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028 New wildlife promotions, Franklin artifacts, grizzly bear shenanigans, and British Columbia’s inland rainforest

In this episode, I look at a new promotion being launched in Banff to help keep wildlife safe. This year also represents the first exhibitions of the Franklin artifacts discovered by Parks Canada over the past few years, but there are still some wrinkles over ownership. Bear 148 in Banff has had some interesting encounters over the past few weeks, and finally, I take a look at one of British Columbia’s most unique forests, the Inland Rainforest.

Story 1 – Banff Officials Launch New Campaign

This summer, Parks Canada is launching a new public education campaign to try to educate visitors about the dangers of feeding animals in the park. Large images of a wolf with a plastic bottle in its mouth with the caption ‘human food kills wildlife’ are beginning to appear in and around Banff. The other key message that will appear on posters is ‘Give Wildlife Space’.

Campaigns like this are nothing new. On my first trip to the Rockies in 1980, a friend and I backpacked the South Boundary Trail in Jasper. As we registered at the Park Information Centre, we were given a garbage bag with an image of a dead red fox with a tin can stuck on its face and the message garbage kills. It was a very powerful image.

Fines for feeding or harassing wildlife can be as high as $25,000 but the cost to wildlife can be even higher.

Last summer was a difficult year for wolves in Banff National Park. Park wardens had to shoot two wolves from the Bow Valley Pack last summer when they became accustomed to being fed by campers in the Two Jack Lake Campground. You can hear the story of the beleaguered Bow Valley Pack way back on Episode 5 at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep005.

While things looked rosy for this pack at the beginning of the 2016 season with 5 adult members and 5 pups. In addition to the two wolves that had to be destroyed, four of the pups were killed by trains in two separate incidents.

By the end of the season, only 3 wolves remained in the pack. Unfortunately, in April of 2017, another member of the pack was shot during an extended walkabout into the Trout Lake area of British Columbia. It’s not uncommon for wolves to make some impressive journeys before returning to their home territory. The wolf pack is now down to just two wolves

Banff’s most famous wolf, Pluie wandered 1,200 kilometres in a single trip which took her to Montana, Idaho, parts of British Columbia and back to Banff. Her wanderings taught us a great deal about how wolves use the landscape. Ironically, she was also killed on a subsequent journey, also to British Columbia.

Over the past few decades, front-line staff has been gradually reduced in the parks and it has really begun to hurt the ability of parks to keep tabs on visitor behaviour. For a number of years, we have had the wildlife guardian programs with staff driving park roads looking for wildlife jams and educating visitors on safe behaviour around animals. It is a very successful program and it would be a great program to keep expanding.

Recently I had the opportunity to teach a number of this year’s new guardians a course in park interpretation and from what I could see, we’ve got some great new guardians ready to hit the roads this summer.

What we’ve needed for some time though is boots on the ground in campsites, as well as day-use and picnic areas. After some of the incidents last summer, there was a dramatic increase in the presence of park staff walking through places like Johnson Lake and helping to educate visitors about enjoying the park while also keeping the wildlife safe.

This is a critical aspect of public education. While signs and posters are important, it’s even more important to have those boots on the ground walking through campgrounds.

Back in episode 22, I proposed the Rocky Mountain Pledge. You can hear the story at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep022. It is based on a program being promoted in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. and I’ve adapted it for the Rockies. It’s a verbal pledge for visitors to the area to take to help them better understand ways that they can enjoy the mountains while minimizing their effect on its resources and wildlife.

Here is the pledge again:

To be a steward and help protect myself and the park, I pledge to:

  • Practice safe selfies by never approaching animals to take a picture
  • Park in designated areas and avoid blocking traffic
  • Make sure my actions do not add additional stress or danger to the wildlife I am lucky enough to view
  • Stay with my car if I’m stuck in a wildlife jam
  • Follow speed limits and pull over to let cars pass
  • Travel safely in bear country by carrying bear spray, making noise, and hiking in groups
  • Keep my food away from animals
  • Recycle what I can and put my garbage in bear-proof containers
  • Report resource violations by calling 911 or talking to a member of the park staff

This summer will be a busy one. Let’s all work together to try to make sure we don’t see news stories like last summer. Every animal matters and no selfie is worth the life of a wolf, bear, or visitor.

Story 2 – Who owns the Franklin Artifacts

After years of searching, Parks Canada solved the second part of a 160-year mystery last summer with the discovery of the final ship of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition which disappeared without a trace in 1845 while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage.

They discovered the HMS Terror in, of all places, Terror Bay, off the coast of King William Island. This lonely outpost sits in a narrow channel to the west of Baffin Bay in Canada’s Nunavut Territory.

Two years earlier, they discovered the HMS Erebus, believed to be the ship that Franklin died on.

Artifacts from the Erebus are being readied for public display while at the same time, the first detailed exploration of the Terror will soon take place. Unfortunately, it seems that ownership of the wrecks and their artifacts may be in some murky waters of their own.

Parks Canada spent millions of dollars searching for these ships. These funds follow other million dollar searches that have been ongoing ever since Franklin first vanished so long ago.

Before Parks Canada discovered the Erebus in 2014, while the ships were the property of England, the U.K. agreed to transfer ownership of all the artifacts with the exception of those significant to the royal navy…oh yah and gold. They want the gold (PS, so far no gold).

Despite this agreement, so far talks to determine ownership keep stalling out. Obviously, Canada would like to have this settled before we continue to sink more money into additional archaeological work on the two sites.

According to a recent article in the Calgary Herald, Parks Canada Spokeswoman Meaghan Bradley said: “Discussions with the government of the United Kingdom on the transfer of the Franklin artifacts are ongoing”.

At the same time, any Inuit claims to the artifacts seem to be being ignored. Parks Canada is trying to negotiate an interim agreement with the Inuit Heritage Trust but no agreements have been inked to date. According to Bradley:

“The agreement will ensure decisions related to the artifacts will be made jointly by Parks Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust”.

All of this is taking place as the first public exhibition of artifacts from the HMS Erebus are set to go on display in the U.K. soon. So far 55 artifacts from the Erebus have been recovered, and have been undergoing restoration in Ottawa. The HMS Terror is slated for some of its first archaeological explorations this summer.

Thirty-eight objects are set to be shipped to Greenwich, England for the first major public showing of these timeless artifacts.

The story of Franklin has fascinated British society for 160 years, so I’m sure the discussions will take some time to be finalized. Under the original agreement, Britain will retain objects significant to the navy. This will likely include items like the anchor, pieces of uniforms and other possible items, like the hilt of a sword recovered from the Erebus.

These two discoveries solve one of the great naval mysteries of the past 500 years. It’s important that all the parties find a way to ensure that the artifacts are treated with the respect they are due. It’s critical that claims by the Inuit, as well as the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom all work to ensure that they are properly protected and made available for people to view for the next 160 years.

Story 3 – Bear 148 gets Cranky

There have been a number of stories about bear 148 recently in the press. They have been blown out of proportion in many ways and now is the time to bring in some calmness to the discussion.

Bear 148 is the 6-1/2 year daughter of two of Banff’s most famous bears, Bear 64 and bear 122 (better known as the Boss). 148’s mother taught us more about how bears use the mountain landscape than any other bear in the history of Banff.  Her daddy is the biggest, baddest bear in the park and lays claim to the CPR mainline through Banff and Yoho national parks. He’s even been kissed by a moving freight train and lived to feed on the tracks another day.

Bear 148 took over her mother’s turf, which includes the town of Banff when her mother passed away a few years ago. If a bear can take advantage of a territory close to people, but still walk the tightrope of wildness, it can be a pretty good place to live.

We’re just heading into the calving season and so she’ll be hanging around the townsite looking to find an unattended calf. Grizzlies normally take around 45% of newborn elk and moose calves. She won’t be alone, cougars and wolves will also patrol the periphery looking for an opportunity for some elk veal.

In April, she trotted behind a Canmore woman that was kick-sledding along the Spray River Fireroad in Banff. Kick-sledding is a type of dog sledding and while dogs are not allowed on this trail in the winter, they are allowed after mid-April.

When she saw the bear, she had the dogs run faster. Bear 148 picked up speed as well. She stopped the sled and “made her presence known to the bear by yelling and waving her arms to make sure the bear understood that there was a person associated with the sled and the dogs” according to Parks Canada spokesperson Bill Hunt.

This is exactly the wrong thing to do with a bear. The bear was likely curious because of the dogs. They can be a real danger to bears and often lead to escalated encounters with bears.

In most bear encounters, you don’t want to try to intimidate the bear. The bear is not looking for a meal, it just happens to be using the same trail. It’s more worried as to whether or not you are a threat and yelling and waving your arms can give the wrong impression. This is recommended for cougars and not bears.

Bear 148 followed them for a while and then wandered off before they reached the parking lot.

In a second incident bear 148 followed a hiking party, also with a dog, for 20 minutes. They were hiking on Mount Norquay when they encountered the bear. They were not carrying bear spray at the time.

The dog began to bark, which aggravated the bear. For some reason, they thought it would be a good idea to let the dog off-leash at that time. In case you’re wondering…it’s not.

The dog did what dogs do. It chased the bear and then came running back to the hikers with the bear in tow. 148 lost interest pretty quickly though and the hikers made it unharmed to the parking lot where a Parks Canada truck was waiting.

And just this past week, 148 made headlines by walking through Banff’s high school girl’s rugby match on the playing fields in Banff. Needless to say, it was an exciting few minutes for the girls whose team is coincidentally called the bears.

Lee Garrett, an assistant coach for the girl’s team was able to call out a warning and the players all moved off to the side of the field. 148 sniffed a few of the girl’s gear bags and then just continued on her merry way. She didn’t look for food. She didn’t act aggressively. She just wandered on.

While she does have a collar on, it’s no longer working. Park staff say they plan to replace the collar in the future. Last summer, collar information gave us some great information on her wanderings and with her living in such close contact with people, a working collar is a good idea.

Bears and people. We’re neighbours here in the mountains. Everyone should be carrying bear spray on their person and not in the packs or strapped to their bikes. Learn how to stay safe in bear country and please, please, please…leave your dogs at home.

Story 4 – Interior Rainforest

When we look at the forests of western Canada, they are all a reflection of Pacific weather systems moving inland and encountering a series of mountainous obstacles. As weather systems rise and fall, they create successive wet and dry areas.

Moisture laden weather systems arriving on the west coast meet a barrier of mountains, called the coastal ranges. As they are forced to move uphill, the temperature goes downhill. Since cold clouds can’t hold as much moisture as warm ones they drop all of their moisture on the Vancouver side of the coast mountains. That’s why we like to say that in Vancouver, you don’t tan…you rust.

Globally, when we talk about temperate rainforests, we are usually talking about forests dominated by broad leaved trees. This is because, in most temperate rainforests, they receive the bulk of their precipitation in the form of summer rain, when deciduous trees are sporting leaves. British Columbia’s rainforests, on the other hand,  receive most of their rainfall between November and March when the alders and maples are leafless and lifeless. As a result, our rainforests are dominated by towering coniferous trees like western hemlock, western redcedar, and sitka spruce.

As these western systems crest the coast range, and are wrung dry, they now descend into the valleys of the Thompson and Similkameen River, entering landscapes so dry they can almost be considered a desert. While the Coast Ranges receive 5 metres of rain a year, communities like Lytton receive as little as 7.5 cm of rain in an entire year. This exceedingly dry area is known as the Interior Douglas-fir zone and represents some of the driest landscapes in Canada.

These dry weather patterns are hungry for moisture and so as they travel across the valleys of the Thompson River, and across Kamloops, Okanagan, and Shuswap Lakes, they pick up moisture, just in time to bump into the Columbia Mountains.

Once again, climbs in elevation, result in wet weather. However, unlike the 5 metres of rainfall drenching the coast, the Columbia’s only see annual precipitations ranging from 788 to 1,244 mm which is just a fraction of the 5 metres falling on the coast.

The Columbia Mountains represent a landscape often referred to as the Interior Wet Belt. In most cases, when we talk about rainforests, we’re talking about a coastal landscape. In fact, this is true for 98% of the world’s rainforests. What makes Canada’s rainforest unique is that we also have continental rainforests. What the heck is a continental rainforest you ask?

While rainforests are ALMOST exclusively a coastal phenomenon,  in rare situations, rainforest-like conditions can occur far inland from the coast. We refer to these as continental rainforests.

Summers in the Columbia Mountains are similar in temperature to the coastal rainforest, yet winters are quite a bit colder. While summer rains drop 320 to 452 mm of rain on the Columbia Mountains, it represents only a fraction of the rainfall soaking the coastal rainforests every year.

You might wonder then, why is this considered a rainforest if it doesn’t get enough, well, rain? The simplest reason is that precipitation has two forms…rain and snow. Winter snowfall in the Columbia’s can be dramatic, with higher elevations buried under 10 or more metres of snow.

This massive accumulation of snow means a long and prolonged summer melt, helping to ensure that soils never dry out. So while it doesn’t technically get enough overall moisture to really be considered a rainforest, the seemingly endless summer melt allows it to essentially simulate one. Soils that would dry out in other landscapes are constantly soaked by a seemingly endless runoff from melting winter snowfalls.

On a map, you can see the inland rainforest beginning in the north around Quesnel Lake, and running south to Sicamous, Nakusp and Creston, all the way east to the Rocky Mountain Trench.  The interior cedar-hemlock forest appears again to the east of Golden along the western slopes of the Canadian Rockies.

The actual ‘rainforest’ of the Columbia’s is found on the lower slopes. While the higher altitudes receive more moisture, it’s the lower elevation forests known as the Interior Cedar-Hemlock zone that represent the rainforest.

As a region, this ecoregion is defined by its two most distinctive residents, but as a whole, it supports the highest diversity of trees species in the province. Depending on the local conditions and age of the forest, you’ll also find grand fir, hybrid white and Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, western larch, Douglas-fir, western white pine, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, black cottonwood, trembling aspen and white birch.

These interior rainforests, like all forests, vary across different parts of their range. Some areas are drier and some wetter. Some are on steeper slopes and some get inundated by marshland. A close examination of any ecoregion will find many different localized habitats, and each of these will be a reflection of those local conditions.

In areas that fall on the dry end of the spectrum, representing only 18% of the landscape, wildfires regularly shake things up allowing stands of lodgepole pine to get a tenuous roothold while flowers like fireweed add a splash of colour to the newly burned forest.

The remainder of the Interior Cedar-Hemlock Zone is considered to be moist, wet or very wet. While each of these three categories will result in a unique ecological community, we’ll keep things relatively simple for the purpose of this story.

These wetter areas are the realm of the western redcedar, western hemlock, and associated plants. Understory vegetation can include Salmonberry, Devil’s club, oak, and lady ferns, thimbleberry, blueberry, horsetails, mosses and skunk cabbage.

In these rainforests, many of the large-scale natural disturbances that are so familiar in the Rockies, like forest fires, are very few and far between. A forest saturated with moisture is a forest that lasts…and some of the stands in these Interior Cedar-Hemlock forests can persist for centuries, or quite possibly a millennia or more.

On the eastern slopes, we often talk about forest fires occurring every 90 to 130 years or so. In the inland rainforest, fire intervals can range from 130 years to as long as 1,200 years. In fact, some low elevation sites don’t show any signs of past fires and have probably survived several generations of dominant trees since the last large fire came through.

Normally, when we want to determine the age of a forest, we’ll take a core sample, a tiny straw-shaped boring into the tree that allows us to count all of the individual tree rings, and thus age the tree. Unfortunately, in the ancient western redcedars, they’re prone to heart rot and so they may have a large portion of their cores decayed away over the centuries. Some trees have been dated to 700 years but with only partial cores, it’s just an estimate. In Idaho, attempts to adjust for the missing heartwood have led to estimates as high as 3,000 years for some trees. While these numbers may be a little generous, trees living for 1,000 years does seem reasonable.

Now just because a forest is old, doesn’t mean that natural disturbances don’t take place, simply that they take place on a smaller, more local scale. Bark beetles still damage trees, fungus still rots the interiors of others, and storms knock out even more. The western hemlock looper also periodically kills a large number of trees. These voracious caterpillars don’t limit their feeding to hemlock though but will also feed on subalpine fir, hybrid spruce, and western redcedar.

Western hemlock growing out of nurse log.

With each tree’s death, a little bit of sunlight is able to penetrate the dark canopy and offer a ray of sunshine for new trees to regenerate and take advantage of these gaps. One unique characteristic of many rainforest trees is their propensity to take advantage of already rotting logs as a place for new trees to put down roots.

The forest floor may be carpeted with a dense mat of ferns and other growth, making it very difficult for a seedling to take root. On a rotting log, as the log slowly breaks down by the work of fungus, insects, and microbes, it develops a thin layer of humus on its surface. A seed landing upon this log is also elevated above much of the ground vegetation that they would otherwise be competing with.

As one seedling is joined by others, all taking advantage of the same log, you begin to get a straight line column of trees all with roots growing in and around the same log. These trees grow, and their roots gradually thicken, all while their nurse log is continuing to decay. In time, all that remains are the roots, now holding the tree above the ground on what appear to be stilts.

Very ancient forests can form an almost impenetrable tangle of deadwood logs and undergrowth. In 1865, W.F Milton and Walter Cheadle, had this to say about traveling through old growth rainforest in their book. The Northwest Passage by Land

“No one who has not seen a primeval forest, where trees of gigantic size have grown and fallen undisturbed for ages, can form any idea of the collection of timber, or the impenetrable character of such a region. There were pines and thujas of every size, the patriarch of 300 feet in height standing alone, or thickly clustering groups of young ones struggling for the vacant place of some prostrate giant. The fallen trees lay piled around forming barriers often six or eight feet high on every side; trunks of huge cedars, moss-grown and decayed, lay half-buried on the ground on which others had recently fallen; trees still green and living, recently blown down, blocking the view with the walls of earth held in their naked roots; living trunks, dead trunks, rotten trunks; dry barkless trunks and trunks moist and green with moss; bare trunks and trunks with branches – prostrate, reclining, horizontal, propped up at different angles; timber of every size, in every stage of growth and decay, in every possible position, entangled in every possible combination”.

                W.F Milton and Walter Cheadle, The Northwest Passage by Land (1865, 286-87)

These interior temperate rainforests are not only fascinating, but they are significant on a global scale. Only 2% of rainforests worldwide occur far enough away from coastal areas to be considered continental rainforests. In future episodes, we’ll take a deeper look into some of the incredible natural and human history of these forests.

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