Revelstoke Caribou Penning Project

‘We have left it too late’: scientists say some B.C. endangered species can’t be saved

B.C.’s scattershot approach to helping at-risk species isn’t working, say scientists who propose a new but controversial way of prioritizing conservation that comes face to face with the grim realities and ethical dilemmas of making a business case for extinction prevention

They call her Grace. She was born last spring in a maternity pen for endangered caribou in the Columbia mountains north of Revelstoke, B.C. It was a difficult year for the Rearing Caribou in the Wild project; three females died during or soon after giving birth and two calves were euthanized after sustaining injuries.

The deaths were hard on volunteers and scientists who had spent almost five years working on the $2.4 million pilot project to try to save the Columbia North caribou herd in the Kootenay Boundary region from local extinction. Fearing additional mortalities, and facing unseasonably hot weather, they released the remaining 17 cows and 11 calves in June instead of in July as planned.

But more tragedy struck.

On June 29, when Grace was less than two months old, her mother was killed by wolves, and then other predators moved in. “The calf was observed on game cams around the pen and up the hill…being chased by a black bear and a grizzly bear,” says Darcy Peel, acting director of the B.C. government’s caribou recovery program.

Biologists feared the worst for Grace, named after the mountain where her mother had been captured. “But then she showed up at the [pen] gate,” Peel told The Narwhal. “The decision was made to bring her back into the pen, because she was not reconnecting with caribou…She went back in on August 9.”

Grace has lived in the pen by herself ever since, a solitary symbol of the nation-wide crisis that has befallen the species engraved on the Canadian quarter.

Caribou calf Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild

A mother and calf released from the Revelstoke maternity pen in July of 2016. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild / Facebook

Revelstoke Caribou Pen

The Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild pen where Grace now lives in solitude. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild / Facebook

Human disturbances, including clear-cut logging, mining and oil and gas development, have given natural predators like wolves easy access to caribou whose habitat has been destroyed or fragmented right across the country, with disastrous consequences for once-robust herds.

Plans are now underway to tranquilize the lone survivors from two other imperilled herds in the Kootenay Boundary region — the South Selkirk herd with only two females left and the South Purcell herd with four animals — and helicopter them to the pen, about a 90-minute drive north of Revelstoke.

The hope, Peel explains, is that those six survivors and Grace will eventually be released to find their way to about 145 animals in the Columbia North herd, the region’s largest remaining subpopulation of southern mountain caribou.

Grace, now about seven months old, is “doing really well” in the pen, says Peel. “She’s growing. She’s thriving.”


But even as the province leads the rescue mission, a B.C. government pilot study warns that caribou in the region are so perilously close to local extinction that penning projects and other management strategies are unlikely to recover populations, no matter how much money is spent.

Out of eight caribou subpopulations in the Kootenay Boundary area, five are now functionally extinct, according to information the provincial government provided to The Narwhal.

“We have left it too late,” says UBC scientist Tara Martin, who helped lead the 2017 pilot study, a joint initiative of the B.C. environment ministry and the ministry of forests, lands and natural resource operations.

“We have prioritized industrial development over the last 50 years and we haven’t been prioritizing conservation of caribou.”

Martin, a professor of conservation decision science in UBC’s forestry faculty, is at the forefront of a new approach to saving Canada’s at-risk species, and the B.C. government has taken a keen interest as it develops promised legislation to protect the province’s 1,807 species at risk of extinction.

B.C. approved 83 logging cut blocks in endangered caribou habitat in last six months

A mathematical approach to the conservation question

Known as priority threat management, the methodology has already been adopted by New Zealand and the state of New South Wales in Australia, where a majority of species vulnerable to extinction are now recovering.

Martin describes the methodology as “a mathematical equation to determine how to save as many species as possible for the least cost.”

“We are continuing to invest in species with a low likelihood of recovery at a very high cost,” she explains in a telephone interview from her home on Salt Spring Island.

“And while we do that a whole raft of other species are likely to become more endangered. So in order to avoid having more species in that critical state we need to think more carefully about how we’re using those resources.”

Priority threat management is similar to triage in the medical world. Used widely in World War 1 battlefields in France, army medics assessed the severity of injuries and prioritized stricken soldiers for treatment. Some soldiers were so grievously wounded their chances of survival were slight no matter how much medical attention they received. Doctors, equipped with woefully insufficient resources, focused on doing the greatest good for the greatest number of patients.  

If we think of B.C.’s at-risk species as early casualties of the extinction epidemic sweeping the globe, Martin says we need to identify which species in the province have the highest likelihood of recovery.

If no actions can be taken to ensure that species like caribou have a greater than 50 per cent chance of recovery, “these are the species that we should triage” so we can devote limited resources to helping species that stand a greater chance of persisting, she says.

“This approach is really about identifying those actions which have the highest chance of recovering as many species as possible. It also identifies which species are potentially beyond recovery.”

Martin wants to be perfectly clear that the issue is not that Kootenay Boundary caribou are too expensive to save. The B.C. government has contributed more than $500,000 to the Revelstoke penning project, for instance, and the federal government has dished out almost $1 million, according to an e-mail from the ministry of forests, lands, and natural resource operations.  

Land tenures in the Kootenay Boundary Region

Land tenures in the Kootenay Boundary Region. Mining, smelting, logging, hydroelectric power generation, agriculture, ranching and tourism are all important drivers of the local economy. These activities have put tremendous pressure on local species of caribou, goat, sheep, elk, moose, wolf, lynx and cougar — all of which have become extirpated in many other ranges across North America. Image: Priority Threat Management Pilot Report

Rather, Martin says caribou in the region have “have basically gone beyond a tipping point because we haven’t acted soon enough.”

The analysis in the 96-page pilot study, which the provincial government released to The Narwhal upon request, suggests, as Martin puts it, that  “there’s very little you can do to have a self-sustaining population of caribou in 20 years in that region.”

“Of the options that are left on the table it’s likely that none of them are sufficient to bring caribou back,” says Martin, a prospect she calls “chilling.”

“The only time that this type of methodology suggests giving up on a species is when there’s no actions left on the table to take.”

Are we ‘giving up’ on some species?

UBC biologist Sarah Otto, who sits on the federal Species at Risk advisory committee, points out that Canada’s current approach to saving at-risk species is simply not working.

“We’ve got to try something different,” Otto says in an interview.

If being listed under the federal Species at Risk Act is the equivalent of going to hospital, getting a bed in the ICU signals that the overall health of vulnerable populations is likely to take a significant turn for the worse.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, the populations of species listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act have declined by an average 28 per cent since the Act was adopted in 2002.

Otto says funding is scattered among at-risk species without being prioritized “in an overarching fashion,” and in the absence of sufficient information about whether or not management strategies will be effective.

“That scattershot approach, I would say that’s the metaphor for having field medics that aren’t triaging,” she observes. “They’re running around trying to figure out what they can do.”  

Priority threat management has worried some scientists, who point out that the federal government is legally required to oversee recovery of more than 700 species listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, including southern mountain caribou. The David Suzuki Foundation fears the methodology could be used by governments and industry as an excuse for the continued destruction of endangered species habitat, a leading cause of extirpations and extinctions.

“It provides a perverse incentive to industrial players that drive species to the point at which they are deemed ‘too costly’ to save,” scientist David Suzuki wrote in an October blog post. “If species are abandoned, so are requirements for habitat protection and restoration that many industries see as limiting to their bottom line.”

“I absolutely in my heart wish it weren’t a business case issue…”

But Martin says priority threat management strengthens the business case for protecting as many at-risk species as possible.

“I absolutely in my heart wish it weren’t a business case issue because I have such a strong intrinsic valuation for species,” she says.

“What we’re doing is providing guidance. We’re saying that ‘there’s limited resources to invest, here’s how you invest them to save as many things as possible.’ At the moment we just don’t know the price tag for saving all of B.C.’s species at risk, or all of Canada’s species at risk. We need to understand what this will cost so we can close the funding gap.”

Brass tacks for B.C.’s Kootenay Boundary Region

In an e-mailed statement, the B.C. environment ministry confirmed that the provincial government plans “to build” on the pilot study “and lessons learned” as it develops species at risk legislation, “in order to help ensure that our recovery efforts provide the highest conservation benefits for taxpayer dollars.”

At Queensland University in Brisbane, Australia, Martin studied with the famous mathematician and biologist Hugh Possingham, who twinned species conservation with the field of decision science.

“It was definitely an ‘aha’ moment when I realized [that] trying to save everything was not going to work given that we didn’t have the resources to save everything,” Martin recalls. “We were squandering those resources, chasing species that had the lowest chance of recovery at the highest cost.”

Martin extended Possingham’s work on individual species to entire ecosystems, with an eye to highlighting management strategies — for example, habitat protection, disease management, or pollution and pesticide management — that would benefit as many species as possible.

She returned to B.C. in 2012 with a PhD that predicted the impact of livestock grazing on Australia’s woodland bird populations like the black-chinned honeyeater, a crow-sized bird that extracts nectar from flowers.

B.C.’s former Liberal government heard about Martin’s work and asked her to help lead the pilot study in the Kootenay Boundary area, a rugged mountainous landscape in B.C.’s southwest that covers eight million hectares.

The biodiverse region is home to 56 species and four ecological communities that the B.C. and federal governments list as vulnerable to extinction. They include fish such as white sturgeon and bull trout, mammals like the American badger, the Gillette’s Checkerspot butterfly and birds like the bobolink, a small blackbird with a bubbly, tinkling song that winters in South America.

The region is also home to 150,000 humans and an abundance of activities that have impacted species now struggling to persist, including extensive mining, smelting, logging, agriculture, hydroelectric power generation, ranching and tourism.

When Martin and government scientists applied priority threat management to the Kootenay Boundary area, they discovered that four species, including southern mountain caribou, are so close to local extinction that fast-disappearing populations are unlikely to persist no matter what actions are taken.

Joining caribou on what Martin calls the regional “extreme intensive care” list is the sharp-tailed grouse, a prairie chicken that congregates in places known as leks, where males pouf out their purple neck pouches and hold elaborate, foot-stomping dancing competitions to attract a mate. According to the pilot study, the grouse is already extirpated from the region.

The northern leopard frog, and the southern maidenhair fern — species which, along with the sharp-tailed grouse, are at the extent of their range in the Kootenay Boundary — are also on the list.

Sharp-tailed grouse

A sharp-tailed grouse in flight. The species is extirpated, locally extinct, in the B.C. Kootenay Boundary Region. Photo: Murray Foubister / Flickr

If we spend $1.6 million a year on optimal management strategies, the pilot study found that 51 of those 60 at-risk species have a greater than 50 per cent chance of persisting in 20 years. Those species include the blotched tiger salamander, of the world’s largest land-dwelling salamanders.

If we toss in another $4.5 million a year, the prairie falcon and Kootenay River white sturgeon are also likely to persist in the region in two decades.

And for $22 million a year over 20 years, all of the at-risk species and ecological communities — minus the four on the extreme intensive care list — are likely to persist “at levels sufficient to maintain viable, self-sustaining populations or ecosystems,” according to the study.  

Governments ‘shirking their responsibilities’

Martin says governments are “shirking their responsibilities and are not prioritizing conservation of species.”

“We’re in a position where we have insufficient resources,” she says. “And I think a large reason for this lack of resources is that we haven’t presented a clear business case for saving biodiversity. We have not articulated what it costs to save species and what the likelihood of success is.”

Martin and her postdoctoral fellow Laura Kehoe have also applied priority threat management methodology to Saskatchewan’s south of the divide region and B.C.’s intensely developed Fraser River area.

The 101 at-risk species in the Fraser area range from iconic southern resident orcas to the short-eared owl, a trio of bat species, and coastal ecosystem species such as the horned lark, western bumblebee and barn swallow.

For just under $500 million spent on optimal management strategies in the Fraser, there is a greater than 50 per cent chance that every single one of those species — including orcas — will have viable, thriving populations in 20 years, Martin says.

“If we act quickly we have a chance to save these species from extinction, but they’re already in a very dire state,” she cautions.

Otto, a Canada Research Chair in Theoretical and Experimental Evolution, also sees value in knowing how much it will cost to save at-risk species and comparing that to current spending levels.

“Then we have better information to tell the public and government, ‘well, at this level of conservation investment we’re not going to be able to protect the species we care about.’ In that sense, the goal is really to say where’s the mismatch between what we want as a society and what we’re doing and investing.”

The pilot study only looked at the Kootenay Boundary region, and not at other regions with endangered southern mountain caribou, including in the Peace, where construction of the W.A.C. Bennett hydro dam in the 1960s severed a key migration route, setting off a downward spiral from which local caribou populations have never recovered.

“The caveat is that we’ve only looked at this one particular region,” says Martin.

“If caribou have a chance, we need to be looking at management actions beyond the Kootenay region. It’s not the nail in the coffin necessarily for southern mountain caribou.”

This report was produced with financial assistance from the Unchartered Journalism Fund.

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