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043 Save a caribou, kill a moose, the Burgess Shales and fire updates on the mountain west

In this episode, I look at a program in British Columbia that is trying to help restore caribou populations by killing moose. I also take an in-depth look at one of the most important fossil sites in the nation, the Burgess Shales along with an amazing new discovery just reported. Finally, I bring some fire updates on the situation in British Columbia.

Can Killing Moose help Caribou?

A recent study conducted by researchers in British Columbia’s Columbia Mountain range is raising eyebrows for its novel approach to trying to help struggling caribou populations in several endangered herds throughout several areas.

Over the past few years, programs focused on killing wolves in many areas concentrated on reducing predation of already declining herds of caribou in Alberta and British Columbia. These herds have been in decline for a long time. Much of that decline has been the result of previous interventions that created the current situation.

Caribou are animals of deep snowpacks and dense old-growth forests. Their traditional ranges were not an area where heavy wolf predation took place. The deep snows were a disadvantage to the wolves who rarely trekked into the caribou’s home range.

Unfortunately for the Caribou, decades of extensive logging of old-growth forests, along with the roads that come with them, followed by snowmobile and atv adoption of these same roads, provided easy access into their home ranges.

At the same time, moose thrive on clearcuts where the new growth is just what they need to survive. Moose moved into the area in ever increasing numbers.

The moose were aided in their population boom by the simple fact that wolves had bounties on their heads from 1906-1962 throughout British Columbia.

Without a strong predator presence, the moose population exploded to many times their historic levels. With tonnes of moose, and an end to predator control, the wolf population moved in and began to prey heavily on moose.

All of these developments created a situation where logging opened an area to moose, followed by wolves being attracted by those moose, and in turn giving the wolves access to another tasty prey; caribou.

This is a story that is repeated in almost every caribou herd in the mountain west. As a result, almost every caribou herd in the mountain regions of Alberta and British Columbia is in serious decline with some on the verge of disappearing.

When a classic predator prey interaction, like moose and wolves, ensnares a third party, we refer to that as incidental competition. Essentially, if the moose weren’t there, the caribou would not likely be bothered by the wolves simply because they don’t occur in dense enough populations to support wolf packs. They also live in areas that are difficult for the wolves to access.

Wolf culls are a controversial practice, but are being used in Alberta and British Columbia to try to help struggling caribou herds. The mantra has been kill the wolves and the caribou can survive. This mantra has been repeated over and over by politicians convinced that it is the only way to keep caribou herds in the wild.

We have to remember, that without the developments that provided access for wolves to get to the caribou, the problem may not have occurred in the first place. Alberta in particular, is still allowing more oil and gas exploration in critical caribou habitat, putting in more roads to allow wolves into caribou territory.

Any plan that focuses only on killing predators but doesn’t prioritize habitat protection and restoration is not likely to succeed.

In this particular study, scientists wanted to take a different approach to caribou conservation. Step one is to either reduce or halt logging in caribou home ranges to reduce the opportunities for white-tail deer and moose to move in and drag their canine predators with them.

Caribou do not benefit from logging. They rely on the hanging, stringy lichens that dangle from the foliage of old growth trees and these are not found in clearcuts.

At this point, just stopping logging will not help the caribou on the short-term. It will take decades for today’s clearcuts to regrow into dense forests more amenable to caribou instead of moose and deer.

Biologists decided to try something else. Since moose were not traditionally present in their currently dense populations in the study areas in B.C.’s Columbia Mountains, it was proposed that increasing the availability of moose hunting licenses might be a better approach to reducing wolf populations.

Because moose are the wolves primary prey, a significant reduction in their food supply would also stimulate a drop in wolf population as a natural response.

Predator-prey relationships are always interdependent. If the prey is plentiful, the wolves will produce more young and fewer wolves will disperse to new territories.

One fear was that by reducing elk, the wolves may be forced to hunt more heavily on caribou as moose became less available.

In order to test this, they designated two study areas in the Columbia and Caribou Mountains. One area of 6,500 km2 was designated as the treatment zone, where moose hunting permits would be increased 10-fold. The second area, covering 11,500 km2 did not have any increase in moose quotas during the hunting season.

The goal was to compare moose, wolf and caribou populations in the two areas to see if reducing the numbers of moose would indeed have a positive impact on caribou populations by reducing the number of wolves in the area.

The two areas were separated by the Monashee Mountains which helped to provide a geographic boundary between the two study areas.

There were three caribou populations in the treatment area, the Columbia North, Columbia South and Frisby-Queest. Only the Columbia North population exceeded 50 animals with a population around 150.

With the increase in hunting pressure, the moose population in the treatment area was reduced by 71% or a drop from approximately 1,650 moose down to 466.

Wolf populations soon began to reflect the reduction in prey. Of 34 wolves in the treatment area, 8 wolves, or 23.5% of the population dispersed out of the study area, and 12 wolves died of a variety of causes. Four wolves were found to have starved and an additional one was killed by other wolves.

So how did the caribou fare during all of this? Well, it’s a bit of a good-news bad news story. The two smaller populations continued to decline during the study, however the larger Caribou North herd showed a slight increase in population.

There may be other reasons that the smaller populations did not benefit from the reduction in wolf numbers. It may take longer for the reduction in wolf populations to have an impact on the caribou numbers.

Moose were reduced substantially, but even 466 moose is still higher than the historic abundance of around 300 moose prior to logging and predator control. In fact, prior to the 1940s, moose may not have been present at all in much of central and southern B.C.

The wolf population in the winter dropped to 13 wolves/1,000 km2 which is still higher than the desired density of just 6.5 wolves in the same area.

So where do researchers go from here? One option would be to do some limited wolf control, in addition to the increased moose harvest each year during the hunting season. Any wolf cull would not need to be nearly as extensive as the unpopular one in Alberta and would not likely need to be continuous.

In the long-term, caribou habitats need to be restored if they have any hope of surviving in a landscape of high intensity logging and outdoor recreation. Restoration and protection of old growth forests will eventually limit the habitat for moose and deer and their numbers will naturally diminish – with the wolf populations following suit.

There are no winners in this research. Humans have changed the habitat so that it now favours animals other than the native caribou. For them to survive, the first priority must be habitat based. Returning the landscape to one that favours the caribou and not the invasive moose and white-tail deer. Without these food species, the wolf population will also diminish naturally over time.

Any program of culling, must be seen as a temporary program to stem the population decline while other efforts at habitat restoration can take root. No amount of culling with replace the need for a good landscape to call home.

We can just look at Alberta’s abject failures to protect their native caribou herds to see what happens when you simply slaughter animals but do nothing towards habitat restoration.

Let’s hope that B.C. will continue to focus on prioritizing habitat while at the same time working to reduce the downward population trends in its caribou herds.

Burgess Wonders

Lying just within Yoho National Park are several rock outcroppings collectively known as the Burgess Shales. So unique and vital were the discoveries at this site that it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1980.

Discovered by Charles Walcott in 1909, it’s one of very few sites in the world where soft bodied animals left almost perfect fossils. This may not seem important until you realize that most of the study of early life is the study of hard parts–trying to learn something about an animal from a cast of its shell. This tells us little about what lived inside the shell.

This quarry uniquely preserved a huge variety of soft bodied creatures along with their shells. For the first time we could see the whole picture.

How did this level of preservation occur? Scientists believe that a mud slide came down into a shallow bay and then washed the animals caught in its flow down into the oxygen poor depths far below. Since oxygen is a major factor in decay, this allowed the soft bodied animals to remain for a long time before disappearing – long enough to leave their remains fossilized.

The other unique characteristic of this rock formation lies in the timing of this tragic slide. It occurred in middle Cambrian times, basically around 508 million years ago. This puts it right in the middle of the greatest explosion of life in the history of the planet. The Cambrian was the first period in which multicellular life exploded and within a geologic blink of the eye, the world was populated with a diversity never before (or since) experienced.

Few other fossil sites across the globe can match the high level of preservation of this site along with such excellent timing. There are a few other important Cambrian sites in other parts of the world, but they are much more recent and as a result don’t show nearly the diversity found in this site.

As Walcott began to grapple the significance of this fossil bed, he ravenously collected tens of thousands of specimens which he brought back to the Smisthsonian. At the time, he was one of the most powerful scientists in the U.S. and this would be his greatest discovery. Over the next 18 years he published small preliminary works on the fossils but he never found the time to truly study them and unravel their real significance.

In the small amount of actual study of the fossils that he completed, he tried to force them to fit into the same groupings of animals present on the planet today, and although this may seem a natural conclusion, it would become his greatest error. Many of the animals present in the Burgess Shales, could not properly be categorized as part of any group of animals present on the planet today.

Harry Whittington, one of Walcott’s successors slowly unraveled the true mysteries of the Burgess by careful and thorough examination of the multitude of fossils left behind. One of the techniques used by Whittington to rebuild the creatures of the Burgess Shales was to slowly dissect the actual fossils. Like living beings, even though crushed flat, the fossils retained most of their original structure and by carefully removing micro-thin layers, one by one, Whittington was able to make much more detailed examinations of each specimen.

Whittington began in 1971 with a creature called Marella. This animal was clearly an Arthropod (the group of animals containing all the insects, spiders and crustaceans as well as the extinct trilobites) but he found that it didn’t fit into any of the major grouping of Arthropods known to exist today. His next specimen, Yohoia, led him to a similar conclusion; it was an arthropod but of no known group.

Moving onto Opabina, the biggest surprise to date would arise. Not only was this not even an arthropod, it didn’t fit into any known Phylum. After Kingdom, Phylum is the next largest category of living things on the planet. Arthropods are one phylum and all living creatures fit into at least one of 25 or 30 known phyla.

Further examination of many of the other fossils led to similar conclusions – animals that could not be classified based on today’s system of phyla. Never before, at any other fossil site in the world, had fossils been found that could not be classified. This would have far reaching consequences

Most standard discussions of evolution show a single primitive ancestor giving rise to a wide variety of future species. As a result we expected there to be less diversity early in the history of life; not more. In actual fact what we have found is that there were many more basic structural plans at the beginning of life than today and this doesn’t work well according to standard discussions.

Survival of the fittest may be invoked to say that these early animals were merely inferior and failed to survive. However, survival of the fittest should be predictable and scientists could not find anything that would indicate inferiority in these unclassifiable animals. This led to Stephen Jay Gould, the author of the book Wonderful Life that details much of the science of the shales to come up with a new aspect of natural selection – luck. Perhaps some extinctions were based on some environmental of otherwise unpredictable fluke and as a result, animals not inferior in any way ended up perishing.

The long term results become very interesting indeed. If chance plays a major role in the extinction of species, than perhaps if we were to turn the clock back in time an entirely different outcome could arise. This could in turn change the entire sequence of events following this particular occurrence – and could have had a dramatic impact on the evolution of humans. Found in this fossil bed is the oldest ancestor of all the animals with backbones. What if it had have been the unlucky one?

This brings a whole new view to evolution. This chance factor is known as contingency and is being widely accepted as one possible component of evolution today – all because of a tiny quarry in Yoho National Park.

There has been a lot of recent news relating to the Burgess Shales over the past few years, including several new exposures of rich fossil bearing rocks in nearby Kootenay National Park.

Most recently, a frightening new worm has been described from the Burgess Shales. It is a predatory worm called Capinatator praetermissus. It was a flat worm, some 10 cm long with a series of 25 grasping spines on either side of its mouth.

While 10 cm may seem small today, in its day it was one of the largest predators in the ocean. This Capinatator is a member of a group of worms that still exist today called Arrow Worms, but this particular species was much larger and had many more grasping spines than any species alive today.

Arrow worms are extremely efficient predators. The clasping spines quickly reach out and close around potential prey, locking them in their interlocking grasp. Today, they only grow to a few milimetres in length, but Capinatator would have been a frightening prospect to many aquatic residents of the early oceans.

To add to their frightening character, they are translucent which gives them an air of invisibility. A few quick flaps from their flat tail fin and the spines open and this near invisible creature has another meal.

Today, there are still some 120 species of arrow worms globally. The fossil record though is very sparse simply because they lack the hard body parts found in some animals and so are rarely fossilized. If anything survives, it’s just the clasping spines.

Despite this rarity, the Burgess Shales have provide some 50 fossils of varying levels of condition. Even though the species has only recently been described, the first fossils were collected way back in 1983. In order to get enough information to do a formal description, scientists needed many different specimens with each helping to reveal a different component of the worms physiology.

It’s just one more example of the ongoing and amazing science being done at the various exposures of the Burgess Shales.

If you’d like to visit one of the quarries, you’ll need to book an official tour since they are all designated as archaeological sites and closed to the general public. Parks Canada and the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation offer guided tours to several of the sites. I’ll leave a link to their booking pages in the show notes for this episode at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep043 .

You can book your Parks Canada hike to one of three Burgess Shale exposures, the classic Walcott Quarry, the Mount Stephen site or the Stanley Glacier site in Kootenay National Park at the following link: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/bc/yoho/activ/burgess/burgess-visit/reserv.aspx. Alternatively the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation leads walks to the Walcott and Mount Stephen sites. Bookings can me made at: https://www.burgess-shale.bc.ca/guided-hikes.

Next up – local fires provide hope for endangered pines

Fire Updates

First up, a few updates on the fire situation in western Canada. Perhaps one of the most surprising updates comes from Fort McMurray. After 15 months, the Horse River fire that devastated Fort McMurray in May of 2016 has just been officially deemed to have been extinguished.

Fires can linger for long periods underground, and this fire, christened the ‘beast’, burned some 6,000 km2 last year and leveled 2,400 buildings. Fire managers had to wait until advanced heat detectors from helicopters could find no more lingering hot spots before finally declaring the fire out on Aug 2, 2017.

This story comes as our skies are still full of smoke from fires burning across British Columbia.

Closer to home, Calgary is set to surpass its record for the smokiest summer on record. The current record was set in 1969 and saw 269 hours of smoke clouding the skies above Calgary. As of Sept 3, 2017 Calgary had seen 255 hours.

This record is toast. The season is far from over and the skies around Canmore are continually smoky with much of that drifting eastward towards Calgary.

Unless we see some dramatic changes in weather over the next few weeks, Calgary will likely set a record that will be difficult to top. Unfortunately though, with warming climates, all bets are off when it comes of fires in our western forests.

To put this into perspective, the average number of smoke filled hours in a year in Calgary is slightly less than 17 for the entire year.

Calgary has bettered that on single days numerous times this year. Aug 17 saw 24 hours of smoke, Aug 31 saw 23. July 12 had 19 hours.

In 1969 the last smoke measurement was on Dec 22. We still have 4 months of potentially smoke-filled skies before we bid this record breaking year good bye for hopefully clearer skies in 2018.

Wilderness closure in the Rocky Mountain Forest District in British Columbia
Wilderness closure in the Rocky Mountain Forest District in British Columbia

This week also saw the complete closure of all wilderness in southeastern British Columbia due to the extreme fire situation. The closure affects the entire Rocky Mountain Forest District following the Continental Divide from Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park and areas south of Glacier National Park, all the way south to the U.S. Border. I’ll include a map of the closure area in the show notes to this episode at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep043.

As fire hazards continue to escalate and wildfires appear with little warning, the provincial government wants to make sure that nobody gets stranded in the wilderness should another fire break out.

At the same time, provincial resources are already stretched to the limit dealing with currently imminent situations and simply don’t have the manpower to make sure fire bans are respected and wilderness regulations followed.

According to the closure bulletin posted. The government states:

“When deciding to implement a restriction multiple factors are considered, such as current and forecasted weather conditions, anticipated fire behaviour, access routes, the number of active fires and the current extreme fire danger rating.

Given, the extreme wildfire activity within the Rocky Mountain Resource District and forecasted high temperatures and winds, it has, in the interests of public safety, become necessary to restrict access to the backcountry in the Rocky Mountain Resource District.”

The closure doesn’t affect anybody’s home. People are free to travel to their residences, but as of noon on Sept 2, they cannot head into the wilderness to retrieve boats or camper trailers.

I’ll leave a link to the government announcement in the show notes if you would like to get additional information as this story unfolds.

Looking closer to home, the Verdant Creek fire is still burning, but it is being looked at as an opportunity to help restore some of Kootenay National Park’s endangered whitebark pine.

As of this week, the fire has burned 15,500 ha within Kootenay National Park and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Parks. As it burned, it also burned some of these endangered trees.

While some trees have been lost, the whitebark, like it’s close relative the lodgepole pine, is a fire adapted species. It thrives in open sunlight like the landscape left behind by wildfires.

Fire suppression has been one thing that has limited the reproduction of whitebark pine trees in the recent past. Without fire, nice open habitats are not available for the pine to grow.

According to a story in the Rocky Mountain Outlook, Parks Canada fire and vegetation specialist Jed Cochrane was quoted as saying:

“What fire does is it removes the competition, which is typically Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir,” Cochrane said. “Fire removes that competition and whitebark pine comes in and has time to grow without competition and get a foothold.

“Without fire, what we have seen is that spruce and fir species outcompete whitebark pine and there is a loss of overall regeneration and habitat for whitebark pine.”

Whitebark pine has more to contend with than just lack of habitat though. It is also very susceptible to white pine blister rust. This fungal infection has had dramatic impacts on populations of western white pine, limber pine and whitebark pine.

In a 2002 study in British Columbia (http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/x02-049), a 3 year survey of more than 24,000 whitebark pine trees found that 19% were dead and an additional 31% showed signs of active infection.

Provincially, infections are more common in the eastern portion of the province and slightly lower in the west. Parks Canada biologists have been looking to breed more blister rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings and outside Cranbrook, B.C. 2,500 seedlings have been grown.

This month, park staff will be planting 1,500 of those seedlings in the area burned by the Verdant Creek fire.

As the fire burned over areas already burned in 2001, 2003 and 2012, it will help to create a mozaic of different forest age classes.

While the seedlings can help to restore some pine lost to the fire back to the landscape, they won’t begin producing seeds for 40 years or more. Once they do produce cones, the Clark’s nutcracker will collect the seeds for food, and at the same time, help disperse them to new habitats.

Fire is an important ecological process in the mountain west. Unfortunately, fire suppression for the past 100 years has left us with much denser forest canopies then would have existed prior. This leaves fewer potential sites for sun-loving trees like the whitebark pine to take root.

Please remember that Ward Cameron Enterprises is your source for hiking, step-on and corporate guides across the mountain west. We work with a team of expert naturalists and guides that can help make sure that your mountain experience is one full of memories and discovery.

If you’d like to connect with me on social media, you can leave a comment on this page, or hit me up on twitter @wardcameron. You can also visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/wardcameronenterprises.

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