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Elbow room?

Posted by Joe Scott at Apr 15, 2008 04:15 PM |

A BC biologist took me flying over the Inland Temperate Rainforest to track wolves. Several hours and one airsickness bag later, I learned that humans are doing more than just logging and playing in endangered mountain caribou habitat, and wolves may pay the price...

Elbow room?

Is there room for both endangered mountain caribou and wolves in this picture?

I recently had the distinct pleasure of riding along with a wolf biologist on a flight using radio-telemetry to study tagged wolves. We flew over an area in BC's Inland Temperate Rainforest where caribou are particularly vulnerable to the combined forces of logging, road building, and motorized recreation writ large. As part of a major effort to recover endangered mountain caribou in BC's Columbia Mountains, these flights help scientists better understand wolf movement and how closely they interact with caribou. This particular flight helped me gain an appreciation of just how hammered these forests are by industrial activities and imagine what might be in store in for BC wolves and caribou.

Historically, before the humans' heavy hand modified so thoroughly the lush forests of BC’s Inland Temperate Rainforest, mountain caribou and wolves coexisted with minimal interaction. The wolves occupied themselves hunting the deer, elk, and moose in the valley bottoms and places where the forests were more naturally fragmented. Meanwhile, the caribou were free to roam through higher elevation old-growth forests without significant threat from these efficient predators.

But as caribou's old-growth, high elevation habitat is increasingly fragmented with clearcuts and younger forests, it has become a more attractive habitat for their ungulate cousins, which in turn has created a bigger banquet for the wolves. The wolves are now moving into caribou territory. The neighborhood has become a more dangerous place for the hitherto insulated caribou.

We saw a couple dozen wolves that day. They were magnificent animals ranging in color from cream to black, easy to spot against the snow, even while the plane’s wing was perpendicular to the ground and I was puking into a really small bag. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but I probably won’t be invited to do telemetry again!

This wolf research is intended to inform decisions about predator control programs that could be enacted to stop caribou declines. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to destroy a handful of very visible 100 pound wolves than to stop the habitat destruction wreaked by vested economic interests, particularly some snowmobilers and heli-skiing companies who feel they have a birthright to go anywhere, anytime. But "wolf killer" is not a moniker that British Columbia is eager to embrace, particularly with the world coming to visit for the Olympic Games in two years. Hopefully the economic and political implications of BC having such a negative image are clear when the time comes to rein in the motorheads. After all, if government doesn’t adequately protect the caribou habitat, they will certainly be forced kill the wolves.  

We and our allies in the Mountain Caribou Project are closely involved with the planning process to ensure that science–not politics–is the guiding light for caribou recovery, so that wolves and caribou can go back to being ecosystem neighbors who rarely rub elbows in a complete and healthy Inland Temperate Rainforest.

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