lichens

Vanishing lichens a sign rare B.C. rainforest is approaching ecological collapse

Lichens are a canary in the coal mine for the inland temperate rainforest and their demise is sounding the alarm about widespread biodiversity loss

British Columbia’s rare inland temperate rainforest will suffer ecological collapse in as few as eight years if industrial logging continues, scientists and conservation groups are warning as new clear-cutting plans surface. 

“The crisis we are predicting in terms of loss of species and collapse of the ecosystem is probably that much closer,” Darwyn Coxson, a professor in the ecosystem science and management program at the University of Northern B.C., told The Narwhal. “I think we’re still going down the same road with our foot on the gas, a blindfold over our eyes and heading for the cliff.” 

Following decades of industrial logging, less than five per cent of B.C.’s inland temperate rainforest is still standing. The forest, scattered in moist valleys stretching from the Cariboo Mountains to the Rocky Mountains, is one of the most imperilled temperate rainforests on the planet. It’s home to giant cedar trees more than 1,000 years old and many species at risk of extinction, including caribou, wolverine, grizzly bear and lichens with names like cryptic paw and smoker’s lung.

An inland temperate rainforest is found only in two other places in the world, in Russia’s far east and in southern Siberia. 

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Coxson is one of nine authors of a scientific study that last year warned ecosystem collapse in the rainforest was imminent in nine to 18 years if logging continued at current levels. Since the study’s publication, logging rates in the northern part of the rainforest, in the upper Fraser River watershed, have been “very, very high, perhaps some of the highest on record,” Coxson said.

Michelle Connolly, a co-author of the scientific study, also said little has changed since the study was released, cautioning that ecosystem collapse is likely in as few as seven-and-a-half years.

Old-growth cedars marked for measurement in the Seymour River watershed, northwest of Revelstoke, B.C. The forest contains lichens
Rare lichens have been found in old-growth western red cedar and hemlock forests slated for logging in the Seymour River watershed, northwest of Revelstoke B.C. Photo: Eddie Petryshen / Wildsight

“We’re even closer to that tipping point for the inland temperate rainforest, because logging has not slowed down,” Connolly, director of the non-profit group Conservation North, said in an interview. “In fact, I think there’s evidence that it has sped up in the last year and a half since that report came out. It’s very distressing.” 

Last week, as delegates from around the world prepared to meet in Montreal for COP15, the United Nations biodiversity conference, the conservation group Wildsight sounded the alarm about planned clear-cutting in the rainforest in the critical habitat of the endangered Columbia North caribou herd. 

BC Timber Sales, a B.C. government agency that manages about 20 per cent of the province’s allowable cut, plans to log about 266 hectares of predominantly old-growth forest in the herd’s core habitat in the Seymour River watershed northwest of Revelstoke. Pacific Woodtech, a U.S. engineered wood product company, plans to log about 356 hectares of predominantly old-growth forest in core caribou habitat in the watershed. 

Tracking ecosystem collapse in B.C. forests using lichens

Ecosystem collapse means the environment can no longer support the organisms that have evolved in it over thousands of years. “We know that habitats here used to support mountain caribou, and they no longer do,” Connolly said. “So that’s a sign of ecosystem collapse when animals that roamed these areas for millennia start blinking out. And that’s what’s happening over a really large scale in this ecosystem.”

Waterways in the inland temperate rainforest support at-risk fish species like chinook salmon, bull trout and sturgeon — species also in deep trouble

The poor state of aquatic species is a warning sign that other ecological services provided by the inland temperate rainforest ecosystem — including carbon storage, water filtration and providing buffers for flooding — are compromised and “reaching critical thresholds to not be able to support human and natural communities anymore,” Connolly said.

Coxson said one way to measure the collapse of an ecosystem, aside from tracking the demise of a “poster child” species such as caribou, is to go looking for known populations of species listed as threatened or endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Lichens, he said, are a good example. “How many known locations are we losing? How many are left on the landscape?” 

Lichenologist Toby Spribille in the field
Lichenolgist Toby Spribille examines a lichen in the upper Seymour River watershed, northwest of Revelstoke, B.C. Clear-cutting is planned in the watershed, which is home to endangered caribou and endangered lichens, among other at-risk species. Photo: Eddie Petryshen / Wildsight

Many lichens grow very slowly and will thrive only in clean air, acting as a canary in a coal mine to warn of pollution. Lichens also provide food for animals like deer and caribou, nesting materials for birds and homes for insects, making them an essential part of the inland temperate rainforest ecosystem. 

“There isn’t a warning bell that goes off saying we’ve hit the extinction event, you sort of have to ask [the question] species by species,” Coxson said. “But where we have the expertise and where people have been able to find the time and resources to go and look, we’re losing things.”

‘We don’t know what we’re losing’

After Eddie Petryshen, conservation specialist for the non-profit group Wildsight, discovered new clear-cutting planned in the inland temperate rainforest — in the critical habitat of the endangered Columbia North caribou herd — he was curious to know if any at-risk lichen species were in the area.

He reached out to Alberta lichenologist Toby Spribille, who agreed to join Petryshen in the upper Seymour watershed to search for rare and endangered lichens. “So often, we don’t know what we’re losing,” Petryshen said. “And I think the Seymour is a perfect example of that.” 

Lichens are a complex life form that is neither a plant nor a fungus. Each species of lichen is a partnership between a fungus and a primitive plant called an alga. The fungus provides a home for the alga. In return, the alga produces food for the fungus. 

A full inventory of lichens in the area would have taken many weeks, so Spribille settled on a relatively quick reconnaissance of two of Pacific WoodTech’s planned cutblocks in the upper Seymour and one cutblock planned by BC Timber Sales in the Blais Creek area. “I was curious to get into the upper Seymour,” Spribille said in an interview. “I’ve looked at it for years on Google Earth and seen some pretty sweet looking old-growth forests from the Google Earth imagery.”

A satellite image of the upper Seymour River watershed shows dark green patches of forests, snow-capped mountains and lighter green patches of surrounding clearcuts. Map: Google Earth

He and Petrynshen drove for several hours along logging roads, set up camp and hiked into the big tree cedar and hemlock forest. Spribille knew a spectacular coastal lichen called Methuselah’s beard had been recorded in the upper Seymour. The hanging hair lichen, which grows up to three metres long in coastal rainforests, had only ever been found in three locations in the inland temperate rainforest. But several decades had passed since its discovery in the upper Seymour. A significant portion of the watershed’s old-growth forest had been clear-cut in the interim; Spribille wasn’t sure the lichen was still present. “We found it the evening we got in, it’s still up there,” he recalled. “There’s a population of it. There’s not a whole lot of it. And it’s very, very fragmented due to logging.”

The Methuselah’s beard hung from about one dozen old-growth hemlock trees that had been left standing, surrounded by clearcuts. Spribille also found another patch growing near a creek.  “Otherwise, habitat was completely lost for that species because it’s old-growth dependent.” He described the find as “really spectacular” and a “claim to fame” for the upper Seymour.

“If Interior B.C. were a different country or a different province, this would be a strictly protected species,” Spribille said, referring to B.C.’s lack of stand-alone legislation to protect species at risk of extinction. “It’s one of those spectacular conservation species that every school child can recognize once they’ve seen it once.”

Forest critically important for at-risk lichen species 

The following day, the pair hiked into the areas slated for clear-cutting, through forests of hemlock and western red cedar trees more than 500 years old. “We’re talking about awe-inspiring trees that were spray-painted for felling,” Spribille said, comparing the forest to Fangorn, a woodland of giant trees in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. “There are road rights-of-ways through this, and skid trail markings.” 

In all three upper Seymour sites slated for logging, Spribille found two federally listed lichen species, cryptic paw lichen, a leafy lichen whose upper surface can be yellowish, greenish or blueish grey, and smoker’s lung lichen, blackish and crinkly-looking. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an independent scientific group that makes recommendations to the federal government about which species should be listed, describes cryptic paw and smoker’s lung lichens as “flagship species for a suite of rare and uncommon lichens and bryophytes that are dependent on humid, old-growth forests.” Bryophytes are liverworts, hornworts and mosses.

At one site designated for clear-cutting, Spribille also found a lichen named enchanter’s matchstick on rocks along a creek. It was only the third time the lichen, which resembles a curvy match, had ever been found in the inland temperate rainforest. At another site, he found endangered greater green moon lichen and threatened pebbled paw lichen. “Additional significant species may be identified when the collected material has been analyzed,” Spribille, who sits on the mosses and lichens subcommittee for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, noted in a Wildsight report.

The lichenologist concluded that the remaining unlogged forests of the upper Seymour River drainage are of “critical” importance if rare and at-risk inland rainforest lichen species are to have “any chance of maintaining viable populations at a regional and national level.” 

Old-growth western red cedar in the upper Seymour watershed
Ancient forests in the upper Seymour watershed that provide critical habitat for an endangered caribou herd are earmarked for clear-cutting. Photo: Eddie Petryshen / Wildsight

Spribille says he is sometimes at a loss for words that a province as rich as British Columbia — with the most biodiversity in Canada and the most species at risk of extinction — has no stand-alone law to protect at-risk species and nature. “I wish the delegates to COP15 would be able to have a tour to see the habitat loss and unsustainable habitat destruction that is happening in an array of different ecosystems during their time in Canada, I think it would be time well spent away from the conference rooms,” he said. 

“There are a lot of people who would be willing to show them around and give them an idea of the scale of habitat loss. Ultimately, habitat loss, together with climate change, is leading us to a situation of peril for many, many species. And this is being accelerated by the industrial logging in British Columbia, which is happening at such a large and unsustainable scale.”

In an emailed response to questions about clear-cutting in the upper Seymour River watershed,  the B.C. Ministry of Forests pointed to its Nov. 2 new release claiming old-growth logging in the province has declined to record lows. The news release was criticized by conservation groups and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs who accused the government of misleading the public by cherry-picking numbers and dates. 

“The inland temperate rainforest is a globally unique forest type that provides important habitat for wildlife and biodiversity and stores large amounts of carbon,” the ministry also stated in its email. 

Coxson said the cumulative effect of losing old-growth dependent organisms like lichens and caribou will render the inland temperate rainforest lifeless in fewer than 20 years, much like the tropical rainforests that have suffered so much degradation that only the standing skeletons of trees remain. Most wildlife, including charismatic species such as parrots, have disappeared from tropical rainforests suffering from ecological collapse, he noted.

Wildsight conservation specialist Eddie Petryshen hikes through the rare inland temperate rainforest in the upper Seymour River watershed, north of Revelstoke, B.C, where there are lichens
As Canada heads into COP15, the United Nations biodiversity conference, the conservation group Wildsight is sounding the alarm about planned logging in B.C.’s rare inland temperate rainforest. Photo: Bailey Repp / Wildsight

In a recent assessment of smoker’s lung lichen for a committee report, Coxson travelled to known locations in the inland temperate rainforest — and beyond — that are now clear-cuts or immediately adjacent to clearcuts. “I know, with a high degree of certainty, that these are known locations that are probably now extirpated (locally extinct),” he said. 

Last year, Conservation North published an interactive map that reveals how little remains of B.C.’s original and ancient forests, showing logging and other industrial human activity on the once-forested landscape as a vast sea of red. The “Seeing Red” map demonstrates that very few primary forests — forest that have never been logged — remain in B.C.’s Interior. 

The Seeing Red map also shows the few areas of the inland temperate rainforest that are still intact. According to Connolly, they require immediate protection in order to avoid further biodiversity loss and ecological collapse. “And the opposite is happening. Companies are racing to finish off logging in their license areas.”

While restoration work is important for conserving biodiversity, Connolly cautioned that humans cannot recreate the structure and complexity of natural forests that have developed over hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years. “If you want to protect biodiversity, if Canada and B.C. are to meet their biodiversity commitments, we have to protect natural ecosystems. Period.” 

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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