Caribou Conundrum

Photo Credit: Paul Colangelo

Caribou Conundrum

🕔May 01, 2017

I was 13 when I first saw a caribou in the wild.  I was on a week-long hiking summer camp in the Telkwa mountains with five other teens and two leaders. The trip took us up the old, rutted mine road to Hunter Basin, then across the wind-blasted ridge to the “camel humps.” We spent a few days in each camp spot, exploring and testing our skills as we moved our way across the alpine.

One morning, I was washing the breakfast dishes near a shallow alpine lake when I saw a strange reflection in the water. Realizing I wasn’t alone, I looked up. From the thin branching antlers and the cream and brown coat, I knew I was looking right into the eyes a caribou. I was confused though, as I looked around for more. Caribou travel in vast herds, don’t they? They live in the high arctic, stampeding over rolling tundra. I couldn't see or hear any other animals. It stared at me, curious, sent a shot of steamy breath across the water, then turned and disappeared into the fog. Amazed, I wondered how it was possible that I didn't know caribou lived here?

Culture of the caribou

In the not-so-distant past, caribou existed in large numbers throughout the Bulkley Valley. Witsuwit’en elders tell stories of herds moving across the land from Topley to the Telkwa mountains to Moricetown and Hazelton. David deWit, natural resource manager for the Office of the Wet’suwet’en (OW), describes the importance of caribou to the Witsuwit’en people.

“Caribou were the dominate ungulate species on the landscape and were second to salmon as the primary protein source for food. There would be locations—for example Grassy Mountain in the North Babines—where young people would herd or stampede the caribou into a pinch point where there would be snares set. Elders and hunters would be there to harvest and dress the caribou.” There was good meat to be had, of course, but the bones were also used for tools and the hides for clothing. “The prevalence and the dependence on caribou I believe are a part of why one of our house groups, Tsë Kal K’iyikh ‘The House on Top of Flat Rock’, has a caribou as a crest today.”

deWit says there are Witsuwit’en place names in the region that reflect the presence of caribou in the landscape, and these place names are incorporated into stories of the land that are passed on within the house groups. In one location, there are still remnants of migration trails that are four feet wide.

“From the time of settlement to where we are now,” he says, “there was definitely a lot of development happening within a short period of time. All of these factors impacted their abundance. I don't think you could key into one thing.”

One significant event was the flooding of the Nechako Reservoir by the Kenney Dam in the 1950s. “That posed a significant challenge when the (neighbouring) Tweedsmuir herd migrated up to the north to their breeding grounds,” explains deWit. “Normally there were streams and rivers that they could ford and now there was a deep lake. There's stories from trappers that caribou were caught up in the dead heads (as they tried to swim) and drown.”

He lists the arrival of the railway, industrial forestry, air traffic, land clearing for farms and towns, and corridors like roads and transmission lines all as contributing factors to the decline of the herd.

Critical count

By the time I saw my first caribou in the Telkwa mountains in 1991, the numbers were already critical. In 1965, 271 caribou were counted in an aerial survey over the Telkwa Range. Between 1993 and 1997, the most counted in a single survey was just 15 individuals. As part of a recovery effort, 12 caribou were transplanted from an outside herd in 1997, followed by another 20 in 1998/99. This temporarily boosted population numbers to at least 114 animals, but numbers declined again. A recent survey counted just 18 caribou in the area.

deWit is focussed on what can be done today, and for the future. “Species are dependent upon multiple different habitats and we need to recognize that our actions have potential to affect them,” he says. “Collecting information on the state of change throughout time can create ingredients for the future to develop solutions. We might not have all the solutions today but we should gather information to pass on the future generations. We have a responsibility to provide tools so they can continue to meet their needs and continue to exercise their rights and cultural practices.”

The OW is taking an active role in understanding the current state of the Telkwa caribou herd. With financial support from the Species at Risk Stewardship Program, a federal government initiative, wildlife technicians are participating in recovery efforts. Dallas Nikal is one of these technicians.

“We've been doing trailhead engagement where we bring awareness to recreational users in the Telkwa mountains, monitoring, and surveys where we count the herd,” says Nikal. He also compiles data from trail cameras, and helps with mapping. Through the job he’s gaining valuable work experience in his chosen field—wildlife biology—on Witsuwit’en territory. “I've always wanted to work with caribou,” he says. “They are such a beautiful animal. I’m hoping to see their population increase because they are a part of the Witsuwit’en culture and I feel like if they die, a piece of us dies. And if they are gone, they will never come back.”

Coin toss

deWit considers the changes that have occurred on the landscape over the recent past. “Within the last 100 years, moose have come in to the area and started to fill some of the habitat niches on the landscape that were not being utilized by caribou,” he says. “What's interesting now is that there is a decline in moose populations and now we have elk in the valley that are occupying some of these habitats. These ecosystems don't remain static—things change. The Witsuwit’en word for the land is yintah, which is a small word with a whole philosophy behind it: all living beings, animals or natural vegetation or elements like water, air and soil, are all connected, and our actions as human beings have the potential to impact the natural elements around us. Activities on the landscape have actually changed the natural component of caribou as the dominant ungulate species on the landscape.”

Aldo Leopold wrote of the extinct passenger pigeon in 1947: “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

Will I ever see a lone caribou in the wild again? Will a future generation watch herds thunder across the alpine, or will the caribou live with us only in stories? It feels like their survival is as precarious as a coin toss. I call “tails” hoping that they prevail, and hoping that the change in my pocket won't become an ironic epitaph to their existence.

— Emily Bulmer

What good are the caribou?

The question is being posed at a public meeting in Smithers by an older gentleman who stands and directs his words to two representatives from BC’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO): “Instead of closing down areas for caribou, we should be opening it for tourists.”

The Community Resources Board meeting, held in March, attracted about 50 people and offered a taste of discussions to come as the province prepares to open its proposed recreation access management plan in the Telkwa Range to public feedback. The topic hits a nerve that runs deep in the recreation community. About a dozen snowmobilers have filed into the back of the room and there are a smattering of hikers, skiers and other concerned citizens attending the meeting.

The Telkwa caribou population has decreased rapidly over the past half-century and the reasons are up for debate. “The decline in the Telkwas is probably driven by a number of factors, although everyone looks for the smoking gun,” says FLNRO resource management director Tony Pesklevits. Human activity, of which recreation is just a small portion, takes most of the blame. Industry, agriculture and forest fires have changed the landscapes that caribou historically roamed, inviting moose and deer, which in turn have been trailed by predators like wolves. The slower-to-reproduce caribou are left vulnerable to predation.

The access management plan, which proposes seasonal restrictions on motorized and non-motorized recreation in caribou habitat, is based on recommendations from the Telkwa Recreation Access Management Group, a collection of 13 stakeholders representing ATV riders, hikers, horseback riders, skiers, snowmobilers and hunters. A voluntary agreement has been in place between local recreation clubs and the provincial government, but both agree it’s time to create a formal agreement.

Creating certainty, however, might prove more challenging.

“What caribou do in the long term and what stakeholder interests do in the long term can change over time,” Pesklevits says. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen with caribou, particularly with a herd as small as the Telkwa herd.”

Several snowmobilers at the meeting make it clear the province’s plan won’t get buy-in without an option to revisit it should the caribou become extirpated, or locally extinct—a distinct possibility as the Telkwa herd hovers at about 18 animals.  

“How far do we go with this caribou thing before we finally realize there isn’t going to be any caribou in the Telkwa Range?” asks a man identifying himself only as Ron. The question has merit: As a former guide-outfitter, Ron has seen wildlife populations ebb and flow. At what point will the province redirect its resources (some have suggested they be focused on a herd with better odds of survival) and allow nature to take its course?

“It’s a pretty heavy question. It depends a lot on individual philosophy, individual ethics,” Pesklevits tells the crowd. “My personal view on it is caribou are a part of our natural heritage we should fight to protect.”

The province also has a legal obligation to protect the herd. With caribou listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), a management plan is required.

A pre-election promise made by the Liberal government at the B.C. Natural Resources Forum in Prince George in February, offered $8 million this year and another $19 million over the next two years for caribou recovery. The exact allocation of those funds has yet to be determined, so it’s unknown how they may impact the Telkwa herd. According to a FLNRO representative, the ministry has spent about $290,000 on the herd since 2010, excluding staffing expenses.

The Telkwa caribou’s plight isn’t unique. Caribou are declining globally and, according to a study released by the provincial and federal governments earlier this year, out of roughly 40 herds in the Southern Mountain National Ecological Area, more than half are on the decline—a number that doesn’t include five herds considered extirpated. Two herds are listed as stable and one is increasing.

But while the province is in the midst of a five-year plan to reduce wolf numbers by shooting them from helicopters—resulting in the loss of hundreds of animals—detractors maintain that efforts to boost caribou numbers by eliminating wolves miss the mark. Habitat loss, conservationists say, is the so-called smoking gun that isn’t being adequately addressed.

A Wildlife Habitat Area (WHA) was designated in 2016 to manage the impacts of forestry on the Telkwa herd, but the caribou aren’t entirely free from the dangers of industry. In a presentation to investors dated this April, Australian company Allegiance Coal Limited claims it is “fast tracking a metallurgical coal mine into production” near Telkwa. Two of three proposed open-pit mines fall within the Northern Caribou – Telkwa Herd WHA.

What good are the caribou? The public will have the opportunity to answer that question this summer, as public consultation on the Proposed Direction for Recreation Access in the Telkwa Caribou Range begins late June and continues through August in the Bulkley Valley. A request for regulation change would take place in October and regulation changes, if approved, would come into effect June 2018.

Follow “Telkwa Caribou Recovery” on Facebook for updates.

— Amanda Follett Hosgood