It’s not the Caribou being muzzled

Lynsey Kitching

I was just so excited when getting an email from biologists who were doing the Bear Hole Herd caribou herd collaring and counting. They had allowed me to accompany them on one of their excursions to count and do some collaring of the herd.

The flight was funded by the Northern Gateway Pipeline.

I was asked to meet the crew at the Tumbler Ridge airport at 8:30 the next morning.

I got all packed up the night before, having no clue really what to bring to go chase caribou, but I tried my best to be prepared.

The morning came and I showed up real early, so there was no way I could miss the departure of the helicopter.

Finally, I heard before I saw the chopper coming in to land and I got butterflies in my stomach.

What is today going to hold?

I was greeted by a very friendly biologist who works on Dale Seip’s team of biologists. Dr. Seip has been studying caribou around Tumbler Ridge for decades.

I was given the helicopter safety once over and off we went. Having never been in a chopper, this was already just an amazing experience; seeing the world from such a height, swaying with the breeze and looking for those collared caribou.

Unlike an airplane, the helicopter windows were rounded so we could see right beneath us as we circled around looking for our first glimpse of an antler.

One of the main objectives of the day was to check in on a few of the already collard caribou and also to collar a few more. The collars send off a frequency and the caribou are heard and tracked that way. However, once we get within a certain range, a lot of the tracking is visual.

It isn’t an exact science and we had to do a fair bit of circling to find the caribou, but eventually we did.

The caribou are captured in a net, which is thrown over top of them from the low flying helicopter. One caribou is caught at a time and one biologist is left with the captured caribou, while the pilot flies off and picks up the rest of the team who are waiting in a safe place. Then with the help of the biologist team the animal has its legs bound with what looks like a belt and they get a bandana put around their eyes to help them relax, which seems effective as the biologists want to work as quickly as possible and disrupt the animal’s day as little as possible. There is no muzzle put on the caribou because they only have teeth on the bottom of their mouths since they only eat lichen. See, I told you the caribou weren’t being muzzled.

This trip was very interesting for the team because we were counting and collaring Bear Hole caribou who weren’t on the windswept ridges, no, they were down in the forested areas. This made it very hard to find them as the mature tree canopy hid them well.

The herd who typically live on the windswept ridges is the Quintette herd, however, biologist Brad Culling explained what is now happening with the migration of the Quintette herd. “About 20 to 30 years ago the caribou used to come out to the flat areas,” he says, “but then for a couple of decades they started staying up in the mountains, and now, they’re starting to come out onto the flats again.”

Having stayed up on the ridges was one of the key factors that was keeping the Quintette herd a little more safe from predators, so with them now coming down to the flat areas again their population could be in trouble.

As the day went on, I got to be very involved in the events. The team let me help in different ways. Holding the caribou’s antlers while they took samples (hair, stool and blood) was the most exhilarating part.

They are such beautiful, non-confrontational and majestic animals.

As the day came to a close we did some more helicopter flying over the mines, the oil patches, the seismic lines from oil and gas exploration, and followed grizzly bear tracks down about 10 miles of a road; a clear illustration of how predators are using industrial infrastructure to conserve energy and make their hunting more efficient.

The biologists explained to me caribou in general have not evolved to handle Caribou from page 9

more efficient hunting and are being killed at a rapid rate.The main reason the caribou herds are in trouble is their calf survival rate is so low so with the amount of predation, they can’t maintain their herd numbers.

So what about the caribou count? What are the numbers looking like this year?

Well, no one is able to talk about it, yet. You see, between the time that I went out with the biologists, and the time that I called to do an interview, an election had been called, and the scientists are not allowed to talk about it until after the election.

After the day spent out in the field with the biologists I was in tears as I attempted to drive home. The impact of the day and how I saw how human activity is impacting the wildlife was just too much to contain, although part of it was that I was also suffering from slight vertigo from circling around in a helicopter for hours.

I was so excited to come back and have an interview with Dr. Seip as his team indicated to me he was the person to talk to, and that all of the numbers come directly from him.

In order to interview Dr. Seip, I have to setup an interview through Ministry of Environment; otherwise he is not authorized to speak with me as he is a government biologist.

After a few emails back and forth one which stated, “Just so you know we’ve entered the writ period and things may take longer to process,” I was told by a spokesperson at Ministry of Environment; that due to the writ period and election time, the caribou count information, though complete for the season cannot be discussed until the writ period is over. This isn’t the only instance lately where biologists have been silenced due to the writ period.

A similar situation has happened with the mountain caribou count; however, those numbers have been leaked. The Kamloops Daily News reported, “A herd of endangered mountain caribou in Wells Gray may have dropped to its lowest number, but the latest survey data are under wraps according to a scientist who lives near the park. Trevor Goward said this year’s count — which found only 58 animals from a herd that numbered 400 in recent years — was leaked, though the figures won’t be publicly released for weeks.”

In Prince George the CBC news article states, “A conference that was supposed to explore the dramatic drop in moose numbers in BC has been postponed after government scientists scheduled to speak had to back out, organizers said…the Spruce City Wildlife Association said experts slated to speak at its moose symposium in Prince George this weekend were told they’re not allowed to discuss government business while the election is underway.” Is government taking license to withhold important environmental research from the public? How do you feel about this? It’s up to the public to decide and to act on how they feel about these three cases of biologist and scientists being silenced here in BC during the writ period.

What is the government trying to withhold and as a province how do we feel about them hiding behind election time?

I for one feel stripped of my rights.