Forty-two biologists and botanists have signed a petition urging the governments of British Columbia and Canada to fully protect old growth forest across the range of the endangered mountain caribou. Unless logging of these forests stops, the species will disappear, the scientists warn.
Most of these forests are in the Interior Wet Belt of British Columbia, which is inhabited by 98 percent of the world?s surviving mountain caribou, now reduced to fewer than 2,000 animals.
The scientists, from Canada, the United States, and South Africa, say that protecting old growth forests should be the first priority of any recovery plan to save the mountain caribou, Rangifer tarandus.
The protected old growth will also help save many other endangered species, as well as help reduce global warming by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the scientists say.
The scientists have submitted the petition to a joint federal-provincial recovery process under Canada's Species at Risk Act. By law, the recovery plan must be posted on the federal government's Species at Risk registry in June.
A female caribou in British Columbia old growth forest (Photo courtesy BC Ministry of Forests and Range)The petition states that the draft strategy released by British Columbia government's Species at Risk Coordination Office in 2006 puts too much emphasis on killing the mountain caribou's predators, and not enough on protecting habitat for the caribou.
"One can kill animals quickly with a gun, or slowly by destroying their habitat. The mountain caribou are on the slow road to extinction and we are killing them," says petition signatory biologist Dr. Paul Paquet, adjunct professor, University of Calgary.
"Their best chance and only chance of survival is to protect the last remaining old growth," he said.
Mountain caribou are found in the east of the province from as far north as Mackenzie down through the Kootenay Mountains and into the United States. Caribou depend on old growth forests because they feed primarily on lichens that grow best on the older trees.
The provincial government says primary threats to these animals are "habitat alteration and increased mortality from predators."
The provincial government formed a mountain caribou science team in 2004 as part of the Species at Risk Co-ordination Office planning activities. The team's report issued in October 2006 gave cause for hope, said BC Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell.
"Based on the results of the independent science team?s research, we believe we can successfully recover mountain caribou to sustainable numbers in British Columbia," said Bell. "Now we need the input and support of environmentalists, First Nations, industry, tourism operators and communities to develop and implement a recovery plan in 2007."
The Valhalla Wilderness Society, based in New Denver, has some input for the minister. The award-winning group warns that the last remaining habitat for a herd of 100 endangered mountain caribou in the Central Selkirk Mountains is open for continued logging this year.
"Although the provincial and federal governments are conducting a recovery process for the mountain caribou, they have done nothing to prevent another year of destruction that will take the animals? life support out from under them," says the society.
The society has proposed the Selkirk Mountain Caribou Park for the rehabilitation of habitat that has already been clearcut.
A group of young mountain caribou with a bull caribou. (Photo courtesy BC Ministry of Forests and Range)The mountain caribou is a globally unique ecotype of caribou that is dependent on old growth forest at both low and high elevations.
In recent decades the population has declined to fewer than 2,000 animals, mainly because of extensive clearcut logging of old growth critical habitats, the scientists' petiton says, adding that overhunting, poaching and uncontrolled motorized recreation are other causal factors.
The southern mountain caribou ecotype is now listed as Threatened federally and Endangered provincially.
The scientists' petition calls for an immediate moratorium on all logging in old growth forest that is current or potential mountain caribou habitat.
"Legislated full protection of all old-growth forest 140 years or older within that area," is essential for caribou recovery, the petition states.
No logging should be allowed adjacent to critical habitat until the population has recovered, the petition asks, and there should be retention of some beetle-killed pine forests in or adjacent to mountain caribou habitat.
The scientists want much more "aggressive restrictions" on motorized recreation, including snowmobiles, ATVs and helicopters. And they want restrictions on development including lodges and ski hills.
And finally, the scientists are calling for the decommissioning of roads "as a non-lethal means to reduce predator and human access into mountain caribou habitat."
The petition continues to circulate through the scientific community, picking up signatures.
"The BC governments' own Conservation Data Centre lists 1,364 species that are endangered or threatened in BC," says wildlife biologist Wayne McCrory, who works with the Valhalla Wilderness Society. "Most of these species are endangered because the plant and animal communities that provide their food and living space are being destroyed or fragmented by human activities."
"Until humans are willing to set aside sufficient living space for wildlife," said McCrory, "we have no basis on which to claim we are trying to protect them."