe that a multi-pronged approach to recovery will be required, not just habitat protection,” says Mina  Laudan, COFI’s vice-president, public affairs. “Climate change is affecting southern mountain caribou habitat, causing habitat to grow in some areas and disappear in others, and its impacts must be incorporated into all plans and actions,” Laudan adds. “Many other factors contribute to the declining caribou population, including predators, severe wildfire seasons and pest infestations.” 

David Karn, a spokesman for the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, says  the conservation agreement remains a work in progress, with the aim of developing “meaningful strategies for addressing caribou recovery” while “minimizing implications to various industry sectors that operate in caribou habitat.”

But that’s easier said than done. B.C. and Ottawa have differing views on the extent of critical caribou habitat. Also, the 2017 Canada–British Columbia Southern Mountain  Caribou Protection Study presents a sobering picture of the conservation efforts’ economic impact, which could exceed $20 billion to the resources sector. The study acknowledges as well that “to date, no jurisdiction has implemented a program that has demonstrated sustained success at recovery of caribou at a landscape scale.”

Mountain caribou experts like Robert Serrouya know there’s no quick fix. Habitat  protection is important, but it’s not the only factor. Caribou have disappeared from Banff National Park even though it’s been federally protected since 1885.

“I can support the messy short-term business of predator reduction, but only if habitat  protection is also part of the solution,” Serrouya says.