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Caribou economics

Posted by Joe Scott at Dec 27, 2010 05:01 PM |

A recent Revelstoke Times Review article highlighting mountain caribou recovery and old growth protection called the issue a "cautionary tale on how we use our environment." A cautionary tale indeed.

Caribou economics

Mountain caribou have evolved to survive where their ungualte cousins can not, with a winter diet of lichen and an ability to get high up away from predators...until humans alter every landscape, that is.

A recent Revelstoke Times Review article highlighting mountain caribou recovery and old growth protection called the issue a "cautionary tale on how we use our environment."

A cautionary tale indeed. Mountain caribou are the perfect messengers for the simultaneous fragility and complexity of our natural systems. Their evolutionary success is predicated on large intact old forests and an ability to move in tune with the seasons, without running a gauntlet of predators and human development.

Mountain caribou are expert at surviving in incredibly harsh environments on incredibly poor foods, like lichens; not exactly a mouth-watering treat. Try merely surviving a winter on lichens sometime, let alone being able to climb 3,000 meters and hang out in blinding snow and numbing cold while maintaining 400 lbs of muscle. Most of us can’t even get though a morning without a muffin and a latte – and that’s between breakfast and lunch.

Caribou are amazing survivors in the ecosystems where they evolved, but they suck at two things. One, they suck at surviving in human altered landscapes. And two, since they evolved in virtual old-growth “ghettos”, geographically and nutritionally removed from their cousins--the elk, deer, and moose-- they also never learned how to deal with the wolves and cougars, who find it more energy efficient to find and kill these other members of the deer family in the second growth lowlands. It’s like deciding one day to move to the South Bronx after living your first 17 years in Beverly Hills.

Mountain caribou are barometers of the health of an extremely rare but vital forested environment– the inland temperate rainforest. And when we start to pull at the threads of such systems by logging the old trees, flooding the valleys with reservoirs and blasting around caribou winter range on snowmobiles, we are essentially gentrifying the caribou neighborhood, making it easier for their ungulate cousins to take over and predators to hunt caribou like never before. But caribou don’t have the evolutionary income to deal with these changes being wrought by human activities.

Moreover, since we’re talking about really large-scale systems and predator-prey relationships, people must consider how delicate the balance in these systems really is if we want to keep the caribou around – preferably before we log, build roads and mine for gold.

But we haven’t done that very well thus far, so now our choices are few if we want to keep mountain caribou and their recently protected habitat around for a while; and one of them is killing some wolves and cougars until we can rebuild the caribou neighborhoods and the animals can rebuild their numbers.

Not a great option in the least, so we must get to the heart of this species economics.  And, the equation is very simple: the more we protect the old-growth systems, the better chance caribou have of raising another generation.

 


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