Debunking feel-good conservation: A tragic Mountain Caribou recovery story

With more land closures being implemented, many stakeholders working on the Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan including snowmobilers, are fed up with feel good politics dictating the future of many British Columbian Towns.  Industry, recreation, and other species of animals feel the brunt of feel good politics that reject  science based conservation in favor of feel-good conservation, and warm fuzzy politics.

Maternity Pens

What a wonderful warm fuzzy feel good initiative.  Or is it?  “How do you capture a female caribou? First of all, you chase her with a helicopter in the open, get a net over it. Then you tranquillize it with tranquilizers that we don’t know the full side effects of,” said Pettitt, a quote from CBC article  September 02 2015

Considered a failure from a scientific standpoint, many cheered the success, and efforts of volunteers managing the maternity pen project.  Media celebrated these caring volunteers with a multitude of heart warming stories.

True facts need to be acknowledged however.  It is truly unknown if maternity pens are actually successful in caribou recovery what is certain is the fact that many animals die from this feel good initiative.  Cows and Calves experience mortality, some within the maternity pen itself, some upon capture, and some upon release.

We have between 8 and 11 Caribou up the Kootenay pass. Many attempts at saving this herd through land closures, and transplants have proved futile. Realistically it stood very little chance of being effective, for 7 recommendations from the progress board in it’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan (MCRIP) were greatly ignored.  All seven recommendations had to happen simultaneously in order to be effective, but the optics of predator control seen as cruel prevented continuity.  Too little too late is a common feeling.  Lack of simultaneously implementing the progress board’s recommendations due to optics cratered caribou recovery efforts.

The new MCRIP recommendations are as follows: 

  •  work with Environment and Climate Change Canada to recover caribou on an urgent timeline and ensure BC’s perspectives and needs are met;
     Increase active monitoring of caribou herds to ensure an accurate assessment of herd condition
    and effectiveness of management actions
     Captive breeding that has direct application to mountain caribou
     Fund monitoring and enforcement of recreational and commercial recreation orders in caribou habitat, including un-tenured operators
     Expedite development of herd management plans that consider the full range of management options
     Predator management, prey management, captive breeding, to prevent or reverse herd declines

There is no reccommendation for maternity pen projects. Have you ever wondered what it takes to implement a caribou maternity pen project?

Once upon a time, in the Selkirk Mountains….. (This story will be better appreciated with Pan flute music in the background)very sad feel-good conservation music

Imagine for a moment, you’re enjoying a peaceful day up in the back country with your family. Birds are singing, a bubbling cold water stream is heard near by.  Enjoying a wonderful meal of lichen a sense of foreboding fills you, deep within your soul.

You hear a sound “Thump Thump Thump” approaching.

Suddenly a helicopter appears out of no where chasing you and your family. You all run for your lives.  The helicopter crew is persistent and chase you down until they are close enough to throw a net over you.. Tumbling over and over, caught in net, and completely terrified, panic consumes your mind body and soul. You feel the pain from crashing and tumbling to the ground onto sharp shale rocks, stumps and trees. They approach in a swift and efficient manner.  You are then blind folded, abducted and sent to a concentration camp with others of your kind.

Now imagine for a moment you are pregnant. What could possibly go wrong with terrorizing, brutally capturing and transporting a pregnant mammal?

With no reliable food source in the concentration camp you rely on your captors for food and hydration. You witness some of the others captured die before you. Some from their injuries, some from stress, and some starvation and dehydration.

You really don’t have much of an appetite in this prison like pen. Not only are your captors aware of your every move, you sense predators waiting in the wings. Wolves, cougars, wolverine and grizzly bears are waiting for their opportunity secure sustenance.

Time drags on like an eternity.  Giving birth in the prison camp is stressul and foreign.  Surely this can’t be how will be for your child.  Gone is the security of natural habitat.  One spring morning the prison gates are opened.

“May the odds be ever in your favor” your smug captors say before opening the gates.  You have heard whispers from those captured and held against their will, of wolves entering these Maternity Pens and attacking.  Cougar and Grizzly Bears waiting in the wings. You know there are predators out there waiting. You’ve smelled and sensed them for some time.. but what else can you do but run for your life with your newborn child terrified by your side.  You are lost and scared, completely disoriented.  Where is home, where are my friends?

Wandering aimlessly for weeks, you smell something familiar.  The smell of another who was in the same camp, held against their will  is near by.  That feeling of security and joy is fleeting however, when you realize to your horror, the carcass of one of your friends, and their child half eaten lay frozen in the snow.  The smell of predators is strong.

Time goes on, and the shock of being tortured and held against your will starts to wear off.  You find food, and friends once again.  Life seems to be back on track for you and your growing child approaching maturity.  Calm and peace are felt once more.

Suddenly there is that familiar humming sound in the air. Thump Thump Thump Thump. You’ve heard this sound before.  The helicopter is near.  As it swoops down, you feel the net once more restricting your every movement.  Pain.  So much pain, tumbling over and over until it all goes black and life fades away along with the life if the unborn child within you.

Now that I have explained Maternity Pen reality in a way that could perhaps be understood by warm fuzzy feel gooders, lets take a look at science vs warm fuzzies.

Anthropomorphism.  a mouthful of a word to say and spell for certain.  This was one of the first words I learned when I went to school for my work in Conservation.  To attribute human characteristics to animals, and inanimate objects in an attempt to instigate an emotional response.  Anthropomorphization is a definite no-no when it comes to science based conservation because it clouds perspective and urges emotional reactions and responses.  “Oh that poor mother bear needs to feed her babies, I’ll leave my apples out for them”.  A pretty common statement I hear when out in the field.  My job is to prevent human wildlife conflict.  Human’s have a need to feel important and valued when they feel affection for wildlife.

What do they do?  Intervene, not necessarily for the well-being of the animal, but for their own self fulfillment.  Warm fuzzy feelings have been killing animals for decades if not longer.  A fed bear is a dead bear I explain, for once that bear becomes human food conditioned, that “mother bear and her babies” correctly identified as a sow with cubs will have to be destroyed.  The Conservation officer didn’t kill the bear, the warm fuzzy do gooder did the moment they allowed wild animals to become human food conditioned.

Describing feel good Caribou conservation from an Anthropomorphic perspective in my little story above does initiate an emotional response.  Why would we torture an animal who is considered critically at risk?  Why would we continue to pursue avenues of recovery that have zero impact on populations?  The answer is simply because humans like to feel good.

Facts: 

Lack of success casts doubt on Maternity Pens:  It is unclear if maternity pens actually work.  With conflicting data, cow and calf mortality and marginal survival of animals released the Provincial Progress board voted against a maternity pen for the South Selkirk Mountain Caribou herd.

Viable herd numbers: There are between 8 and 11 Mountain Caribou in the South Selkirk Herd. A viable herd number is considered 35 animals.

Private funding moves Penning Project forward: While a maternity pen was voted against by the Provincial Progress board, private funding from First Nation bands have secured maternity penning on Privately owned Nature Conservancy of Canada land formerly known as Darkwoods.  “Constructing a maternal pen is a lot of work, it costs a lot of money, and there’s no promise that it will actually succeed. No one benefits monetarily from trying to stop the extinction of this herd, but the people fighting for these animals are in it for another reason.  “It’s a matter of the heart,” Merz admits. For the people of the Kootenai tribe and their neighbors, the Kalispel in northeastern Washington, it’s also an issue of cultural identity and survival.”  I see no mention of Science Based Conservation instead “cultural identity”  “Matter of the Heart”… Is this reason enough to justify the torture animals who are already struggling to survive?   read more here 

Before someone accuses me of disrespecting First Nations culture, let it be known that I have a tremendous amount of respect for First Nation’s culture and traditions.  My feelings however, are irrelevant in science based conservation efforts as it should be, as science tells us it should be.

Calf Mortality: Little evidence suggests that the herd up the Salmo Creston Pass has experienced successful calving in some time. With no calves surviving to maturity and three caribou losing their lives to the Highway of Caribou tears in the past two years since the last census,  calculations would tell us that there are eight caribou or less in the South Selkirk Herd.

Viable fertility concerns: It is unclear if the cows in the South Selkirk herd are still fertile. Age may play a huge factor in relationship to fertility.

It is also unclear if there is enough genetic diversity within the herd to actually augment herd numbers.

Habituation: The South Selkirk Herd has become habituated to humans, spending much time at the top of the Kootenay Pass interacting with humans and YRB road maintenance crews.

Vehicle collision based Mortality: Many caribou have lost their lives on the Salmo Creston Pass.  The more they linger around humans and the highway the more likely they are to get into a motor vehicle collision

Climate change:

Climate Change affects caribou habitat: Climate change is an accepted fact in today’s scientific community.  Climate change projects a dismal future for Caribou.  Science tells us that in the very near future, Southern British Columbia will not host viable caribou habitat due to the effects of Climate Change.

Government and the international scientific community have a difficult time agreeing on the definition of Mountain Caribou, so when researching facts, bear in mind, some scientists still consider the Mountain Caribou a Woodland Caribou as is in this situation not separating the eco-types.  “The woodland caribou is already an endangered species in southern Canada and the United States. The warming of the planet means the disappearance of their critical habitat in these regions. Caribou need undisturbed lichen-rich environments and these types of habitats are disappearing,” said Musiani, noting that the study projected how the environment will change by the year 2080.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2013-12-climate-endanger-caribou-habitat.html#jCp

Uneducated superstar activists skew truth and optics:  Not so educated entertainers feed feel good conservation: Feel good conservation is counter productive:  With a variety of special interest groups approaching conservation from a feel good standpoint is there any doubt that this type of effort will always have a negative impact on wildlife populations?

Caribou numbers have, for decades felt the brunt of feel good politics.  Predator management was considered one of the crucial levers to pull simultaneously with other reccommendations such as securing habitat.  Predator management was hampered when high profile scientists like Miley Cyrus get involved encouraging the public to speak against the wolf call.  Oh wait… that’s right she isn’t a scientist, with no formal education in relationship to conservation or biology.  This little wrecking ball of a girl is an entertainer… doesn’t that just make your “skin crawl” in a Jane Fonda like way.  Miley Cyrus on predator management

Feel good politics destroy effective conservation: In a recent ruling, the hunting of Grizzly bears has been Banned in British Columbia by the NDP/Green alliance.  Oh the cheers of “victory” from those who do not understand the important role hunting lends to conservation.  What was hidden from the media was the fact that Guide and outfitters are now forced to fulfill their entire quota that was to span a period of 5 years in one hunting season.  That must have skipped the feel good headlines, along with the fact that in dense populations, boar grizzly bears will kill cubs, so they can breed with a sow that will carry on their genetics.  In the following video you’ll see a Grizzly Boar preying upon and killing cubs.  Typically this large, mature boar is the animal sought out by hunters as it is illegal to shoot a bear in a family unit.  View discretion is advised, as there are some gruesome images. Grizzly Bear boar kills cubs  

 

What about the big picture?: Feel good conservation looks at single species management without taking into account the big picture and the effect of their efforts on other wildlife and habitat in the area.  Caribou is a prime example of this.  Competitive prey reduction is an initiative that has had little if zero effect on caribou numbers.  Beginning in 2003, 1500 moose were reduced from the Revelstoke BC back country in a deliberate attempt to reduce wolf populations. The Hail Mary hope was that by removing food opportunity wolves would have less food, and their population would reduce, and the pressure would be taken off of Caribou.  It was an experiment, for no scientific modelling could guarantee success, costing 1500 moose their lives.

“Overall, these experiments suggest that increased hunting permits can effectively
reduce moose populations but there is mixed evidence that this translates to a reduction
in wolf numbers. There is some evidence that caribou populations can be stabilized by
reducing moose numbers but there are no cases to date of caribou populations
increasing following this treatment. ”  March 2016 A Review of population-based management of Southern Mountain caribou in BC
Millions of tax payers dollars blown on guesses and feelgood conservation:

Millions of dollars have been blown on the South Selkirk herd.  Failed transplants which saw the demise of dozens of caribou who were once living peaceful viable lives in Dease Lake BC were sentenced to death.  Many questioned the transplants, for the difference in ecotypes, meant the animals transplanted were not equipped for mountain life.  The Dease lake caribou were used to pawing for food,  not eating lichen in the trees. Those who questioned transplant viability were correct.  Yet another failed attempt with feel good conservation.  ”

“The hope was that the 19 survivors would meet up and join the resident Purcell herd, which was down to 14 animals. But instead, just the opposite happened. The northern caribou fanned out, apparently looking for something.

“Several went into Montana, one recently went into Washington,” said project leader, Steve Gordon.

“Whenever you are embarking on a transplant like this, it’s a risky endeavour. It’s kind of a critical intervention to try and restore this herd. We didn’t anticipate this level of mortality though,” said Gordon.

While government biologists might not have anticipated this outcome, opponents did. Moving northern caribou south has been tried before, according to Carmen Purdy, president of the Kootenay Wildlife Heritage Fund.

“They don’t make it. The last three transplants haven’t worked. Why do we keep trying the same thing over and over again?” read more here

 

My question why do human’s support feel good conservation that tortures and kills more wildlife than it actually recovers rather than Science based big picture thinking?

Our Kokanee Country Snowmobile Club has felt the brunt of emotion based Conservation.  Losing almost half of our riding area up the Kootenay Pass, we are locked out while logging and mining operations commence in “critical caribou habitat”. Currently over 4.9 million acres of riding are has been closed to snowmobiling, with more closures looming on the horizon.

As a user group, we are “the low hanging fruit” Easy to pick on and a wonderful scapegoat for mountain caribou recovery efforts.  It’s easy to pick on snowmobilers, for quite often we are our own worst enemy with every indiscretion and accident our user group experience makes is broadcast by main stream media instigating emotions of hate and disgust from urbanites.  Mining and Logging keep rural British Columbian towns alive, but many don’t consider the billions of dollars the sport of snowmobiling brings to our province and country.

We as a user group have asked for viable solutions such as exclosure pens, captive breeding, and for the struggling herd of caribou in the South Selkirk to be translocated to a more viable herd, with genetic diversity and strength in numbers protection. We have asked to be a part of the proccess, offering time and effort should an exclosure pen be errected for the South Selkirk’s dwindling herd.  Snowmobilers have been shut out completely.  Not permitted to attend stakeholder meetings, our voice disregarded, our questions left unanswered.  I have so many questions that seem to be burried away in some magical place.  Not even media search can find the answers to these questions.

  1.  If Caribou herds are affected by wolf predation, why were wolves transplanted into Ymir BC, a stones throw from the NCC Maternity pen, and into critical caribou habitat?  Occuring around 2012, eye witnesses observed this transplant, including my children and I who lived in the town at the time.
  2. If we are actively pursuing predator management and culling some wolves, why was there a recent wolf transplant near critical caribou habitat that is being protected for the South Selkirk herd?
  3. Was there a scenario unreported to the general public where a herd of caribou was run off a cliff by a helicopter working with caribou recovery?  Eye witnesses within the aviation hanger were present that day, but there is absolutely no media reporting on this event.
  4. At what point is a herd considered too far gone?  We’ve been quoted the number of 35 is the magic viable herd number.  Why the time, energy and torture of animals when a herd is scientifically seen as not viable?
  5. Why are mining and logging allowed when areas are closed to snowmobiling?  Our treasure of a honey hole near Arkansas lake was an incredible area recently closed.  Due to staging restrictions, this area would see from six to eight snowmobiles per week.  Closed last year, I was shocked to see logging operations commencing, along with the Bayonne Mine reopened.  The traffic the noise and habitat destruction have a far greater impact on the displacement of caribou than eight snowmobilers of a week.  How is this justified?
  6. Why is old telemetry used to try to justify closures.  Data from the 80’s and 90’s is presented by biologists to try to impress upon our user group lands being utilized by caribou.  Those little green dots have long since died, and herd numbers plumeted.  We see zero evidence of caribou tracks or the animals themselves.  We surveyed our club members, some who have been recreating up the Salmo Creston Pass for decades, and asked our membership if they had ever seen a caribou up the pass while out riding.  All but one individual said no, but the majority of members have seen Caribou on the summit on the highway at the summit lake rest stop and YRB maintenance yard.

These questions are never answered, and perhaps never will be answered which is the way of Feel Good Conservation vs Science based conservation.  It is sad, for everyone loses but for those receiving a paycheque for all their hard work, and those who thrive on warm fuzzy feelings.

 

 

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