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Environmentalists mourn loss of South Selkirk Caribou herd

A bull mountain caribou in fall, photographed in the Hart Ranges of British Columbia. — Photo courtesy David Moskowitz.

Environmental groups are mourning the loss of all but three of the South Selkirk caribou herd and are again calling for immediate and full protection for all critical mountain caribou habitat in BC.

“It’s devastating that we’ve nearly lost the South Selkirk caribou herd,” said John Bergenske, Wildsight’s Conservation Director in a media release.

“But what’s worse is that unless we take immediate action to protect all critical mountain caribou habitat, the South Purcells and other southern herds won’t be far behind."

“This is an emergency,” said Candace Batycki of Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y).

“For decades BC has failed to protect sufficient critical habitat to even maintain mountain caribou, never mind recover them.

"And Canada has failed in its responsibility under the federal Species at Risk Act to intervene when provincial recovery measures are insufficient. Both governments have had all the information they need to act for many years, and now must act immediately, before we lose more habitat.”

Wildsight said during the past year the South Selkirk herd, the southernmost remaining herd in North America has lost nine animals, leaving only three females in the mountains south of Nelson, B.C, according to the aerial census taken this spring.

Eddie Petryshen, Wildsight’s Conservation Coordinator, said it’s been known for decades that logging, road-building and uncontrolled recreation in mountain caribou habitat is slowly killing off our caribou herds.

“Protecting intact habitat in our mountain rainforest ecosystems is the only way to give our southern caribou herds a chance to survive, but our federal and provincial governments have been dragging their feet for years, ignoring the ongoing destruction of mountain caribou habitat,” Petryshen explained.

Caribou expert Mark Hebblewhite of the University of Montana, agrees with Petryshen that the functional loss of this herd is due to legacy of decades of government mismanagement across caribou range.

“This tragic outcome was very predictable,” Hebblewhite said. “The science is clear. We now need to make sure that more herds don't go down the same path, to extirpation.”

The hunting community feels the sudden loss of the caribou is largely due to an increase in the predatory wolf population.

Batycki agrees there are more wolves, but if the habitat hadn’t become so impacted, due to more motorized recreation that packs winter trails in their habitat that make the caribou more vulnerable to predators, there would be enough animals that they could withstand predation.

Wildsight said fewer than 250 mountain caribou remain in the Kootenay and Columbia area, mostly found in herds around Revelstoke — and only 13 caribou were found in the South Purcells herd census last year.

“The federal government has mapped the mountain caribou habitat that is necessary for the species’ survival, but they have only protected portions of it,” said Bergenske.

“This tragic loss of all but three caribou in the South Selkirk herd has to be a wake-up call for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to act on her responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to protect all critical habitat right now. This is an emergency and our mountain caribou can’t wait any longer for planning without action.”

Wildsight said the southern mountain caribou, a unique ecotype who live in the inland temperate rainforest of B.C.’s southern interior, feed exclusively on tree-growing lichen in the winter and need old growth forests to survive.

BC’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan, after more than a decade, has failed to stop the loss of caribou, let alone recover populations.

“Not only do we need to protect all critical caribou habitat now, we need to restore degraded and fragmented habitat,” said Bergenske, “and that means the province and the federal government need to put real resources into habitat restoration immediately.”

“Only an interconnected system of protected habitat and lands managed for conservation will prevent the loss of mountain caribou and many other species, including grizzlies, goats and wolverines,” said Batycki.

“We call on BC and Canada to take emergency action to protect mountain caribou habitat, immediately.”