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By Betty Vanderwielen
Pathfinder 

Caribou Struggle to Survive Encroachment

 

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Because of Dave Moskowitz's skills as a photographer, landscape and animal photos made his presentation twice as enjoyable.

SWAN VALLEY – David Moskowitz is a biologist, expert wildlife tracker, photographer, author and outdoor educator. In Montana shooting photos for his Mountain Caribou Initiative project, Moskowitz was invited by Swan Valley Connections to share some of his findings at the Swan Valley Community Hall March 9. While not advocating any specific solution, Moskowitz said his goal was to help illuminate a really complicated ecological and cultural story.

The story of the mountain caribou is intimately entwined with the typography and climate of the inland temperate rainforest where they live. The rainforest is characterized by virgin, old-growth hemlock and western red cedar trees, plentiful rain in the summer and copious snow in the winter. While the largest portion of the territory lies in British Columbia and a small corner of Alberta, the inland forest also dips down into the panhandle of Idaho and northwestern Montana.

Moskowitz told the audience, "Believe it or not, [northwestern Montana] is historic caribou country. This was once part of their range."

Today the only caribou living in the United States are a small herd of 12 that inhabit the panhandle of Idaho and move between it and British Columbia.

Though Moskowitz said there is only one species of caribou – known as reindeer in some parts of the world – the mountain caribou have evolved into a distinctive ecotype which precludes transplanting them to another area or introducing other caribou into their rainforest.

"This presents a big challenge," Moskowitz said, "because their numbers are dropping and when they disappear, it's pretty likely they're just gone for good."

Moskowitz explained some of the factors that set mountain caribou apart from the rest of their species. For one thing, in predator/prey interactions, although most caribou depend on speed and the safety of the herd, mountain caribou choose to scatter and hide. Relinquishing forest edges and riparian areas to other ungulates such as deer, elk, moose and their primary predators, wolves, mountain caribou have learned to spread out and survive in the old-growth forests considered uninhabitable by those other animals.

Black tree lichen, which grows abundantly in old growth forests, is the main food source for mountain caribou. Moskowitz explained what he calls the "seasonal dance" performed twice-yearly. The caribou spend the winter in the high mountains where their "dinner-plate size hooves" allow them to walk on the approximately nine-foot snow pack to browse the tree lichen.

When the snow begins to melt, making the lichen unreachable, the mountain caribou go down to the valley bottoms to feed on blown-down lichen and on new buds and emerging grasses.

They follow the greening foliage back up the mountainside where they spend the summer. In fall, as the snow starts covering the mountain grasses, the caribou again descend to the lower elevations, just ahead of the snow cover.

When the snow gets deeper, the caribou return to the mountains where their favorite food, lichen, is once again within reach.

Though the mountain caribou have developed their successful survival dance over centuries of evolution, a number of factors are now threatening that existence. That the inland rainforest sprawls across the boundary lines of two Canadian provinces and two US states creates a number of problems. Moskowitz gave the example of a wolf he tracked through Washington, Idaho and British Columbia.

Moskowitz said, "In Washington it was protected as an endangered species. In Idaho it was a game animal. In British Columbia it was actively being controlled by the Province, where they are shooting wolves out of helicopters."

He said he considers "this one animal dealing with this juggernaut of management practices as a reflection of the cultural paradigm... We're a little schizophrenic in terms of how we're managing our landscapes and wildlife."

British Columbia has territory set aside for the protection of their mountain caribou. The protection even extends to killing predators that threaten the caribou. Yet at the same time the province is carrying out an aggressive logging policy aimed at replacing old growth trees with 80-year successional forests designed to provide a steady source of lumber.

Moskowitz said, "I didn't realize, living down here in the states where the amount of cutting of old growth forest is really curtailed to almost nothing... But up there every day they're cutting old growth forest – ancient cedar trees, landscapes that have never seen any kind of disturbance since the end of the ice age – are coming down every day up there. I talked to people in the province and they're planning on continuing old growth cutting for the next 30-40 years until they've converted every stitch of the forest that isn't protected into tree stumps."

With the exception of the provincial parks and protected areas, the whole province is split into sections for different timber companies to log. Combined with a policy against clear cutting that has resulted in a checkered, fragmented landscape, the logging has allowed other ungulates and their predators to inhabit territory that was previously unavailable to them.

The need to log higher up the mountainside has necessitated the building of roads into steeper terrain. These roads inadvertently provide predators and competing species access to the refuge areas that protect the mountain caribou.

Another unexpected threat to the mountain caribou is the increased popularity of back country skiing and heli-skiing which has become a thriving industry in British Columbia.

Moskowitz said, "With heli-skiing we're literally dropping humans into [caribou] habitat. That's a challenge because these caribou like to be left alone. They might run miles to get away from those heli-skiiers. But if you're living on a diet of lichen you don't really have the energy budget to run all over the mountainside."

In addition to these ecological issues, Moskowitz points to cultural issues such as native peoples who champion the caribou and their habitat. On the other hand, lumbermen prefer to cut trees rather than watch their town become a tourist destination.

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Moskowitz had some of his photographs available for purchase and also his two books, "Wolves in the Land of Salmon" and "Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates."

The icing on the cake, according to Moskowitz is climate change which, as he said, "will change this ecosystem in ways we just really can't fathom. Glaciers are melting at an unbelievable rate. The tree line is advancing, so places that were sub alpine meadow or tundra are going to become forests. White tailed deer are expanding north. Elk are expanding north. So change is coming in a big way to this landscape."

Moskowitz said fire will be the primary driver of landscape change. Predictions are that the frequency of fire periods will increase from five to 20 times.

Despite the complexity of the problems, Moskowitz said doing nothing is not an option. Changes in the landscape have already been set in motion. He acknowledges there are no easy answers, no right or wrong and what works for one person doesn't work for somebody else.

Nevertheless Moskowitz insists "Whatever we do in the future is going to have to work for all these folks if it's going to provide any future for the caribou in the rainforest."

Moskowitz gave the audience one parting thought: "The choices we make in the United States or up in Canada, whether it has to do with forestry or climate change, a lot of other creatures out there are kind of wondering what it is that we're going to do. Because their lives depend upon it."

 

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