Human activity, no matter if work related or recreational has impacts on our environment, but how much is the question.
Though many experts turn to industry for increasing predator access to the caribou, all terrain recreational users are at risk of losing access to some of their playground, in the hopes this will help protect the rapidly diminishing number of caribou. This includes snowmobiling.
Right now, the main area where snowmobiling is being investigated in preferred caribou habitat is in the Revelstoke and Quesnel areas. There have been snowmobiling closures around Prince George and south of Valemount.
The Mountain eco-type of caribou that live in these areas in the winter time go to high elevation to feed on the boreal lichen. They can space themselves away from predators, like cougars and wolves.
The reason snow machines are being targeted in these areas is due to a few factors. The sledders like to go to these areas because there is good deep snow, there are bowls to travel through and the quality of recreation is quite high. The challenge is when the caribou are in a mountain bowl area; there is the risk that the noise and the presence of the snow machines will cause the caribou to move out of the area.
The caribou typically use large areas, they are not restricted to small winter ranges like some of the other ungulates, but in the winter time, they’re on a pretty tight nutritional diet.
Their food input is not that high, so if they need to move around a lot they use up energy they might need for survival, the females for keeping a pregnancy going. The presence of sleds can cause the caribou to move and use up more of their reserves.
If a sled comes in to caribous preferred habitat, and they feel they need to move out, they might move into areas that are a little more risky because they are more prone to avalanches or predators occupying that area. So as well as using more energy, they might be placing themselves in an area that is more likely to have an accident.
The northern caribou which surround Tumbler Ridge are also at risk but only for one main reason. Through the Draft Peace Northern Caribou Plan (DPNCP), snow machine use in certain areas around Tumbler Ridge has the potential to be restricted.
Chris Ritchie, Manager of Fish and Wildlife Recover Facilitation, and lead in the Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation says, “In other areas, like your backyard we don’t have closures for snow machines. The caribou in that area, rather than going to deep snow areas, go to wind-swept ridges eating the terrestrial lichen. In those areas, again there is a heavy snow zone lower on the mountain. It gives the same protection to those caribou from predators, mostly wolves out there that would be in the valley bottom and can’t get through the deep snow. The sled penetrates that snow barrier. Rather than a wolf coming from the valley bottom and still being in the deep snow, like in the mountain caribou, they can get up to a ridge top that has been blown free from snow, which is why the caribou are there, and the wolfs ability to run back and forth on that ridge is pretty easy.”
He continues, “In the Tumbler Ridge area, there is the risk that when a snow machine is going from valley bottom up the mountain, it will cause a bit of a penetration in the deep snow barrier that would keep predators such as wolves typically away from caribou. It’s all the same players but the mechanism is a little different.”
But how much of an impact does snowmobiling have on the caribou that surround Tumbler Ridge?
Tim Croston is a local sledder who wonders the same thing. “I’ve been snowmobiling in this area for probably 12 years and in all honesty, twice I’ve seen caribou, that’s it. I guess we’d have to look at the areas they are looking at; it might not even impact us.”
He explains the only area where he has seen caribou is in the Babcock mountain area. “They were along ways away; we were down in the meadow and they were up on the ridge, they didn’t seem to be bothered by us.”
He explains the main areas around Tumbler where people sled are the Babcock mountain area, the Wolverine riding area and Bullmoose riding area. According to the DPNCP these areas are located in and around the core high elevation winter habitat for the Quintette caribou herd.
Croston says, “Those high elevation areas aren’t where we like to snowmobile because there’s no snow up there. Obviously we don’t want any areas closed, because it’s what we like to do, but first they would have to have a look at the areas they are talking about, many of them are probably not areas we frequent anyways.”
Ritchie says, “The sledders make a good point. The reason it is good for caribou and potentially wolves up high is because there isn’t much snow, so there isn’t much attraction for the sledders to go all the way up into those alpine areas that are wind-swept. It’s if they move through that deep snow area and potentially turn around or are recreating. It still improves access to those windswept areas. It just gives the wolves a bit of an advantage.”
So where does the research come from that indicates the connection between snowmobiling, caribou and increased wolf predation?
Ritchie says, “The work that has been done up in Tumbler Ridge, a lot of it has been done in Alberta. The northern ecotype caribou is essentially the same between BC and Alberta where the two provinces border. Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development has done research on snow machine uses and has demonstrated that with the northern ecotype, the wolves do seem to use the sled trails. The risk is getting through the deep snow.”
With this said, the question remains if snowmobiling is becoming just another scapegoat for industry?
Croston says, “That’s the problem, they are targeting everything, but they don’t seem to target industry that much. You’re opening that area up to more traffic and how can they say the exhaust on a snowmobile bothers them and the huge explosions from the mines don’t? We can hear that from town quite well. It’s not like you can hear a snowmobile in town, you’re lucky if you can hear it in the next valley. What are those explosions doing to them?”
Even still, popular sledding areas are getting closed in BC, and as Ritchie says, we should be respecting this. “As I described with the future up in the northeast, government is trying to work with individual clubs and the provincial organizations, to get the information out, so people understand why caribou are sensitive to snow machines; to make them aware of where these legal closures are so that people that might come from outside of a local area get that information. So they can act conscientiously as opposed to make an error out of just ignorance of what’s going on. Try and promote with the clubs a joint stewardship with the conservation activities that are going to be necessary for caribou.”
Though there were consultations, many within the snowmobiling community feel decisions were just made. Croston says, “I can say I understand why they’re doing it if it’s impacting the caribou, but I don’t think they went about it the right way. They didn’t consult with any of the clubs down there, they approached them, maybe in the Price George area, if I’m not mistaken, they went ahead and implemented it without giving them a chance to do anything about it, or come back and talk to them. Before they knew it, a lot of their areas were closed. I don’t know, if I’m not mistaken, industry is the bigger problem with caribou migration then snowmobiling.”
Even still, as the DPNCP starts to get rolling, access may begin to change around Tumble Ridge to protect caribou. Ritchie says, “I know the DPNCP for those seven herds in the area was approved by the government in the fall. It has a variety of recommendations in there; one of them is to see if there is enough snow machine activity in areas that are critical habitat for caribou that a snow machine closure would be appropriate,”
He continues, “That’s just a thing that needs to be looked at. If technically or scientifically it seems to be the case, then government would need to consult with the local stake holders, probably the provincial organizations to talk about what’s needed, what are the impacts to sledding recreation, what it is to caribou and then would come up with a plan.”
The DPNCP states, “Unless effective mitigation measures are identified (i.e., not being plowed and closed to snow machine use or potentially fencing and gating a portion within an area of high snowpack) the creation of roads accessing high elevation winter habitat should be considered to represent the loss of the associated habitat that could be accessed by wolves.”
So far in and around Tumbler Ridge there are closures but not due to caribou habitat protection. Ritchie says, “There are closures for other purposes such as elevation for motor vehicles, but it explicitly does not include snow machines. It was designed to protect more delicate high elevation meadow eco-systems. Those eco-systems grow so slowly that it doesn’t take too many ATV tracks to leave quite a long impression and damage. In the winter when covered by snow, they are a little more self-protecting.”
To find a map of areas currently closed for snowmobiling in BC visit www.snowmobile.gov.bc.ca/.