New research indicates increasing habitat loss as the main driver behind caribou population decreases. Milo Burcham photo.

Curb habitat destruction now to protect caribou populations, says new study

Caribou lost twice as much habitat as they gained in 12 year period

A group of North America’s top caribou researchers have published a scientific paper indicating the importance of tackling habitat loss, which they’ve pinpointed as the main driver behind declines in caribou populations.

The paper, “Habitat loss accelerates for the endangered woodland caribou in western Canada,” showed that from 2000 to 2012, caribou subpopulations lost twice as much habitat as they gained, despite federal and provincial recovery plans and requirements under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Their study also showed that habitat loss has only accelerated between 2000 and 2018. In areas containing young forests that had been logged in the past or disturbed in some way, population gains were seen.

This could be because the conditions of the young forests aren’t suitable for moose and white tailed deer. When these species leave the area, so do their predators and the landscape becomes a safe haven for caribou.

“Our findings support the idea that short-term recovery actions such as predator reductions and translocations will likely just delay caribou extinction in the absence of well-considered habitat management,” the authors wrote.

READ MORE: ‘Critically low’ caribou population prompts wolf cull in the Chilcotin

“Given the magnitude of ongoing habitat change, it is clear that unless the cumulative impacts of land-uses are effectively addressed through planning and management actions that consider anthropogenic and natural disturbances, we will fail to achieve self-sustaining woodland caribou populations across much of North America.”

Deforestation was the key driver behind the destruction of the Southern Mountain caribou’s habitat, while forest fires had a greater impact upon the habitats of the Boreal and Northern Mountain caribou.

Caribou are an indicator species, meaning the health and strength of their herds serves as a basis for the overall condition of their ecosystem. The deep snow caribou of southern and central British Columbia rely on the health of the Inland Temperate Rainforest.

“The decline of mountain caribou has mirrored the destruction of the Inland Temperate Rainforest ecosystem,” said Eddie Petryshen, a conservation specialist with Wildsight. “These deep snow caribou herds were once widespread in our Columbia Mountains; their decline is an indication that we are facing an ecosystem in crisis.”

READ MORE: Declines in the southern caribou population will continue to happen if the Ministry doesn’t put the Kootenays on the map as a priority: Wildsight

According to Wildsight, in the mountains north of Revelstoke where approximately 150 caribou still roam, only 40 per cent of the North Columbia herds’ habitat is protected.

“This research should be a wake-up call to the BC provincial government who continue to rely on short term band-aids while permitting the destruction of old growth and caribou habitat,” Petryshen said.

Wildsight is urging both the provincial and federal governments to take immediate action in order to protect the caribou and the Inland Temperate Rainforest.



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