A decade of conservation efforts has done little to stop the decline of the endangered ungulates or their rainforest home.
The western hemlock towered nearly 200 feet into the cloudy British Columbia sky. The tree, about four feet in diameter and several centuries old, had sprouted in a forest that formed around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. It took David Walker, a nimble man with 30 years’ experience logging here in the Selkirk Mountains, about two minutes to drop the huge conifer. The ground shook.
After Walker turned off his saw, I asked what would become of the old giant. It’s going to a pulp mill, he said matter-of-factly.
This is one of the planet’s rarest forest ecosystems: interior temperate rainforest. The largest of its type left on earth, this rainforest stretches hundreds of miles from the Idaho Panhandle into central British Columbia, spanning multiple mountain ranges and the headwaters of two of the West Coast’s largest rivers, the Columbia and Fraser. It’s also home to endangered mountain caribou, which evolved to use these vast forests to evade predators. To survive here, mountain caribou adopted a diet of arboreal lichens that only grow in abundance in forests close to a century old or older.
Decades of industrial logging operations have destroyed and fragmented mountain caribou habitat, and their numbers have dwindled to perilous levels, with about 1,000 remaining. In some ways, the mountain caribou is like a Canadian version of the spotted owl. Much as the owl’s threatened status was exploited to help save swaths of old-growth forest in the Northwestern United States, over the logging industry’s strong objections, attempts have been made to use mountain caribou to help preserve the inland rainforest in British Columbia.
Despite a decade of protective measures, however, mountain caribou numbers keep declining as logging continues across their range.