Witnessing extinction: habitat loss, caribou and the wolf cull

New research shows habitat loss driving South Peace caribou towards extinction.

Wolves standing in the cross hairs of a gun sight



Eight environmental groups, Valhalla Wilderness Society, Pacific Wild, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Wilderness Committee, Wildlife Defence League, The Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, Wolf Awareness Inc., and Bears Matter, applaud a recently published scientific report that reveals how much habitat the caribou in the South Peace region have lost. The title of the report says it all: ‘Witnessing Extinction – Cumulative impacts across landscapes and the future loss of an evolutionarily significant unit of woodland caribou in Canada’ (Johnson et al., 2015).

“The findings of the report are shocking, but this is the very first time that, for a rapidly disappearing caribou population, we’ve had actual measurements of the amount and kind of habitat they’ve lost,” says Anne Sherrod, spokesperson for the Valhalla Wilderness Society. “Now that we know the habitat loss is severe, it puts a heavy responsibility on government to do something about it.”

Two University of Northern BC (UNBC) scientists and a government biologist who authored the peer-reviewed report emphasize that the South Peace caribou herds constitute “a unique and irreplaceable component of Canada’s biodiversity”.

They hypothesize that “this generation of resource managers and conservation professionals” may observe the extinction of these unique caribou herds if industrialization continues at current rates. Historically, vast numbers of caribou, described by the First Nations as “a sea of caribou” roamed the South Peace region, when the large areas of intact wilderness and old growth that caribou need to survive still existed. Today, hydroelectric projects, cutblocks, roads, seismic lines, open pit coal mines, as well as widespread oil and gas activity in the South Peace region have severely fragmented the landscape and reduced the old growth forests.

The authors of ‘Witnessing Extinction’studied five herds (Moberly, Burnt Pine, Quintette, Narraway, Bearhole-Redwillow) over 11 years and found that caribou are displaced from clearcuts by distances of 0.5 to 5.5 kilometers. Caribou also avoid pipelines and seismic lines by distances from 0.5 to 13.5 kilometers and based on data showing industrialization over 22 years had experienced “extreme reductions in habitat valued as high (0.6–52.9%) and very-high (0.2–65.9%) quality”.

This extreme habitat loss wiped out the Burnt Pine herd, while the Moberly herd “is declining at an annual rate of 12.7%”: its numbers dropped from 191 animals in 1997 to just 16 in 2013. The other herds have also suffered sharp declines.

In 2014, these herds were listed as “Endangered”. To save the caribou from extinction, the authors of ‘Witnessing Extinction’ recognize “the immediate need for habitat protection and restoration.” Some scientists believe that culling wolves, bears, wolverines and cougars will buy time to restore habitat and save the caribou; but even scientists who believe that are starting to recognize that culling predators without sufficient habitat protection is futile.

Chris Genovali, executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation, explains: “The wolf cull is a consequence of industrial logging and other human activity, which have transformed areas of the caribou’s habitat into a landscape that can no longer provide the food, cover, and security these animals need to survive. Rather than address the real problem, i.e., the destruction of life sustaining caribou habitat, the B.C. government has chosen to scapegoat wolves.”

Ian McAllister, Pacific Wild’s director, stressed that: “This year 73 wolves were killed from helicopters in the South Peace alone. Killing top predators will harm the whole ecosystem and not miraculously save the caribou in the absence of habitat protection. This report is damming evidence of chronic government negligence over many years in protecting these endangered herds.”

The provincial and federal governments must stop the sham caribou conservation and the wolf cull in the South Peace region. They must take the necessary radical measures to immediately arrest caribou habitat destruction, which will also serve to mitigate climate change caused by fossil fuel extraction and logging. The undersigned environmental groups demand that the provincial and federal governments do not allow the caribou to go extinct on their watch by permitting more industrialization and by failing to restore critical caribou habitat.

Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals

Bears Matter

Pacific Wild

Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Valhalla Wilderness Society

Wilderness Committee

Wildlife Defence League

Wolf Awareness Inc.

The report, “Witnessing Extinction” may be downloaded here.

Contact: Chris Genovali, 250.655.1229, ext. 225; chris@raincoast.org