Endangered Caribou Habitat Clearcut During B.C. Election Uncertainty

Forestry giant Canfor is logging critical habitat for mountain caribou, recent video footage reveals.

The company, which donated just shy of $1 million to the BC Liberal Party, has proceeded with clearcuts in the Upper Clearwater Valley, near Wells Gray Provincial Park, despite a legal application for an emergency stop-work order currently under review by federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and a commitment by the company not to log critical habitat for species at risk.

The video, which includes drone footage of a large-scale clearcut on the western slopes of the Clearwater Valley, was made public by the Wilderness Committee.

“We were shocked to see this huge logging operation smack-dab in the critical habitat zone of this threatened species,” said Joe Foy, the organization’s national campaign director.

The area is the subject of an April 7 legal application to the federal government under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) for an emergency order to ban Canfor’s proposed logging in caribou habitat. Filed by lawyer Bill Andrews on behalf of concerned local and B.C. groups, the application argues that logging permits issued to Canfor by the former BC Liberal government are located in federally designated critical habitat for mountain caribou, which are listed as “endangered” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and “threatened” under SARA.

The application has been under review by the Canadian Wildlife Service for three and a half months. Staff there are preparing a report for the minister on whether there is an “imminent threat to the recovery of the Wells Gray caribou herd,” Andrews has been told.

“The next step will be for the minister to decide whether to recommend that the federal cabinet make an emergency order to stop the proposed logging,” Andrews added.

Panorama of logging in the Upper Clearwater Valley. Image: Courtesy, Wilderness Comittee.

On the provincial front, Andrews is heartened by the results of the recent election, as both the BC NDP and Greens have campaigned for species at risk legislation.

The mandate letter for George Heyman, the new Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, stated that one of Heyman’s priorities is to “enact an endangered species law and harmonize other laws to ensure they are all working towards the goal of protecting our beautiful province.”

While the transfer of power dragged on in Victoria and federal bureaucrats were taking their time studying the caribou issue, Canfor ploughed ahead with its controversial logging. This work even violates the company’s own commitments by CEO Don Kayne to the B.C. Special Committee on Timber Supply in 2012:

  • Canfor does not support actions that would overturn landscape objectives set through public planning processes unless there is full public consultation and support.
  • We will not support actions that impact parks, riparian areas or areas that provide critical habitat for species at risk, or other important environmental values such as biodiversity and old growth.

REFERRAL GROUP CANFOR Don Kayne Remarks Special Committee by DeSmog Canada on Scribd

The above logging contradicts both promises. The local Referral Group — officially designated to represent the concerns of the community regarding logging plans in the region — has steadfastly opposed this logging, as has the Wells Gray Gateway Protection Society. Moreover, the area in question is designated Type 2 Matrix critical habitat for mountain caribou by the federal government.

While mountain caribou don’t inhabit the Upper Clearwater Valley directly today, its forests are recognized as vital to the survival of caribou in terms of predator management. When Type 2 Matrix habitat is logged, it is replaced by early seral forest, which is a mixture of brush and young deciduous shrubs and trees like willow, alder, and poplar. This is poor habitat for caribou but ideal for other ungulates.

“By clearcutting these areas, you increase the deer and moose population, who feed on the new growth,” explains Foy. “That in turn attracts wolves, which kill caribou.”

Wolves don’t naturally prefer caribou, but they will eat them when the opportunity arises. Given their ability to travel up to 100 km a day, wolves can easily access caribou herds a long way away from these clearcuts.

The mountain caribou herd known as Wells Grey South has plummeted from about 320 animals in 1994 to 120 today. The same disturbing trend is occurring across southern B.C., where caribou are being driven to the brink of extinction, despite the province spending millions of dollars on helicopter wolf kills, with 163 wolves shot in 2016 and likely more to be killed this year.

“No scientific evidence has ever been published showing that killing wolves can help recover caribou populations,” explains lichenologist and local resident Trevor Goward. “That’s because cull programs don’t get to the root of the problem: habitat loss from logging and other industrial activities, which drive the increased predation.”

Clearwater River

The Clearwater River. Courtesy, Wilderness Committee.

Mountain caribou are a unique subset of woodland caribou, seen only in southern B.C. today. They depend on old-growth and mature forests for food and predator avoidance. Over thousands of years, they evolved the practice, unique among all caribou, of heading to high alpine country in the winter to avoid wolves and cougars. There, they subsist on black hair lichens that hang from subalpine fir and spruce.

Despite the area being federally designated as critical habitat for caribou, the site plan for Block B131, where this footage of Canfor’s recent logging was captured, makes no mention of caribou under the “Wildlife” section of the plan. Instead, it states:

“The block is not within critical deer winter range or moose habitat…no critical wildlife features were found during development of this block.

Canfor Logging Plans B131 Specs by DeSmog Canada on Scribd

Canfor representatives declined to comment for this story.

On July 16, Canfor suspended local logging operations due to forest fire activity in the region, but indicated last Friday on its Facebook page that it intended to reopen its Vavenby Mill and logging in the region on Monday July 24.

As the smoke clears, tensions over caribou issues and logging are likely to resume. A recent Facebook post from the Wells Gray Gateway Protection Society noted construction work on Road 80, which could be laying the groundwork for more logging, this time at Block T121, on the east side of the valley, for which Canfor received a permit from the BC Liberal government earlier this year.

But with a decision on an emergency order banning logging expected soon from the federal government and new provincial leadership committed to protecting endangered species, the clock may now be ticking for Canfor’s logging operations in critical habitat for endangered caribou.

Main Image: David Moskowitz

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