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Caribou Herds in B.C. Threatened by Pending U.S. Border Protection Legislation

  • Published on Jul 16 2012 |
  • by CPAWS |
  • This article is tagged as: caribou, bc

The province of B.C. is home to countless species of wildlife living in a wide range of habitats, some of which will never see their habitat disturbed, fragmented or altered by humans. This is unfortunately not the case with B.C.’s woodland caribou population, which has been under threat for quite some time now.

There are three groups, or ecotypes, of woodland caribou in B.C. which are distinguished by their behavioural and ecological characteristics – the northern caribou and the boreal caribou, which roam the province’s northern forested wilderness; and the Mountain caribou which, as you might guess, roam the mountains of southeastern B.C. The province’s mountain caribou population is the southernmost in the entire world, and is recognized as a threatened species in Canada and endangered in the United States, where some herds claim dual citizenship – with the exception of caribou in Alaska, these cross-border herds of mountain caribou are the only caribou in the U.S.

Some sub-populations have shrunk in size by 50% or more in the past decade. When you compare the higher level of human activity and development in the habitat of mountain caribou with, for example, the habitat of the northern caribou (of which only half of the subpopulations, or herds, are considered threatened or endangered), it’s easy to make assumptions about what’s contributing to this decline.

Many studies on the province’s mountain caribou population have been carried out over the years; in general, they have found that aside from predation, habitat disturbance is the leading factor affecting population levels. Disturbance can be in the form of fragmentation, which can be caused by forest harvesting, human settlement, and infrastructure like roads and reservoirs; and other human-related activities that include snowmobiling and skiing, backcountry recreation and commercial resource use.

Lately, issues have arisen in the U.S. that have the potential to affect the future well-being of these cross-border herds.

A recent proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to designate 1,500 square kilometres of land in the Selkirk Mountains as critical habitat for the endangered mountain caribou is facing some opposition. Local tourism operators, forestry companies and backcountry recreational users of the land within the proposed boundaries are saying that the Selkirk herd is not genetically distinct enough from other woodland caribou to warrant the type of protection currently afforded to them under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and that designating this area as critical habitat would have devastating effects on the local economy.

This proposal by the USFWS faces another hurdle larger than local opposition, however, which could have permanently damaging effects on cross-border caribou populations. A land-use bill has recently been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that contained a piece of legislation called the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. This act, also referred to as H.R. 1505, would nullify pre-existing wildlife conservation and environmental protection laws within 160 kilometres of the border for the purposes of border patrols, which would allow the use of off-road vehicles in areas where restrictions are currently in place and would permit the construction of supporting infrastructure like roads and helicopter landing pads.

If this bill gets passed by the U.S. Senate, it is uncertain of how it will affect the success of mountain caribou recovery measures being implemented by the B.C. government. Given that the population levels of cross-border caribou herds continue to decline, it is now more important than ever that conservation measures be enforced equally on both sides of the border.

What’s happening on this side of the border? Parks Canada has just released the results of a survey carried out on their conservation strategy for southern mountain caribou in national parks, which indicates an overwhelming amount of support for caribou conservation measures. The majority of respondents in the survey said they would support certain sacrifices to visitor experience in national parks, like seasonal trail closures and relocation of campsites, if it meant better protection for caribou habitat.

The results of this survey are encouraging. Documented public support for conservation initiatives like caribou protection make it a higher priority in decision-makers' minds. If you haven't signed on to CPAWS' Caribou and You campaign yet, take a moment now to add your voice in support of protecting the habitat of Canada's remaining woodland caribou, and help us make caribou conservation a top priority.

CPAWS will continue to engage with all Canadians to ensure as many people as possible are aware of the plight of the woodland caribou and will continue to collaborate with governments, industry, and local communities to help make the recovery of this species a national priority. As we work to help woodland caribou in B.C. and elsewhere in the country, it is our hope that our neighbours to the south will bring back some good news for the Selkirk caribou and neighbouring herds.