BC’ s Shortchanged Species

A decade ago, Canada led the global fight to preserve biological diversity . Canada was the first nation to sign the International Convention on Biodiversity at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and was the first industrialized nation to ratify it.

So, what has Canada done since then to back up its words with action? Almost nothing. In fact, British Columbia — the nation's most biologically diverse province — has significantly weakened protection for all wildlife species since 1992. And, in the case of the beleaguered northern spotted owl, the BC government’s own logging operations are at least partly to blame for the owl’ s slide toward oblivion. 

The mission of the Convention on Biodiversity was to halt the mass extinctions that have been occurring in recent decades, caused almost exclusively by the reduction and degradation of habitat through human activities such as deforestation, intensive agriculture, and urbanization. 

“Canada recognized that stemming the accelerating loss of biodiversity would require concerted and cooperative action by the nations of the world, and that it was in our best interest, as a nation, to assist other countries in achieving this end,” wrote the late Arthur Campeau, who headed the Canadian delegation in the negotiations for the Convention on Biodiversity. 

But living up to that pledge means Canada must also protect critical wildlife habitat within its borders, which the country has not done.

For years, the Canadian Parliament found it difficult to pass even a weak endangered species law . Twice Parliament voted down the legislation. Finally , in December 2002 the Parliament passed the “Species at Risk Act,” which prompted David Anderson, Minister of the Environment, to claim Canada’ s endangered species were now safe: “Today we fulfilled a commitment made by this government to ensure protection for species at risk and the places where they live. Protecting species at risk is a shared responsibility of all governments in Canada. This Act ensures the federal responsibility is met, and it also helps to fulfill some of Canada's international obligations under the Biodiversity Convention.”

But the new law , which takes effect in June 2003, offers almost no protection for habitat other than habitat used by migratory bird species and salmon. For most other species, the new law prohibits killing a listed species or its nest or den but fails to protect any habitat unless the land is owned by the federal government. But this is a red herring.

Unlike the US, where federal owner- ship dominates, most of Canada is owned by the provinces.

In British Columbia the federal government owns just 1 percent of all forests. The province owns 95 percent. BC has no law providing any special protection for endangered species habitat, and its general wildlife protection laws have been severely weakened recently by the new BC government under Premier Gordon Campbell.

The consensus among scientists is that Canada’ s Species at Risk Act will “do virtually nothing” to halt most imperiled species, says Dr . Brian Horejsi, a grizzly bear expert at the University of Alberta in Calgary . “The biggest roadblock to any remote possibility of effectiveness is it applies only to federal lands, and there are almost no federal lands in Canada.”     

The Grizzly bears, northern spotted owls, mountain caribou and many other animals “are almost completely defenseless in the context of this federal legislation,” Horejsi says. The new law also fails to protect transboundary species — defined as species that roam between the US and Canada. “The federal government has completely abdicated its responsibility ,” says Gwen Barlee of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. “Courts have clearly stated that transboundary species are under federal jurisdiction. This law is astoundingly weak.”

“Habitat loss is the primary cause of species loss and decline yet habitat protection under the bill comes 'too little, too late' to ensure species and habitat protection,” said Kate Smallwood of the Endangered Species Coalition in Canada.  Smallwood said the new law also provides no timetable for completing plans to recover endangered species.

In 2001, more than 1,400 scientists in North America signed a letter saying Canada's remarkable biodiversity is at risk. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, the body responsible for determining the national status of species, has identified 402 at-risk species. It will add more names to the list as studies are completed.

Not that it will necessarily more any difference.

Spirit Bear

There may be between 100 and 1,000 spirit bears on earth, all living on the central and north coast of BC. No one knows the precise number because scientists have yet to do a population study .  

Though the spirit bear is widely loved as one of Canada’ s most charismatic animals, it suffers from the lack of official government attention. It is not listed as a threatened or endangered species and isn’t even mentioned in the federal government’ s most recent report on the general status of species in Canada. But the spirit bear may be closer to extinction than most species in Canada, says Dr . Brian Horejsi, a biologist at the University of Alberta in Calgary . Horejsi has done a series of studies for the Raincoast Conservation Society , an environmental group based in Victoria.

The spirit bear is actually a black bear with a light colored coat. It occurs when both black bear parents possess a certain recessive gene. The only black bears in the world that possess that gene live on BC’ s central coast. For that reason, scientists view this population of black bears a as separate subspecies.

“The black ones are as important to us genetically as the white ones, if they carry the recessive gene,” says Dr . Wayne McCrory , a biologist with the Valhalla Wilderness Society .

What spirit bears need

Spirit bears inhabit the lush, coniferous rainforest north of Bella Bella, mainly on Princess Royal Island, and inland along the Skeena River . Most forest habitats used by spirit bears grow to be very old, especially along the stormy edge of the continent where the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountains meet. Spirit bears thrive on a diet of green plants, berries and salmon. In the winter , they hibernate in dry cavities inside giant old trees.  

The hibernating bear slowly digests its stored body fat. The young are often born while the mother bear is still in hibernation. The tiny bear cubs, born blind and Photo by Ian McAllister/Raincoast defenseless, stay in the den until spring, when the mother wakes and takes them on their first foray into the larger world of the rainforest.

Problems they face

One of the most devastating effects of logging in ancient forests is the removal of the huge old trees that provide dens.  

McCrory found that more than 70 percent of the old-tree winter denning habitat for Kermode bears could be lost over the next century . This would have a devastating long-term impact on the bear’ s survival.

Prognosis

On April 4, 2001, the British Columbia provincial government established a 168,000- hectare “Spirit Bear Protection bear needs more space. “If we can get adequate protection — by adequate I mean at least 250,000 hectares and if they do appropriate logging in the lands in between — we feel that will be just adequate. With less than that we don't have much of a comfort level. There are now negotiations to protect more.”

Northern Spotted Owl

The northern spotted owl earned its fame as the icon for ancient forests in western Washington, Oregon and California. Federal courts invoked the US Endangered Species Act as they ordered a halt to log in those forests, which happened to be the owl’ s favorite place to live. In BC, where there is no such law , the owl has been logged almost to extinction. It is listed as endangered both in Canada and the US. BC’ s total owl population has dwindled to about 25 breeding pairs in the province and dropping. Unless the owl receives a greater measure of protection, government scientists predict its extinction in BC within 10 years. The total known population throughout its range down to Northern California is 4,000 pairs.

What spotted owls need

Northern spotted owls require old growth forests for nesting and foraging.

Problems they face

Massive new clearcuts are planned in prime habitat for northern spotted owls, increasing their risk of extirpation from British Columbia. Timber companies have announced plans to slow down logging in the owl habitat, but government logging operations continue.

Prognosis

Given the owl's precarious state, the BC government has developed a Spotted Owl Management Plan. But this plan is so empty of protection for the owl that scientists hired by the government refused to endorse it. The plan provides nominal protection, but only if it doesn't disrupt logging. In August 2002, B.C. Supreme Court Justice James Shabbits found that while the spotted owl was at grave risk of extinction, there was nothing in the province's existing forestry laws to prevent continued logging of the owl's endangered habitat.

“The (B.C.) legislature could have enacted legislation that protects the owl from the risk of extirpation caused it by harvesting of old growth forests,” Shabbits ruled. “In my opinion, it did not do so...”

With the BC government continuing to log owl habitat, there is no new reason to expect the downward population trend will change. “If they are serious about saving the spotted owl in

Canada, they will stop that logging,” said Gwen Barlee of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

Wild salmon

In streams along BC's central and north coast, scientists know little about the health of salmon runs. But in streams where reliable information does exist, the status of salmon is often alarming.

A 2000 study by the Raincoast Conservation Society found that 74 percent of salmon streams with reliable data were home to runs in either depressed or very depressed condition.

What salmon need

Salmon require river bottom gravels for spawning and deep pools for rearing in cool, clean coastal streams. In areas being logged, they require a no-logging zone along streambanks to prevent rivers from filling with silt, and to provide woody debris that can fall into the stream.

Problems they face

Relaxed regulation of forest practices in BC threatens to wipe out good salmon habitat. Over -fishing has pushed the numbers of many returning salmon stocks below sustainable levels. Much of this decline is caused by the ocean fishing which catches endangered stocks mixed in with more healthy stocks.

The killing of salmon at sea com- pounds the problem by robbing forest ecosystems of nutrients. Salmon bring nutrients from the ocean to the stream and forest. These nutrients feed the forests and future generations of salmon.

At one time, between 260 million and 570 million pounds of salmon once returned to BC rivers. Now only one-quarter to one-half that amount reaches the forest. The government has never factored in the importance of salmon to forest ecosystems when it sets harvest levels for salmon.

A third problem is the proliferation of salmon farms. The farms produce huge amounts of waste and are breeding grounds for pathogens. Alien species raised at the farms, usually Atlantic salmon, often escape in huge numbers. Escapees fight wild salmon for food and habitat. decline of wild stocks is likely to continue, even in pristine watersheds.

The BC government recently lifted a moratorium on new salmon farms, enabling the number of farms and the problems they cause to increase.

Grizzly Bear

The southern extent of the grizzly's range has been destroyed, largely by habitat loss from logging and urbanization.

Only a few small isolated patches of habitat are presently occupied by grizzlies below the 49th parallel. What grizzly bears need: A lar g e interconnected network of roadless forest habitat, and access in fall to salmon.

Problems they face

The same pressures that have driven grizzly bears to the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states are threatening grizzlies in BC. Clearcut logging and sport hunting are primary concerns. British Columbia is the last refuge of this large carnivore, but scientists are not sure how many are left.

Official figures put the number of grizzly bears in BC at about 14,000, but many independent scientists suggest the actual grizzly population is significantly lower as a result of hunting overkill and habitat destruction. Hunters legally kill an average of 300 grizzlies per year , with approximately another 50 killed annually for public safety purposes and an additional unknown number killed by poachers.

Along the central and north coast, conservationists are finding a disturbing absence of grizzly bears, even within salmon producing systems during the fall when salmon are running. The Raincoast Conservation Society has obtained a confidential government report that predicts a serious decline in grizzly populations across BC as a result of hunting and other human induced mortality . The report states that there is a 50 percent chance that grizzly bear populations will decline at rates exceeding 20 percent over 30 years.

In southeast BC, researchers have witnessed a sharp decline in grizzly populations. Horejsi says at least 11 small populations of grizzly in that part of the province are either threatened or endangered.

“I would expect those populations would become extirpated,” he said. “Those populations are the living dead.”

Although grizzly hunting is now banned in the area, the BC government waited until fewer than 30 bears remained before implementing the ban, says Nadine Dechiron of the Granby Wilderness Society Meanwhile, timber companies like Portland-based Pope & Talbot are logging grizzly habitat “as fast as they can,” she says.

The BC government recently approved a hard rock gold mine in grizzly habitat near Granby . A proposed highway through that area is under study . Clearcut logging and roadbuilding policies, coupled with sport hunting, poaching and salmon declines, spell potential disaster for grizzly bears.

Grizzlies may be either temporarily or permanently displaced from habitats near roads. Roads fragment the ecological, behavioral and physical continuity of habitat, as well as destroy habitat. Grizzly bear mortality is typically substantially greater in areas with roads compared to roadless areas.

Logging roads also allow easy access for hunters and poachers in previously inaccessible wilderness areas.

Prognosis

Scientists believe that a large interconnected network of core grizzly bear habitat must be established in the Great Bear Rainforest to ensure the long-term survival of North American coastal grizzly bears, something the current BC government is not likely to do.

The BC government has ended a temporary moratorium on the grizzly hunt and has thrown out regulations meant to protect grizzly habitat.

Coastal Wolf

Once the most widespread mammals on earth, wolves have been extirpated by habitat loss and persecution by humans from over 40 percent all of their historical range in North America. Observations of wolves by the Raincoast Conservation Society scientists and members of local communities suggest that wolves are found in large numbers in the Great Bear Rainforest.

What coastal wolves need

Wolves in the Great Bear Rainforest are genetically distinct from wolves that live in the BC Interior , feeding largely on their principal prey , Sitka black-tailed deer .

Coastal wolves are inextricably linked to coastal old-growth forests. This habitat provides food and shelter for deer . In return, the wolves ensure that deer populations do not over exploit the resources of their habitat.

Problems they face

Logging reduces the capacity of coastal ecosystems to support both wolves and deer . As deer numbers decline, wolf populations plummet. More immediate and severe consequences also follow logging. Logging roads provide access for hunters and poachers into otherwise remote wilderness.

In Alaska, where forestry has been intense, humans killed more than 60 percent of the study animals; more than 80 percent of all mortality was due to humans. The number of wolves killed was positively correlated with logging road density.

A study by the Raincoast Conservation Society in 2000 provided the first comprehensive report on the distribution of central coast wolf populations. The study found that wolf-deer systems in the Great Bear Rainforest face a significant threat from large-scale industrial clearcut logging.

Many wildlife scientists believe that clearcut logging can permanently reduce the capability of forests to support deer , which has clear and serious consequences for wolves.

Prognosis

As top-level predators, wolves are crucial to the integrity of biological communities. In the face of similar large-scale industrial forestry in the Great Bear Rainforest, the Raincoast Conservation Society has launched a proactive scientific inquiry into the area' s wolves.

But efforts to eradicate wolves may undermine progress. The BC government recently approved the culling of predators around two marmot colony areas on Vancouver Island. According to government estimates, wolf and cougar populations on the island have been in a significant decline for the past 20 years.

Up to 30 wolves (the equivalent of at least three wolf packs) and 20 cougars will be killed as a result of the cull, ostensibly to protect the endangered Vancouver Island marmot.

Mountain Caribou

Census results from 2002 show serious declines among the herds of mountain caribou across southeastern British Columbia. The mountain caribou is the most endangered large mammal in the United States, with only a single herd of 35 remaining in the Selkirk Mountains of Washington and Idaho.  

Once abundant throughout much of Canada and from Maine to Montana, there are now estimated to be just 1,850 individuals in British Columbia and the northern tips of Idaho and Washington.

Mountain caribou are the same as the woodland caribou, which were once found throughout boreal Canada. Mountain caribou make different use of their habitat and are recognized as an ecotype unique to the inland rainforests of southeast BC.

They are federally listed as part of the threatened “southern mountain population” of woodland caribou.

What mountain caribou need

Mountain caribou subsist throughout the long winters almost entirely on lichens growing on trees. Trees in their part of the world take at least 50 years to grow above snowline and support the colonization by lichens. Many lichen species can grow as slowly as 1 inch every 10 years. These are among the reasons why mountain caribou need large ranges of old growth forest.

Problems they face

Caribou hunting was once a problem but ceased in 1996. In the US, mountain caribou are protected under the Endangered Species Act. But in Canada, where there is weak endangered species protection, caribou are threatened by the continued logging of old growth forests, construction of logging roads, and an increase in motorized recreation.

Prognosis

Though recovery efforts have included augmenting declining populations by importing animals from healthier herds, success depends on the quality of habitat and its ability to sustain reintroduced animals. Mortality rates among these animals is high.

The BC government's indifference to wildlife protection is a factor — how great a factor may depend on how long this government remains in power .

Vancouver Island Marmot

There may be no species in all of Canada more endangered than the Vancouver Island marmot.

One of the world’ s 14 distinct marmot species, the Vancouver Island variety is also the rarest. It is distinguished from other marmots by its rich chocolate-brown fur and contrasting white patches.

First listed as endangered in 1980, it has collapsed from about 300 then to fewer than 30 in the wild today . All live near Mount Washington or in five watersheds in the south-central part of the island. Another 80 are being raised in a captive breeding program.

What marmots need

In the 1980s, timber companies said the marmots flourish in clearcuts. Indeed, their numbers seemed to increase in areas after they were logged. But this increase proved to be an illusion, says Jill Thompson of the Sierra Club of Canada, BC Chapter .

A few years after they settled in clearcuts, populations crashed. Marmots appear to survive best in dispersed subalpine forest meadows that are not isolated by clearcuts.  

Problems they face

Logging in the lower valleys isolates marmot populations, but there is a still a mystery behind the decline. “Even in areas that haven't been logged, marmots have been wiped out as well,” Thompson says.

Prognosis

Some scientists say the captive breeding program is the best hope for recovery . But Thompson notes that 75 percent of the island has been logged, and unless the logging stops the end of the Vancouver Island marmot may not be far ahead. Joyce Murray , Minister of Water , Land and Air Protection, approved the culling of predators around two marmot colony areas on Vancouver Island.

But Raincoast and independent carnivore specialists contend that removing wolves will end up creating additional problems for both marmot and wolf populations.

While scientists document that fifty per cent of the marmot’ s range occurs in old growth forests the province continues to do nothing to protect this critical habitat.

 

Paul Koberstein