New research shows continued habitat loss will drive caribou to extinction in B.C.

The endangered woodland caribou of Western Canada will be lost forever if direct action isn’t taken soon, according to a new study funded in part by B.C., Alberta, and the federal government. 

The study shows that caribou have lost twice as much habitat as they’ve gained over the past 12 years. Research shows that logging, road building, forest fires and climate change are the main factors driving the increased rate of habitat loss.

“The issue with caribou is that they really don’t do well around things like logging or oil and gas development and road building,” Jesse Zeman, director of fish and wildlife restoration with the B.C. Wildlife Federation said on CBC’s Daybreak South

“What this paper tells us is that … caribou over the long run is [getting] closer and closer to extinction as we move forward.” 

The B.C. Wildlife Federation has been advocating for the government to take steps in preventing habitat loss for caribou. Zeman says the government has known since the ’70s that habitat loss is the biggest reason why caribou are headed for extinction, but not enough has been done to prevent it.

“Both governments need to come out and either say, we want caribou on these landscapes and we’re going to protect more habitat … or we’re going to give up. I think they need to be clearer to the public what their intent is.”

‘Not enough’ habitat protection policies

Zeman said the study’s data shows that the government’s approach has been failing and caribou will go extinct if legislation, policies and plans aren’t put in place to help slow habitat loss.

“We’ve got probably four decades of provincial and federal governments doing a lot of talking, and in this case what the data shows and what the science shows is that the talking is unsupported by action,” he said.

A woodland caribou is pictured near the Alaska Highway at Stone Mountain Provincial Park, B.C. (Jukka Jantunen/Shutterstock)

Factors for habitat loss vary but Zeman says there things we can do to mitigate the loss and help increase the number of caribou. 

“Climate change will play a role, a wildfire will play a role, but we have control over these other mechanisms,” he said. “And we know that if we stop logging or manage it more sustainably, things will get better for caribou.”

Zeman suggests the government release annual reports showing how much habitat they have saved or protected, which will allow Canadians to understand the objective, see the outcome, and know what’s going on with the caribou population in B.C.

“If the approach is only Band-Aids and continued resource extraction in these areas, we will lose caribou,” Zeman said.

Caribou a ‘critical piece of culture’

Hunting caribou was once an important part of the culture of the West Moberly First Nations.

“We used to hunt caribou, moose and elk and buffalo,” West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Wilson said. “And you would hunt them all at different times [because] they all mate at different times. During those times of importance, you would leave them alone. They were a pretty critical piece of our culture.”

West Moberly Chief Roland Wilson says hunting for caribou was once an important part of his people’s culture. (Roland Wilson/contributed)

Because of the Species at Risk Act, he said members of the community have not been allowed to hunt or harvest caribou, which has put pressure on the other animals.

“We’ve become more dependent on moose and elk,” Wilson said. “When you look at conservation measures, you don’t hunt an animal to the brink of extinction. You hunt them when you need them and then you let them recover.”

Wilson said the community noticed a decrease in caribou in the late 1960s when BC Hydro’s flooding of the Williston Reservoir blocked the caribou’s migration route and fragmented the population.

He says in order to stop caribou from disappearing forever, habitats need to be restored and development needs to be curtailed.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations did not respond to a request for comment before publication. 

Subscribe to CBC Daybreak South on CBC Listen, and connect with CBC Kelowna on FacebookTwitter and Instagram