In this episode, I look at the possibility that a landscape without wolves might also be a landscape without grizzlies. In addition, Canada’s Great Trail, the Trans Canada Trail is nearing completion and for Canada’s 150th it’s announcing that it’s ready to explore.
Also this week I look at the ill-conceived Jasper to the Columbia Icefields bike trail and the tribulations that may finally end this unnecessary trail proposal.
Finally, I begin the story of British Columbia. It began with gold. Gold brought people, people needed roads and the end result was a province in the making.
Wolves are a Grizzlies best friend
Yellowstone has become a world-renowned laboratory for what can happen when long absent carnivores are returned to the landscape.
For decades across North America, predators were seen as the enemy and targeted for extermination. Bounties were paid for the pelts of wolves, coyotes and other carnivores in order to make the wilderness a more human-friendly place.
The program resulted in a natural system that ran amok. Food chains evolved over millions and in some cases 10s of millions of years. Every hoofed animal was partially designed by its need to escape predators that were in turn designed to eat them.
In some cases, as in the case of snowshoe hare and lynx, both predator and prey evolved the same strategies. Snowshoe hares gradually developed huge back feet to enable them to stay atop deep snows and escape the lynx. In time, the lynx evolved to also have huge feet, negating the hare’s advantage.
As biologists, we call that co-evolution – two species evolving in concert with each other in the age-old chess match of hunter and hunted.
Over time, the predator control programs were very effective over much of their range and wolves were long ago extirpated from places like the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
In their absence, nature didn’t rest on its laurels. It continued to evolve based on the now more limited numbers of actors on the stage.
In a 2013 study, a research study looked into what impacts removing wolves from Yellowstone may have had on other species, in particular, grizzly bears.
Normally, we think of animals like wolves and bears as adversaries, both competing for similar prey. Hop onto Youtube and you can find countless examples of wolves and grizzlies battling over carcasses.
However when you remove the wolf, might the entire equation change? This study tried to look at what how the Yellowstone ecosystem was impacted by the removal of wolves and how it was further impacted with their return.
Looking at mountain landscapes is not all about the pretty pictures that we as visitors take home. Less wolves meant, more elk. Tourists love to take photos of elk. They are one of the main large, charismatic animals that bring tour bus after tour bus into the mountain west.
However, we also need to remember one important fact. Elk are…what’s that word again…oh yah…food! Elk are here not because they are cute and charismatic. They are here because they are made of meat.
Ecosystems are a combination of predator and prey. Pressure from predation stimulates adaptation and evolution in their prey animals. This in turn forces the predators to also adapt. Take away the predator and the prey population simply explodes.
This is what happened in Yellowstone. With an absence of wolves for more than 70 years, elk and deer numbers had exploded. Everything that was edible was, well, eaten.
During this same time, the population of Yellowstone grizzlies also suffered. Could there be some relationship between wolves, elk and grizzly population?
This study looked to quantify this relationship. We like to think of bears as carnivores, but in reality, they are omnivores. Most of their diet is made up of plants rather than meat.
Uncontrolled elk numbers may have impacted the bears by simply grazing on the plants that produced berries important to those bears.
This study examined the idea that taking wolves off the landscape simply changed the landscape to make it less suitable to bears.
Grizzlies thrive in forests of aspen, poplar and willow because they tend to have a diverse understory of berry-producing plants like buffaloberry, Saskatoon or Serviceberry and chokecherry.
Too many elk, meant that these shrubs, and even the new shoots of aspen, poplar and willow trees were mere fodder for the endless appetite of the ever growing elk population.
In the early days of the absence of wolves, the park did some elk reductions but they stopped those in 1968 with a population of some 3,000 elk. With the programs cancellation, by 1994 the population had grown to a high of approximately 19,000 elk.
New growth of trees and shrubs essentially stopped during this period as every edible shoot, leaf and berry was consumed by the elk-apocalypse.
In a further hit to bear populations, the park closed all of its garbage dumps in 1971. Anyone visiting parks like Yellowstone, or even Banff in those days knew that if you want to see the bears, go to the dump.
For bears already stressed by a loss of berry crops, the loss of the easy calories offered by landfills represented another loss in food opportunities for grizzlies.
Coincidentally, in 1975 the grizzly bear was designated as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Could reintroducing wolves reverse this trend? In 1995 wolves from Jasper National Park in Canada were captured and reintroduced to Yellowstone.
The results have exceeded any expectations although this report was looking at just the impact on grizzlies. With the return of the wolf, populations of both bison and beaver increased, likely due to the increase availability of food.
Did the increase in forage improve bear habitat as well? This study looked into the situation before and after wolves were re-introduced.
When looking at the amount of fruit composing the diet of Yellowstone grizzlies prior to the reintroduction, they found it was just 2 to 4% as opposed to 28% in British Columbia and 18% in Alberta.
In normal ecosystems, fruit composes a critical part of the grizzly bear’s diet. The contain huge amounts of carbohydrates that are easily converted to fat. In fact, in episode 42, I spoke about the amazing realization that grizzlies in Alaska will choose Elderberries over salmon when given the opportunity. It seems that berries are the way to go. You can check out that episode at: www.MountainNaturePodcast.com/ep042.
So, we brought the wolves back. Did it make a difference? Well, OK, it exceeded anyone’s expectations.
Returning wolves to the Yellowstone released something biologists call a trophic cascade. This means that by reintroducing wolves, biologists returned the balance to the landscape and the benefits trickled down through the entire ecosystem.
More wolves meant less elk. Even today, the wolves take very few bison simply because they are very formidable prey. Elk, on the other hand are manageable, even in cases where bison are more plentiful.
Removing elk allowed forage to grow. Poplar, aspen, and willow, in turn allowed bison and beaver populations to increase. More importantly they also allowed plants to grow. Aspen, poplar, and willow trees thrived. Beneath their canopy berry bushes also began to regenerate.
Looking into the effects on the diet of bears, the study showed that fruit consumption more than doubled with the reduction in elk numbers. In some years, fruit consumption could account for up to 29% of the diet of male bears and as high as 39% for females once the wolves were returned to the landscape.
Wolves reduced the elk population by an order of magnitude; from an average of 12.1/km2 in the absence of wolves to just 1-2/km2.
If we look at the real benefits of the reintroduction of the wolf and the downward cascade of benefits we would see many things.
Wolves preyed on elk, but more importantly changed their behaviour in order to avoid the wolves. They moved out of the valleys allowing those areas to regrow. The height of trees skyrocketed with the freedom to simply grow.
Long absent forests of aspen, poplar, and willow thrived. This brought in songbirds that used the trees for nesting sites. Less competition for trees allowed beaver populations to grow as well. The beavers helped the ducks, the fish, the muskrat and even the otters.
Wolves are a big predator of coyotes, and as they did this, rabbits, hares and mice numbers exploded, helping to spur populations of weasels, hawks, fox and badgers.
Many scavengers rely upon animals like wolves to open up carcasses to allow them to feed. As a result, raven and bald eagle populations increased.
We’ve already mentioned that the bears benefited with more available berries. Remember thought that bears will take a significant amount of newborn elk and moose calves. This meant that the bears worked in concert with the wolves to reduce elk populations, while at the same time benefiting with more available berries.
Ok, now are you ready for this. The wolves impacted the landscape, and with that the rivers. The regrowth of plant life helped to stabilize the riverbanks and in turn helped to change the course of the rivers.
Scientists call this a trophic cascade. It refers to situations like this, where a predator can create a series of benefits that trickle down the entire food chain. I’ll include a link in the show notes to a great video that highlights some of the incredible changes that wolves have brought to the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Most importantly for this story though, the wolves have helped the bears to thrive in this renewed landscape.
This study also helped to reveal a historically negative aspect of this story. Grizzlies once roamed the mountain west all the way south to Mexico. Looking at the history of the mountains, people moved onto the landscape and culled predators, allowing herbivores to reproduce unchecked, while in many cases introducing cattle to the landscape.
All of this would have reduced the forage necessary for bears to survive. Think of this as a grizzly bear famine. 20 to 30% of their normal annual food budget had been removed by overgrazing.
Perhaps associated with this, grizzly populations began to drop. This means that the removal of wolves may have played an important role in the disappearance of grizzlies from much of the southwest.
Could programs like wolf reintroductions allow bears to also be reintroduced to new landscapes? While bears are much more difficult to reintroduce, I’d love to see the scientists make a concerted effort and investigating the possibilities. It all starts with wolves.
Trails – the Great and the bad
Let’s talk about a few trail projects in and adjacent to the Rockies. First I want to talk about the grand-daddy of them all – the Great Trail, formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail.
This month, the world’s longest recreational trail opened – and it’s in Canada. Formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail, Canada’s “Great Trail” has officially opened. In total, it covers some 24,000 km, traverses all 10 provinces and 2 territories, and travels from ocean to ocean to ocean.
The announcement means that you can now hike across the country from coast to coast, with an option to head all the way to the Arctic Ocean at Inuvik (although you’d need to follow the East Channel of the Mackenzie River a bit to truly meet the ocean.
It is not a true trail, but a collaboration of hundreds of trails, each operated by differing jurisdictions, and then joined together by stretches of road or river where necessary. All-in-all, there are more than 400 trails winding their way across all 10 provinces with a potential detour to the far north.
Like any network of its kind, it’s a work in progress. Over time, sections involving walking on the shoulder of roads will be replaced by bonafide trails, but after 25 years, it’s now a reality.
Can you hike it all? Not yet. Think of this as a multi-disciplinary trail. The best way to take in the magic will be to combine hiking, cycling and paddling. Like the earliest days of Canada, for some stretches, the waters show the way. Some 26% of the trail follows waterways, so best to practice your J-stroke if you want to conquer this trail network. Other stretches that are dominated by connecting roadways are better covered on two-wheels. If you want, you can even strap on cross-country skis (or if need be fire up a snowmobile) for some sections.
The great trail is a reflection of Canada. It crosses diverse landscapes with varying amounts of development and urbanization. Each section will offer its own unique challenges along with its own vistas.
Traveling west across the country, when the trail reaches Edmonton, you’ll have to decide whether you want to head south towards Calgary to continue the westward section of the trail, or north towards Inuvik and the Arctic Ocean. Along this northern route, you can select a land-based or aquatic route depending on your preferred mode of exploration.
As Canadians, most of us have never traveled from coast to coast to coast. It was less than 10 years ago that I finally traveled west to east but I have yet to explore the north. Perhaps the magic of the Great Trail is in its possibilities. It offers each of us the ability to explore Canada in our own way.
Lovers of history can follow the footsteps, or paddle-ways of those that traveled long before we did. Urban explorers can look for trails that connect in ways that allow them to cycle or perhaps hike from hotel to hotel.
Nowhere else is there a network like this one. In some ways, it’s not ready for the prime time, but in others, it’s prime time to begin to imagine the possibilities that await you on the existing pathways, as well as where new additions of the trail may beckon.
As you can imagine, this didn’t emerge out of the ether. It took 25 years of volunteer hours and thousands of individuals to bring the trail to the point that we are today. If you’d like to learn more, check out their website at: www.tctrail.ca. If you can contribute to the effort, the Federal Government will contribute 50 cents for every dollar you can spare.
There is also an app available on both Android and iPhone to help you navigate along the way. I’ll see you on the trail.
Now onto another trail. Over the past year, I’ve spoken at length about a proposed bike trail planned to run between the town of Jasper all the way to the Columbia Icefields, and eventually to Lake Louise and Banff.
This trail was poorly conceived and rammed through with little or no public input, and against the best advice of Parks Canada’s own scientists.
You can read more about the trail plans by checking out episodes 3, 23, and 26. Episode 26 especially, brings out the backroom dealings that occurred in order to force the trail through the approval process. You can listen to it at www.MountainNaturePodcast.com/ep026.
The public opinion on the trail has been overwhelmingly negative and it seems that, for the moment at least, the trail has been put on hold.
The trail was tied to dollars that had a deadline of 2-years to be spent and that time is running out. Jasper currently has hundreds of kilometres of trails that are virtually impassable due to a decade of neglect during the Harper years.
During that time, all the focus was on getting more and more cars through the park gates so they could claim the $8 bucks a head per day. The backcountry was largely forgotten.
I first came to the mountains in 1980 to walk the South Boundary Trail in Jasper. At the time, this 176 km trail was the longest in the mountain parks. Today, parts of the original route are impassable.
$86 million dollars could go a long way towards repairing overgrown trails, replacing bridges and upgrading long neglected backcountry campgrounds, hanging racks and outhouses.
It now seems that there is hope that this trail will be cancelled. The time limit on the money is running out. The park is now, after being pilloried in the media, doing more extensive public consultations, but the trail is no longer connected to any definite timeline. According to a recent article in the Rocky Mountain Outlook, Parks spokesperson Audrey Champagne stated:
“After the consultation periods, if the decision is to move forward with the concept, new project timelines would be established”
If the decision is eventually made to move forward, they’ll try to get a continuation on the original $70 million that was earmarked in the 2016 budget.
As the author of two books on mountain biking, I’m not opposed to mountain biking as a valid use of the backcountry. However ill-conceived trails will always be ill-conceived.
New trails need to take into account new realities, like wildlife movement corridors and habitat patches for endangered or threatened animals like caribou and grizzly bears.
This trail not only traveled through critical habitat for the endangered mountain caribou, but also that of grizzly bears, a threatened species in Alberta. At the same time, creating a trail would also create openings in the canopy which would promote the growth of buffaloberries.
Bikes and buffaloberries don’t mix. The trail would increase the likelihood of bear bike conflicts along its route.
The public consultation ended in April of 2017, but the Indigenous consultation is just in the process of ending.
There should be an opportunity for further public and indigenous consultation once the draft of the detailed impact analysis is competed so stay tuned. I’ll leave a link in the show notes so that you can stay on top of current updates on the trail’s status (https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/jasper/info/plan/sentierdesglaciers-icefieldstrail)
Hopefully, we’ll see this project quietly slip into the dustbin of history and see the dollars dedicated to iconic trails that have been neglected in favour of the frontcountry. Parks are for all Canadians, and not just for those visiting the paved corridors. Let’s all fight to make sure that the backcountry trails are refurbished to make sure that tomorrows wilderness wanderers will have an opportunity to explore the further reaches of the park.
Thar’s Gold in British Columbia
Many years ago, I wrote a magazine article on the legend of the Lost Lemon Mine in Alberta. I interviewed a long time prospector, Mike Czech who had prospected in the Yukon and southern Alberta in search of the famed Lost Lemon Mine.
I was writing an article on this legendary bonanza when suddenly, his wife looked at me and said…”don’t get the gold fever!”
Her message was that once you get the fever, there is no inoculation. She had been married to a prospector for more than 50 years and had moved from place to place and the hope for the big strike had always been a part of her life as well.
Gold Fever is real…once you catch it, it stays with you, and the genesis of British Columbia can be, to a great extent, connected to gold fever.
Now if you’re not familiar with the symptoms, they often began/begin accidentally. Wilderness wandering was often a pre-requisite. Gold doesn’t just pop up anywhere but, like finding a unicorn, it suddenly appears to that individual that not both wandered and observed.
In British Columbia, like most places where gold is discovered, discoveries began with a rumour, which evolved into a story which excited the imaginations of adventure seekers, leading to a sudden migration into a wilderness area lacking utilities, support systems, or any of the things people took for granted in civilization.
In 1851, a 27 oz nugget from the Queen Charlottes, known as the Haida Gwaii today, was traded in at Fort Victoria. Now you can’t just walk into a trading post, drop of an almost two pound chunk of gold and then just wander back to your pickup like nothing unusual has happened.
A nugget means people take notice and after this nugget was traded for 1,500 Hudson’s Bay Company Blankets, it was brought to the attention of Governor Richard Blandshard. He sent a message to the British Secretary of War and the Colonies (Yup, we were part of the department of war). In it he stated:
“I have heard that fresh specimens of gold have been obtained from the Queen Charlotte Islanders. I have not seen them myself, but they are reported to be very rich. The Hudson’s Bay Company servants intend to send an expedition in the course of the summer to make proper investigations. The brigantine Huron was dispatched accordingly, ostensibly to trade, but really to search for gold. Failing in which, the men broke up part of a quartz ledge, and carrying pieces on board their vessel, returned in triumph to Victoria”
In the end though, this first gold-rush didn’t produce much gold, but it did see enough people flooding into the territory that the region was designated as the unified Colony of British Columbia.
Prior to this, there was a colony on Vancouver Island, with James Douglas as the governor. Douglas was also an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company and so was also in charge of the lands on the mainland although they were not part of the original colony.
In a way, the crown colony of British Columbia owes its genesis to the search for gold. While the first taste of gold in the Haida Gwaii had not panned out, in 1857 rumours surfaced of a new gold strike on the Thompson River, downstream of Fort Kamloops.
The gold was acquired by the Hudson’s Bay Company and in Feb of 1858, Douglas dispatched the steamship Otter to San Francisco with 800 ounces of gold for minting.
Within weeks, miners began to arrive on the Fraser River. The first gold strikes were around just a few kilometres above the city of Hope. The new governor of the Colony of British Columbia, James Douglas, hired gold commissioners to intercept American prospectors and make them buy licenses, stake claims and record their progress.
This was needed to help maintain sovereignty over the new colony as much as it was to make sure that the gold didn’t disappear into the U.S. without helping to enrich British Columbia first.
In the spring of 1858, shiploads of miners from San Francisco began to arrive at Fort Victoria. Now keep in mind that Fort Victoria was home to a mere 400 people, but between May and July, some 23,000 gold seekers departed San Francisco to arrive at a Fort completely overwhelmed.
When they arrived at the growing tent city, only then did they learn that Fort Kamloops was still 600 km distant, and on the mainland, across the Strait.
Many built their own boats to try to beat the crowds across the 32 km crossing and up the Fraser towards Fort Yale. Many miners simply began to pan there, pocketing 4-5 ounces per person per day.
The more adventurous though, headed upriver on foot. If there was gold in the gravels, then the motherlode must be upstream. Some miners brought with them both experience and instinct. Some, it seemed, could smell the gold.
One of these included a group of five Americans led by Peter Curran Dunlevy from Pittsburgh. Like their contemporaries, they began staking claims upstream from Fort Yale, but soon ventured upstream, far upstream.
By May, they were panning near the confluence of the Chilcotin and Fraser Rivers, near to present-day Junction Sheep Range Provincial Park. While there, they met a native named Tomaah, the son of Chief Lolo St. Paul. When he asked what they were doing, they showed him a few flakes of gold. Tomaah then claimed that he could “show them a river where gold lay like beans in a pan.”
The miners would need to stock up on supplies though, and Tomaah promised to meet them at Lac La Hache, some 65 km east as the crow flies. The party purchased a tonne of provisions and 12 packhorses in Fort Kamloops and headed to Lac La Hache.
Tomaah, asked his friend Baptiste to show them the river of gold and after several days of travel, they came to a river that they named the “Little Horsefly” because of the hordes of biting flies that plagued them.
One of the party, Ira Crow panned the very first gold from the area of British Columbia that would soon be known as the Cariboo. Dunlevy’s party had swelled to some 12 men but they struck it rich.
They left the area with gold rumoured to have been worth more than a million dollars – that’s a million dollars in 1859 dollars. It’s the equivalent to winning the lottery.
They took their money and moved on. Some, like Dunlevy, continued to invest in the goldrush, opening roadhouses and freighting operations to help other miners along the Cariboo Road as it the area was opened up to easier access.
The route to the Cariboo was long, hard and dangerous. James Douglas, the acting Governor of the Crown Colony, informed London:
“Another important object I have in view is the improvement of the internal communications of the country, which at present are, for all practical purposes, nearly inaccessible beyond Fort Yale.”
A road to the Cariboo would not only assist the miners in traveling safer, but would also assist in making sure that the 49th parallel remain as the border between Canada and the U.S.
Long before getting permission to build the road, Douglas met with miners and promised that his government would trade them transportation, equipment and food in exchange for a 1.2 metre wide mule trail through the wilderness as far as Lillooet.
To make sure they didn’t desert, the miners were required to place a $25 deposit which would later be redeemed in supplies from Lillooet. It also helped to add a few dollars to the road building fund.
This road wouldn’t follow Fraser past Yale though, but would rather follow the route of the Lillooet River across Harrison, Lillooet, Anderson and Seton Lakes.
Alexander Caulfield Anderson had traversed the route in 1847 and was put in charge of the construction. Workers were organized into groups of 25 and dispersed along the route. There were 500 workers on the road by mid-August.
In the meantime, the British Government replied to Douglas’ original dispatch:
“Her Majesty’s Government propose sending to British Columbia at the earliest possible opportunity an Officer of Royal Engineers and a Company of Sappers and Miners made up of 150 non-Commissioned Officers and men.”
By December, 1858 it was reported by the Victoria Gazette that:
“Good boats are running on all the lakes, while numerous houses for public entertainment are opening up all along the line. “
In one of the strangest stories of the Cariboo Goldrush, Gustavus Blin Wright imported 23 camels at the cost of $7,000. He believed that they could carry twice the weight and cover more distance than mules and horse.
What he didn’t count on was that their feet were far too soft for the coarse terrain and the fact that horses and mules would stampede when they smelled the strong smells that the camel radiated.
In the end, the idea was a total bust. Miners petitioned to have the “Dromedary Express” banned from the road and, in the end, they were simply turned loose. The last one died in 1905 south of Kamloops near present-day Westwold, B.C.
Douglas then shifted his attention to the Fraser Valley route to the Cariboo. In 1860, he sent out construction parties to improve the road between Yale and Lytton.
There was already an established route from Lytton up to the gold fields. In the end, this Cariboo Road turned out to be a much faster route than Douglas’ original route to Lillooet and it quickly took on the majority of the traffic.
In just over a year, Douglas has built two major roads towards the gold fields of the Cariboo. He has developed a system of gold commissioners to monitor the miners, the claims and the findings. For many, he is considered the father of British Columbia.
Next week we’ll follow the story as the Cariboo really begins to get the gold fever.
And with that it’s time to wrap this episode up. I want to thank you for sharing your time with me and be sure to check out the show notes for links and additional information. You can find them at www.MountainNaturePodcast.com/ep045. Don’t forget to click the subscribe button – c’mon…do it now! To make sure that you don’t miss any episodes.
And as always, if you’d like to reach out to me personally you can drop me a line by clicking the Contact link on this website, or hit me up on twitter @wardcameron. You can also visit our FaceBook page at www.Facebook.com/wardcameronenterprises. And with that said, the sun’s out and it’s time to go hiking. I’ll talk to you next week.