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Plan protects 5 million acres for caribou

The mountain caribou recovery plan was a tremendous step forward for endangered mountain caribou, protecting millions of acres of their home - the Inland Temperate Rainforest - from logging and associated road building.

Snowmachine tracks in caribou habitat

In 2009 the BC government instituted a mountain caribou recovery plan, protecting more than 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of caribou habitat from logging and associated road building. That’s an area eight times the size of the entire North Cascades National Park. The plan also prohibits motorized recreation across 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of caribou habitat.

The practical effect of the recovery effort is that more than 90% of mountain caribou high suitability winter habitat will be protected from the most pernicious forms of habitat destruction.

Despite some serious holes, the recovery plan is a huge win for these amazing animals and their globally unique inland rainforest habitat. Mountain caribou are a rare type of woodland caribou that live only in the Columbia Mountains in a huge swath of habitat on the western flank of the Rockies that extends from near Prince George BC across the US border into Idaho, Washington, and Montana.

Caribou biologists are generally positive about the plan. Says Trevor Kinley, Mountain Caribou Science Team biologist, “The announced plan does not aim for full recovery across the complete range of mountain caribou. However, it does represent conscious, transparent choices based on the best available information. If fully implemented, I believe we will see significant recovery across most of the range of mountain caribou over the next few decades.”

The recovery plan has an initial goal of restoring mountain caribou numbers to pre-1995 levels of approximately 2,600 and identifies a suite of actions to achieve those numbers. However, caribou scientists say that some herds will not be self-sustaining in the foreseeable future because their habitat has been so fragmented by industrial activities, predominantly logging and associated road building, that predator/prey relationships have been deeply altered  and made predator control necessary. The plan also comes with a major “IOU” for caribou: Protections against mineral exploration development, snowmobiling, and heli-skiing in critical habitat are still outstanding—unfinished business that presents an unnecessary risk to the recovery of the animals.

The Mountain Caribou Project, a coalition of ten Canadian and US conservation organizations including Conservation Northwest, has been working with and pressuring government to protect critically endangered mountain caribou for the past six years, primarily by protecting their old-growth forest habitat. It’s significant that a far-reaching single species recovery plan with such a large amount of protected habitat has been legislated in a pro-business government in a province without an endangered species law.

Inland Temperate Rainforest in winter. Photo by Doug Radies

Globally, caribou are now under assault from a variety of human-caused threats, with climate change being the latest. As the southernmost herds of caribou on earth, the mountain variety may be particularly vulnerable where their habitat is most impacted.

Since the recovery plan is not backstopped by a strong legal mandate, the plan stops short of what caribou will likely need to overcome the most serious threat to their existence: human activity. Biologists will need to kill predators to protect some herds for an indefinite time. Hopefully the BC government understands the implications of the loss of Caribou and takes the further steps needed to prevent it.

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