ENGOs demand government prove its aerial wolf shooting is humane—and also condemn it as unethical and illogical.
MORE THAN 600 PHOTOS AND 14 VIDEOS, believed to show wolves being shot from helicopters by marksmen using semi-automatic rifles, are stashed in provincial government files.
The photos are part of the province’s commitment to monitor its wolf cull program, but efforts by environmental and animal rights organizations to gain access to the photos are being stonewalled, despite freedom of information submissions by The Fur-Bearers and Pacific Wild.
Government insists that the controversial wolf cull—which began in 2015 in an effort to protect shrinking caribou herds—is ethical, humane and necessary if endangered caribou are to be saved.
But no audit of the program has been made public and critics say the photos must be released so British Columbians can judge for themselves if the killings are humane.
“The government maintains that its shooting activities are ethical and humane and that the kills are verified by the shooters and independently by a provincial veterinarian. Yet, at the same time, the public is being denied access to records that could verify or challenge such claims,” says an open letter from Pacific Wild sent this month to Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen, Forests Minister Bruce Ralston and Premier David Eby.
The shootings have been carried out in a secretive manner with little oversight, says the letter from Pacific Wild.
“The withholding of pictures and videos of the wolf cull unnecessarily restricts the public’s ability to hold the government to account for the humaneness and ethical aspects of the wolf killings,” it says.
The BC government has killed over 1500 wolves despite no evidence that it protects caribou (photo by John E. Marriott)
It has been a tough slog to get any useful information, Bryce Casavant, Pacific Wild director of conservation intelligence, said in an interview.
“I don’t feel that media or NGOs or the public should have to go through the FOI process on this. I think there should be proactive disclosure by the ministry,” Casavant said.
The wolf cull program moved from the Forests Ministry to the Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship last year and that switch was followed by claims that there were no relevant photographic records.
Pacific Wild has now received confirmation from the ministry that there are 600 photographs and 14 videos relating to the wolf cull and the organization has paid a $810 fee for government to continue to search its records.
“We believe there are more because it’s a requirement under the permits [to take photos]. So, if there are 1,000 dead wolves, there should be 1,000 photos,” Casavant said.
An emailed statement from the Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Ministry, in answer to questions from Focus, confirmed that photos are sometimes taken of operations.
“Such photos are used strictly by the provincial wildlife veterinarian for assessment purposes and would not be shared publicly,” it said.
Since the program started, more than 1,500 wolves have been shot from the air. The program was extended last year for five years, with an expectation that 200 to 300 animals will be killed annually. The 2023 cull, with a budget of $1.7 million, is underway in 13 of BC’s 54 woodland caribou ranges this month.
“It can be difficult to predict how many wolves will be removed each year, but this year’s total will likely be less than 200,” said a ministry spokesperson.
In 2021/22, government contractors killed 279 wolves at a cost of $1.75 million, which works out to $6,272 per wolf. The total cost since 2015 has risen to more than $6-million.
Wolves likely dying slow, painful deaths from aerial shots
One of the only public videos of wolves being shot by government contractors is a decades-old segment of David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things which shows some of the difficulties of obtaining a clean shot from an aircraft.
A question for government would be what has changed since the video was taken and the truthful answer would be “we gave them more bullets,” Casavant said.
“The precision element of shooting from an aerial platform is missing. It’s what the army would call spraying and praying,” he said.
Inevitably that means wolves are being wounded, rather than killed by a single shot to the head, and many are likely to die slow, painful deaths.
“I believe these photos and videos that the ministry has will show that the way it has been taking place is with immense suffering and is not an ethical shooting activity,” Casavant said.
There are also questions around what training and permits are needed when civilian contractors are using assault-style rifles from aircraft, he said.
“Ethics, morals and the suffering of the animals aside, there are some very serious safety risks with what’s taking place,” he said.
Contractors appear to be selected on the basis of having previously done similar jobs, rather than bonafide qualifications, Casavant said.
“I think what these records are going to show is that it’s absolute mayhem and chaos,” he said.
However, the ministry said shootings are conducted by wildlife contractors who document their training and are then approved by the provincial wildlife veterinarian and the Forests Ministry regional manager.
“There is a high level of government oversight during aerial wolf reduction activities with government biologists on board most flights,” says the ministry statement.
Hunting-caliber firearms, with semi-automatic actions and five-round magazines, are selected specifically to maximize humaneness, efficiency and effectiveness, and “predator reduction activities” are under continual assessment, it says.
Names of contractors and companies are not released because of “previous and ongoing threats to those personnel.”
The Fur-Bearers submitted an FOI in September last year asking for documents and photographs submitted to the provincial wildlife veterinarian from “wolf removals” in the Itcha-Ilgachuz and Tweedsmuir-Entiako area and were given 13 pages of emails and contractor reports.
When The Fur-Bearers asked about photographs and documentation of the number and placement of shots, the response was that the ministry is currently working on finalizing provincial standards.
The Fur-Bearers executive director Lesley Fox, in a letter to the ministry, said documents and photos are essential for the ministry to monitor humaneness and ensure contractors—who are killing BC wildlife on behalf of the government at taxpayers’ expense—are following guidelines.
“It is unclear where the problem lies, whether it is contractors failing to report or the ministry failing to monitor. But it is clear there is a problem,” wrote Fox.
In the apparent absence of a consistent approach to the collection of kill records, The Fur-Bearers has asked for an immediate cull moratorium and an audit of ministry monitoring and contractors’ adherence to standards and guidelines.
Aaron Hofman, The Fur-Bearers director of advocacy and policy, said the organization made Freedom of Information requests to ascertain whether methods used to kill wolves are humane and, as claimed by government, in accordance with euthanasia guidelines.
“We submitted a request for photos of wolves killed, as is required in the contractors’ documents. They have to send the photos to the provincial wildlife veterinarian. That’s how they are monitoring humaneness. They want to see how many shots it took to kill a wolf and where in the body these shots were,” Hofman said.
According to the guidelines, humane would be one shot to the head, he said.
“But the nature of the wolf cull is semi-automatic weapons being shot from helicopters chasing wolves, so we would question the idea that it is a clean shot every time,” Hofman said.
BC follows the American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines for euthanasia and depopulation of animals and aerial-based shooting avoids the risk of animals other than wolves being killed, according to the ministry statement.
The Fur-Bearers were not given photos and have filed a complaint to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner alleging that either government did not do its due diligence or are refusing to provide the photos.
Pups now being killed
However, the documents the organization did receive led to the discovery that contractors are killing wolf pups and using pups to lead them to other wolves.
In one case, one pup was left alive when seven members of her pack were killed. She was collared and found several weeks later with another pup and then both wolves were killed.
“We’ve known they have been using Judas wolves, but now the fact they are using wolf pups is another level of cruelty and inhumaneness,” Hofman said.
The ministry disputes the definition of wolf pups.
BC government documents show that wolf pups are now being killed, as well as used to help eradicate entire packs. (Photo by Paul Paquet)
“Wolf reduction takes place in the winter when the previous year’s pups are considered sub-adults, nearing full maturity and contributing to the pack’s hunting efforts,” according to the statement.
“In some circumstances, an individual wolf from a pack is captured and fitted with a GPS collar. This method provides data to government biologists about wolf movements and pack territories and helps facilitate the removal of entire packs.”
Government acknowledges that habitat destruction is the problem
In addition to growing concerns about the suffering of animals, there are questions about the efficacy of killing wolves and cougars in proximity to caribou herds when government is continuing to approve logging and other activities in caribou critical habitat.
“Industrial development, logging, seismic lines—all this development happening in critical caribou habitat is ultimately driving caribou declines. The government acknowledges that too,” Hofman said.
A 2021 study found that habitat restoration is key to the survival of mountain caribou herds.
Numbers of woodland caribou in BC have shrunk from 40,000 to 15,500—but habitat destruction (via clearcut logging) is likely more to blame than wolves. (Photo by Conservation North)
A 2019 study found caribou survival increased with aggressive wolf culls, but also said wolf control cannot continue forever and habitat protection and restoration is key. That study was then challenged by a 2020 paper that concluded wolf control has no effect on caribou survival.
The decline in woodland caribou is due to habitat change which has significantly altered predator-prey dynamics and predator culls usually take place in areas impacted by resource extraction, although there are no maps showing the overlap of wolf culls and resource extraction, said the ministry.
In those changed and disturbed landscapes, wolves, given easy access on logging roads or seismic lines, are now the primary predator of caribou.
“The province has long acknowledged that habitat protection and restoration is crucial for caribou recovery, but habitat protection alone will not allow caribou populations to increase, since currently disturbed habitat needs time to recover,” said the ministry spokesperson.
But critics question why, if government acknowledges that habitat destruction is the problem, the province continues to approve logging in critical habitat.
Clearcut logging in the Wood River Basin northeast of Revelstoke, a high value area for caribou
When asked why logging permits continue to be handed out in caribou critical habitat, an oblique statement from the ministry said significant steps have already been taken to protect critical winter ranges, calving and post-rut areas.
“We continue, in partnership with First Nations, to monitor caribou populations and adjust forestry practices as necessary,” it says.
The wolf cull is opposed by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs who have written to the province demanding a “full-stop end to wolf culls and unethical hunting.”
“The false narrative that blames wolves as the source of the problem is a misdirection of the real issue which is resource development sanctioned by BC with no regard to our future generations which has resulted in the eradication of major habitat areas,” says the letter.
“We now face the grave issue of non-Indigenous gun clubs producing ‘killing contests’ and engaging in unethical hunting and culling practices,” says the letter signed by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Chief Don Tom and Kukpi7 Judy Wilson.
Biologist Paul Paquet, Raincoast Conservation Foundation senior scientist and an internationally recognized wolf expert, said there is no way that the wolf cull can be described as humane.
“It’s a failure on the part of both [federal and provincial] governments that they allowed this and have not been very explicit and transparent about the fact that it is inhumane,” Paquet said in an interview.
Contractors might manage a shot to the head or heart some of the time, but not most of the time, said Paquet, adding that his experience tells him that the monitoring is inadequate.
“What we are looking at is the old parable of doing harm to do good. This where we run into questions of ethics with the end justifies the means arguments,” he said.
It is an argument that is not defensible, Paquet said.
Releasing photos may help put public pressure on government, but, so far, public pressure has not deterred those in favour of the cull, Paquet said.
“Most of these people have only a casual acquaintance with ethics and, I would say relatedly, logic,” he said.
Science has been mixed on the success of the program, but science does not give permission to override ethics, Paquet said.
“There is honest disagreement over the science as to what is happening, but that is only looking at the science and not the ethics and that is a big, big issue,” said Paquet, who has written extensively on how the mythical picture of wolves as savage killers has led to destructive management of wolf populations.
Most people, when told that contractors are using pups to lead them to other wolves in their pack, instinctively react that the practice is offensive and immoral, Paquet said.
“There’s betrayal here,” he said.
“I think the old maxim ‘there is no right way to do the wrong thing’ applies here. It certainly captures the essence of the ethical debate,” Paquet said.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world, along with the politics around them.
There is no legal requirement for forestry companies and forestry stakeholders, such as First Nations, the Ministry of Forests, or the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, to carry out biological surveys and identify species at risk that may be impacted by forestry operations. Instead, Western legal ownership rights trump environmental obligations to community stewardship of biodiversity. Industry and government say they care about biodiversity but, in practice, do little to protect it. BC urgently needs a Biodiversity Protection Act.
Clearcut logging by Canfor in the Pass Lake area near Prince George (Photo by Sean O’Rourke for Conservation North)
FREDERIC E. CLEMENTS (1874-1945), who is best known as a pioneer plant ecologist and taxonomist, was one of the last disciples of Alexander von Humbolt in American botany before the re-birth of interest in Humboldtian Science in the 1990s. That makes Clements a forerunner of modern biologists and foresters who advocate for plant sentience, such as Suzanne Simard and others who tend to see forests as super-organisms. It is noteworthy that while Clements’ organismic view of nature may have been viewed as “unscientific” in some quarters during the post-1945 era, Clements was responsible for developing some of the most rigorous methods used in the study of plant ecology. It was Clements who introduced America to the methodical survey of plants and their landscapes by quadrats, transects, bisects, camera sets, and ring counts. These methods were described in the second chapter of his 1929 classic text, Plant Ecology, that he co-authored with John Weaver.
One hundred years on, these methods remain fundamental to our knowledge of site biodiversity. Even if the sampling methods are refined by technological advances to aerial, soil, or aquatic environmental DNA analysis, they remain essentially the same. They are systematic subsamples of hard data to be analysed statistically. Biologists can only assess the species composition of a site and its biodiversity by carrying out systematic site surveys. It is a simple fact: no data, no science, only hearsay.
That has an important implication if we bear in mind current growing concerns about climate change. As recent IPCC reports have been at pains to stress, climate change cannot be addressed if we do not also address the biodiversity crisis. The planet is not a machine. It is a living system. The complex interactions of living organisms control and regulate climate. Federal and provincial institutions that claim to protect or be concerned with biodiversity, and by extension, climate change, without supporting a programme of systematic biological surveys to assess biodiversity, are simply misleading the public. The state of our forests’ biodiversity is essential to the future of climate change. The state of our forests’ biodiversity can only be ascertained by carrying out rigorous species composition surveys.
In a remarkable entry regarding the application of belt-transects, Clements makes the following observation about the use of ecological survey methods in forestry:
“The belt-transect method has been used very successfully for recording the composition of tropical rainforest and especially for commercially important trees. The belts are of sufficient width (66 ft) and frequency (1.25 miles apart) to include 1 per cent of the area. In fact, the method has long been used by American foresters, although they make an optical estimate of the width of the area cruised and record the number and size of merchantable trees instead of mapping them.”
This archaic forestry norm has largely remained unchanged and unquestioned for the past century. As John Neilson and I discovered in the course of an effort to save a population of Pseudocyphellaria rainierensis (Oldgrowth Specklebelly), a rare lichen nominally protected by a provincial and federal agreement, and listed in standard forestry documents, that norm still applies in BC. While some forestry companies may elect to carry out biological species surveys before clear-cutting an area, in British Columbia there is no legal requirement for forestry companies and forestry stakeholders, such as First Nations, the Ministry of Forests, or the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, to carry out biological surveys and identify species at risk that may be impacted by forestry operations. Western legal ownership rights trump environmental obligations to community stewardship of biodiversity. In forestry operations, barring explicit cultural interests, the value of “merchantable trees” remains the primary, if not the only, determinant of where forestry operations will take place. Species composition and biodiversity assessments are disregarded.
Natasha Lavdovsky examines Oldgrowth Specklebelly growing side by side with Lobaria linita (the greener lichen), on a tree marked with falling boundary tape, indicating the edge of a future clearcut beside a creek/riparian reserve (photo by Natasha Lavdovsky)
This common practice means that we have very little idea of what faunal and floral species have been lost and extirpated over the past 150 years of colonial occupation, which is synonymous with “forestry operations.” Indeed, the case of the discovery of hitherto undocumented populations of listed species at Fairy Creek and the demise of Pseudocyphellaria rainierensis at Fairy Creek should serve as a cautionary tale of Canada’s lack of actual concern for biodiversity, outside of the arcane world of the biological scientific circles not in the pay of industry and government. Although this area is less than 80 kilometres from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s and the Ministry of Forest Lands and Natural Resources Operations’ offices, these ministries could not provide Neilson and I with data concerning faunal or floral species that might be adversely affected by ongoing and proposed forestry activity. Astoundingly, the presence of at least 16 well-recognized and easily identifiable species-at-risk was hitherto unknown and unrecorded by ministry staff, whose ministries are nominally responsible for documenting BC’s flora and fauna, and biodiversity data collection.
As we enter what the United Nations has proclaimed to be “The International Decade of Biodiversity”, there is an obvious disconnect between stated concerns for biodiversity and actual policy direction. In keeping with the Convention on Biodiversity, the joint report of the IPCC and the IPBES, and a growing string cannot be addressed independently of the biodiversity crisis. The world is neither a machine nor a supermarket. As Humboldt and contemporary science increasingly tell us, only life makes life possible on a living planet, and even processes driving phenomena like temperature and climate that we once considered to be “abiotic” are, in fact, biologically driven by floral and faunal composition and organization. Provincial and federal governments, if they care at all for climate change, do not seem to understand the link between biodiversity and climate change. The World Meteorological Organization’s recent report State of the World’s Climate 2021 makes the transient front pages of mainstream press to tell the public that we have indeed crossed critical thresholds. However, as the WMO notes, thanks to government inaction, generations to come can expect continued ocean warming and acidity as well as increased heat waves, cyclones, and hurricanes. Political action on climate change over the past three decades appears to have been mainly cosmetic and out of touch. Within this context, when it comes to actually protecting biodiversity, at all levels government response belongs with an alternate reality reminiscent of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch.
The recent excellent work of Melissa Aroncyk and Maria I. Espinoza, A Strategic Nature, which traces the role of corporate public relations in shaping public understanding of nature and the environment, is worth reading. It traces the evolution of public relations strategies, often illegal but highly effective, in shaping public policy by manipulating the public and political understanding of science and the response to environmental problems. Their thesis is that through public messaging, corporate interests capture and create the illusion of environmental awareness and responsibility. That illusion pervades government and mainstream environmental organizations, on whose boards corporate representatives sit, and on whom these organizations depend for funding. Indeed, in BC, the boards of many land conservancies, land trusts, and mainstream environmental organizations are peopled by corporate executives who help finance these organizations. Serious environmental concerns such as biodiversity become subordinated to corporate messaging and greenwashed. It, therefore, is not surprising to find that Calvin Sandborn and Bronwyn Roe of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre have reported that corporate greenwashing is up 40 percent.
That is just the marketing aspect of corporate greenwash. It does not include the cultural and institutional greenwashing that pervades all aspects of our lives, as Aroncyk and Espinosa argue. For corporations and the governments that effectively serve them, climate change and biodiversity policies are just a public relations exercise, which is why they have failed for the past 40 years and are designed to continue to fail. Climate change policy and biodiversity policies in Canada fail because they are designed not to encroach or conflict with corporate forestry, mining, and oil and gas interests.
It would be misleading to think that the problem might be limited only to British Columbia. The recent unprecedented decision of the federal government to use its powers under the Species a Risk Act to intervene by decree to protect dwindling caribou populations in Quebec raises basic questions. By setting aside 35,000 square kilometres of critical habitat amounting to 2.3 percent of Quebec’s territory, Ottawa is not simply infringing on Quebec’s jurisdiction, it is protecting First Nations’ interests. One of the principal drivers of Ottawa’s intervention is the request of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador that Ottawa protect the cultural rights and interests of First Nations that were excluded from Quebec’s public consultative process. The commission set up by Quebec to determine the fate of the caribou was driven by forestry interests and stakeholders that did not include First Nations.
In Quebec, as in BC, this is a debate that is focused on the fate of the last remaining “old-growth” forests, which are critical to the survival of the species, and which are also of cultural interest to local First Nations. Thirty-seven leading biologists from 11 of Quebec’s universities weighed in to protect this habitat in the interests of the species and climate change. The scientific intervention had little impact. In this instance, the Species at Risk Act is not being used to protect the species per se, but rather First Nations’ rights to the species and the forests that are their critical habitat. It is crucial to note that throughout this saga that while Quebec biologists and naturalists have been extremely vocal about the need to protect biodiversity and species at risk, the official and publicly stated position of the Legault government and the “Ministere des Forets, de la Faune et des Parcs” (“Ministry of Forests, Fauna and Parks”) has been that the economic priorities of the forestry industry trumped biodiversity. It is also worth noting that, as in BC, in Quebec the ministry responsible for biodiversity is a ministry of forests closely aligned with the interests of the forest corporations and unions. These are really ministries dedicated to the well being of the forest corporations, not to forests and biodiversity.
So, the provincial and federal interest has only been tangentially in biodiversity and in the species themselves, though the public is misdirected to think otherwise. It has been mainly interested in either the mainstream forestry economy or in the First Nations’ cultural rights and interests in that economy and the management of the forest and its “resources.” While First Nations’ management of the forest may indeed have a better track record than mainstream industrial forestry, as has been demonstrated, it is still focused on the forest as a source of economic prosperity and employment. The fate of species and biodiversity is still subsumed to economic interests.
It is critically important to note that although Quebec, unlike BC, has species at risk legislation, Quebec’s provincial government has an appalling track record when it comes to protecting biodiversity. The act is set aside or generously interpreted whenever the interests of development or forestry are threatened. With complete disregard for scientific advice to the contrary, the Quebec government recently opposed the protection of the copper redhorse (Moxostoma hubbsi) and authorized the extirpation of the last habitats of the Boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata). These species, whose future is now largely uncertain, were only possibly saved after much public outcry, at the very last minute by federal interventions.
The Quebec examples demonstrate that the federal Species at Risk Act has very little real power to effectively protect species biodiversity throughout Canada’s increasingly endangered ecosystems. Provincial species-at-risk legislation can be disregarded in favour of the economy at the discretion of ministers. We, therefore, have every right to ask: “Is species at risk legislation in Canada just another bureaucratic shibboleth to pay lip service to?”
Recent variations of the same provincial and federal half-truths or prevarications can be found in BC.
In British Columbia, the current government was elected in 2017 on an electoral platform that captured “environmental” votes with promises to implement species-at-risk legislation. Upon election, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MECC) began work on species at risk by de-listing about 30 percent of listed species. After three years of delays and promises, by 2020, the MECC ceased work on this file. Responsibility for the protection of species at risk was magically transferred to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations (FLNRO). This move corresponded to the government’s much heralded review of the Forest and Range Practices Act, to align the problem of “species at risk” with the 2019 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. The unstated aim of these changes was to put decision making back in the hands of forestry-dependent communities, which was now to include and give greater prominence to First Nations dependent on forestry revenues. This was explicitly summed up by Minister Conroy: “We’ll put government back in the driver’s seat of land-management decisions in partnership with First Nations, including where forest roads are built.” Like Quebec, the forest industry’s priorities are to be supported by communities that are economically dependent on the forest industry. Unlike Quebec, the BC government also understood that by including First Nations in the economic benefits and decision-making associated with the forestry industry, status quo could effectively be maintained without making real changes to the Forest and Range Practices Act.
This strategic public relations move was clearly intended to download responsibility for species at risk, which has always stood in the way of the forest industry’s interests, onto First Nations. As a result of this strategic downloading, any public or scientific attempt to protect endangered species stands to be interpreted as an attack on the corporate interpretation of “ownership” under The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. Under this scenario, science no longer matters when a First Nations government beholden to the forest corporations upholds its logging interests.
In spite of all the sweet-sounding motherhood and pie promised under the much-heralded revisions to the Forest and Range Practices Act, at no point is protection of species at risk ever really considered. There is no real interest in the Act and its revisions in the protection of biodiversity. The essential point that a biological survey needs to be carried out to determine the ecological impact of logging activities before a logging permit is issued is never even remotely considered in this legislation. The Act, together with its much-heralded “progressive” revisions, remains beholden to the forestry practices and interests described by Clements in 1929. A species at risk act, based on basic scientific principles inherent in biological surveys, such as was promised and envisioned before 2017, would seriously compromise the viability of this economic and political edifice.
This government has not stalled work on species at risk legislation, it has duplicitously shifted the conversation to make species at risk and biodiversity legislation disappear by promoting First Nations’ interests in mainstream forestry economics. Biodiversity is inconvenient to political interests. It is neither a federal nor a provincial priority, any more than climate change has ever really been for the past 30 years, as the track record shows.
The general assumption made by the public and the environmental community is that First Nations stewardship for the land should provide better protection for species at risk, as indeed it usually does. The assumption is largely based on the cultural value that keystone or umbrella species, such as large mammals or salmon, have within the First Nations world-view. As with the general keystone and umbrella top-down approach in ecology, this approach has all the pitfalls of coarse-grained approaches. The survival of bottom-up primary producers of lesser cultural immediacy, which is only evident in fine-grained analysis, stands to be jeopardized. In a society in which the public itself is largely unaware of species other than signal macro-species, First Nations’ cultural nature-literacy does provide definite leadership. However, as in any society, the requisite fine-grained knowledge necessary for environmental management is the domain of only a select number of trained scientists and knowledge-keepers. The problem for settler society seems to be that in rejecting a species at risk legislation, it also rejects its knowledge-keepers, its biologists, and in so doing, encourages First Nations to turn their back on their own knowledge-keepers.
The assumption that First Nations’ leadership and engagement will substitute species at risk legislation is misleading because it depends on the ambiguity and fluidity of the concept of “ownership.” In Delgamuukw, hereditary chiefs set the bar for subsequent aboriginal rights and claims by stressing that aboriginal ownership is an obligation to the care for the territory because it is identical with the people. Aboriginal ownership is, therefore, diametrically opposed to western legal concepts of “ownership.” Anglo-American law defines “ownership” as “the power to enjoy and dispose absolutely.” Ownership as it is related to industrial practices and corporate interests, by definition invites “the power to enjoy and dispose absolutely.” The meaning of a word is always performative. There are no essences that magically define a word outside of the role it has in a context. The meaning of “ownership” shifts with the economic framework and context. In a corporate economy, ownership is the power “to dispose absolutely,” regardless of the culture. As Joel Bakan has repeatedly demonstrated, a corporation is a psychopathic entity, no matter what cultural dressing it takes.
Through the revisions to the Forest and Range Practices Act, as well as the recent doubling of First Nations’ share of forest revenues, the provincial government has effectively modified the “ownership” of First Nations as major stakeholders in the forest industry. By increasing the dependency of First Nations communities on revenues from the forest industry as a matter of social justice, it would be naïve to argue that the meaning of ownership within those communities is not affected. Indeed, while hereditary Pacheedaht chief Bill Jones, in keeping with Delgamukw, argued against logging of old growth and for his obligations to his traditional territory, elected chief Jeff Jones has publicly argued forcefully for his right to dispose of the forest as he sees fit for the economic well-being of his community. These are two starkly different versions of “ownership.” The Jeff Jones version, which was opposed by the position taken by the BC Union of Chiefs, is the version of ownership upheld and promoted by the Minister of FLNRO and her many colonial predecessors. This version is diametrically opposed to the spirit informing Delgamuukw and UNDRIP, which the same government and its First Nations supporters claim to promote in support of corporate interests. That is corporate greenwash at its finest. Can one really have one’s cake and eat it? Apparently so....
In 2021, this cultural contradiction had tragic consequences for the largest population of Pseudocyphellaria rainierensis ever found in Canada. This unique population of a rare lichen protected by a federal and provincial agreement received no protection whatsoever and has now been extirpated. Every level of government, starting with the elected Pacheedaht Council, MECC, and FLNRO as well as the forestry company concerned and federal Minister Steven Guibeault were formally appealed to in order to save this species at risk. What stood in the way were the financial interests of Teal Cedar and Pacheedaht council led by Chief Jeff Jones. There is no difference between Premier Francois Legault’s claim to Quebec’s territorial right to extirpate three populations of endangered mountain caribou because endangered species cannot be allowed to stand in the way of jobs, and Chief Jeff Jones territorial claim to protect aboriginal employment on Pacheedaht lands by enabling the extirpation a population of endangered lichens. The non-aboriginal logic of legal ownership gives license to those private interests that steal from the inheritance of future generations.
The extirpation of this population is a confirmation that, while intentions may be good, and while some First Nations feel more obligations to endangered species than others, the ultimate protection of species at risk cannot be left to the discretion of First Nations, as the BC government contends, anymore than it can to municipal, provincial, or federal governments.
Should there be any illusions about the moral high ground that the federal government may claim thanks to its obligations under the Species at Risk Act, two recent actions of Canada’s ex-Greenpeace firebrand minister of the environment may leave one somewhat nonplussed. Back in 2021, marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus) were one of the species at risk found to be nesting in the Fairy Creek area. Leading experts urged the minister to issue a ministerial order to protect this blue-listed species whose numbers are steadily declining and which is now known to be functionally extinct. It was then thought that by November 2021, Steven Guibeault would issue a ministerial order to protect critical marbled murrelet habitat, which is known and mapped. Instead, minister Guibeault has upheld the standard provincial development and forestry guidance norm, which is an extension of the Migratory Bird Convention Act (1994), that no tree could be fallen if it was found to have an active nest. Of course that depends on making a determination that a) there is a nest, and b) that it is occupied, without actually having to carry out a minimal biological survey.
Marbled murrelets nest on wide branches, high above the forest floor, and lay only one egg. (Photo: Peter Halasz)
For anyone familiar with marbled murrelet habitat, this protection can only strike one as 100 percent montypythonesque. First, murrelet nests are minimal and notoriously difficult to locate, as they consist of a mossy depression enclosed between two densely vegetated branches about 30 to 60 metres (100 to 200 feet) up an old-growth tree in a dense forest. The only way to find a nest is to be on location before sunrise and observe a tiny bird come out of the ocean clouds and enter its “nest” at high speed, from which its partner will depart shortly after. Second, after August, the nests are vacated and the tree can be fallen, thereby removing critical habitat together with the need to protect this species at risk. Indeed that is what occurred in the fall to critical marbled murrelet habitat in the Fairy Creek area. That is the high level of federal protection that has not too surprisingly resulted in the extirpation of yet more marble murrelet habitat throughout BC, and the further decline of the species protected under SARA. That is what greenwashing government institutions sell to the Canadian public as a gold standard in Canadian conservation and biodiversity protection.
It is no surprise that the Minister of Environment and Climate Change now faces a lawsuit for failing to uphold his responsibilities as outlined in the federal Species at Risk Act. For this external observer, the lawsuit itself is somewhat surreal. While one needs to keep a straight face listening to the serious intent of environmentalists and lawyers, most court and media discussions tend to be simplistically devoid of a sense of the biological reality based on facts. It is all arcane points of law between learned friends paid to argue in court. The government and the corporations don’t collect biological data. The environmental organizations rarely collect data. If they do, it is at the last minute. How can anything be based on facts without, established baselines and robust data? Yet we are told that everybody cares for “the environment,” “resilience,” and “sustainability.”
Conservation is not difficult if you start with the facts. The facts are the data of a biological survey. But nobody, no lawyer, no environmental activist, no forestry executive or FLNRO official, or First Nations’ representative, wants to talk about the most basic and urgent fact: there has been no real data collection, because the data are inconvenient to the political and financial interests at play.
The basic facts are either absent because a survey was not carried out, or because if the facts do exist they are disregarded in favour of forestry or natural resources industry interests, which in this case have been compounded by BC’s downloading of its responsibilities for species at risk to First Nations under UNDRIP. If we want to understand why Steven Guibeault, a bona fide environmentalist, could avoid taking action and produce an irrelevant statement, we have to understand his predicament. Should Guibeault uphold actual protection of critical marbled murrelet habitat, he would infringe on the financial interests of the forestry industry, forestry unions, and First Nations forestry revenue dependency. Under the new provisions of BC’s Forest and Ranges Practices Act, that would constitute an infringement on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which is a hot potato nobody wants to touch or discuss seriously. It would be interpreted as an act of colonialism infringing on the right of the Pacheedaht and Ditidaht to enjoy and dispose absolutely of their property and maintain forestry revenues, notwithstanding that this interpretation vitiates the original understanding of aboriginal ownership under Delgamuukw. So marbled murrelet protection is limited to a public relations exercise.
This is also consistent with the federal government’s protection of Southern resident killer whales and Chinook Salmon habitat in the Salish Sea. While the fate of prime nursing habitat at Roberts Bank continues to be threatened, after adverse scientific reports were submitted to the minister three years ago, the minister has yet to sign an order to put an end to the ecological threat posed by the Vancouver Port Authority’s Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project. The problem here is not that the reality of this threat is not soundly established by scientific evidence. The problem remains that this project is considered economically essential to Vancouver’s growth. It may yet appeal to the public if the economy slumps. “Roberts Bank Terminal 2” has gone eerily silent, though mention surfaces from time to time awaiting for the right circumstances. Meanwhile, as like every good magician, Steven Guibeault has used misdirection to draw the public’s attention to a renewal of fisheries closures and the re-introduction of “sanctuary zones” for Chinook Salmon off Pender and Saturna islands. Roberts Bank used to be nature’s “sanctuary zone” for salmon. The newly selected zones may soon be used to mitigate planned losses needed to support endless growth. After all, if Legault can’t trade jobs for endangered caribou, or Chief Jeff Jones can’t trade old-growth jobs for rare Pseudocyphellaria rainierensis populations, maybe Steven Guilbeault, who could not trade oil and gas jobs on the Bay du Nord project for beluga habitat, will likely find it necessary to save jobs rather than salmon habitat and biofilm at Roberts Bank? The writing is on the wall—forget species at risk legislation, it leaves too much discretion to ministers, and only deals with isolated species within complex ecosystems.
There is a sad consistency in this logic. Corporate interests and the jobs that come with them consistently trump endangered species legislation and biodiversity. Yes, this is psychopathic. Canada and BC claim to be able to meet climate change targets they have never met—and never will, as they develop more oil and gas! BC claims to save endangered species without even having inventoried them as it cuts old growth! We are told First Nations log sustainably without really carrying out a biological survey anymore than the corporations they work with, because this is not a permit requirement! And yet we are told that we really care about biodiversity... as we see it dwindle before our eyes and daily witness more destruction.
Fifty years after Richard Nixon signed into law the US Endangered Species Act, the NDP government of British Columbia has shelved plans to introduce species at risk legislation. It has cleverly downloaded that responsibility to First Nations engaged in forestry and increased their dependency on forestry revenues. Maybe it is time to realize that species at risk acts were cutting edge in 1973, but are no longer up to the task? What we now need is a Biodiversity-Protection Act.
A Biodiversity-Protection Act would really not be very difficult to write or implement. Its fulcrum is this simple point: sites must be professionally surveyed before any resource extraction takes place. It begins with the simple recognition that the protection of biodiversity is essential to humanity’s survival on this planet. Corporate interests cannot be given precedence. The protection of biodiversity is a universal human obligation based on science, which is our objective common ground. The protection of biodiversity is not a cultural privilege, and it should not be treated as a cultural football. Management protocols must be adhered to for listed species identified. Critical habitat must be mapped and protected. If we are serious about addressing climate change and biodiversity for future generations, science must take precedence over economics, politics, and cultural privilege, for the good of all humanity.
Loys Maingon is BC director of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists.
The BC Ministry of Forests has done nothing to limit further destruction of wildlife habitat in the Prince George Timber Supply Area (TSA) and conservationists are wondering why.
Extensive logging in the boreal rainforest north of Prince George (Photo: Conservation North)
IT HAS BEEN TWO YEARS since the Forest Practices Board concluded that nature was at high-risk in the Prince George TSA because of industrial logging. Why is it taking so long for the BC government to act on the Board’s recommendations when these ecosystems are on the brink of collapse?
A 2020 investigation by the Forest Practices Board was triggered by complaints from the public who observed extreme levels of logging by forestry companies in endangered old-growth spruce stands in the Parsnip drainage north of Prince George.
The Board concluded that biodiversity (plants and animals) is at high risk of irreversible loss in most of the Prince George District because of industrial logging. This area includes the globally rare inland temperate and boreal rainforests.
Logging in the Hart Caribou range of the northern wetbelt (Photo: Conservation North)
“We are watching logging trucks fly down highway 97 with eight spruce logs because the trees are so huge that’s all that will fit in the back of the truck,” explained Asta Glembotzki of Conservation North.
Confirming the Board’s findings, in 2021 a Technical Advisory Panel identified and mapped these areas as being rare and at-risk because of logging.
The Forest Practices Board’s two recommendations to the BC government in the 2020 report—which have not yet been acted upon—were that they promptly map and protect old growth where it is most threatened by logging, and update the province’s anachronistic biodiversity requirements for the region to reflect the latest science.
Current requirements around biodiversity for the TSA are contained in the Biodiversity Order, a document that was negotiated with industry 17 years ago. The Order is widely known to have been written to protect logging company access to the amount of old forest they want, where they want it. It specifies minimum areas to be retained that are way below what the science says must be protected to avoid ecological collapse.
Conservation North notes that there are other serious problems with biodiversity protection in the Prince George TSA that were never addressed in the 2020 Board investigation report. One example is that the work of keeping track of what has been logged and how much old growth remains in the TSA is left to a group of logging companies, as opposed to an independent scientific body or BC government staff. Conservation North views this arrangement as a serious conflict of interest that needs to be rectified if there is to be any hope of protecting nature in our region.
Conservation North’s Asta Glembotzki observes, “No one we talk to thinks letting forest companies make decisions about how to protect biodiversity is a good idea.” She adds that “BC has to rectify a massive problem in the Prince George TSA by following the recommendations of the Board now.”
Michelle Connolly is a founding director of Conservation North.
Some scientists consider them functionally extinct—but critical nesting habitat is still not protected.
Marbled murrelets can fly at speeds up to 180 kph for short bursts, and their regular “cruising speed” is about 80 kph. (Photo: Deborah Freeman)
THE MARBLED MURRELET LOOKS A BIT LIKE A PENGUIN, but is only the size of a plump robin.
Like a penguin, it uses its wings to ‘fly’ underwater to catch fish—to depths as great as 27 metres.
However, unlike penguins, its wings can also achieve great speed in the air. The motivation of life and death lies behind that speed: As one federal researcher explains, marbled murrelets “are essentially 220-gram balls of fat and muscle that have to fly from the sea to the forest, where they can be attacked by all kinds of raptors.”
Marbled murrelets fly with an average cruising speed of about 80 kph, he said, but some have been clocked as fast as an amazing 180 kph. (A “jet plane” sound has even been heard when some make a rapid descent from a high altitude.)
This quirky little sea bird can avoid or outrun a great many of its predators. But speed can’t help it escape one of its biggest threats—logging of its irreplaceable nesting habitat.
It is the species’ great misfortune that they require wide, tall trees in old-growth forests in order to nest and reproduce. And not just a few. Researchers suggest each nesting pair requires at least 37 to 50 square hectares. They find greater safety by avoiding each other, rather than hanging out in colonies.
Marbled murrelets nest on wide branches, high above the forest floor, and lay only one egg. This chick was rescued after falling off the nesting platform. Most chicks, however, would not survive the fall. (Photo: Peter Halasz)
The birds’ lives are largely spent calmly at sea, along the west coast from Alaska down to California. But this species’ need for safety in two different habitats—both sea and forest—and its slow reproductive rate, make it extremely vulnerable. Each mated pair may lay only one egg per year.
Ironically, despite the continued destruction of their breeding areas, marbled murrelets are ‘protected’ by several governments.
It’s been more than 100 years since the United States and Great Britain (on Canada’s behalf) first decided to protect marbled murrelets and other migratory birds.
That agreement reads in part that the two countries: “… being desirous of saving from indiscriminate slaughter and of insuring the preservation of such migratory birds as are either useful to man or are harmless, have resolved to adopt some uniform system of protection which shall effectively accomplish such objects...”
The Migratory Bird Convention of 1916 is still in effect, now amended by a 1995 Protocol. And other countries have joined over the years: Mexico, Japan, and Russia. But are these agreements as effective as they were intended to be?
In the US, the Migratory Bird Act based on that treaty, along with the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and individual states’ laws, may protect somewhat more habitat than has been the case in Canada.
In one example, Pacific Lumber was permanently prevented from harvesting old-growth timber in its own privately owned forest, in an area called Owl Creek in Humboldt County, CA in 1995.
The case noted approximately 100 observations of marbled murrelet nesting behaviour in that forest, as well as the fact the entire population could be wiped out by a single oil spill at sea.
Even partial logging of the area would dangerously increase access to raptors that prey on murrelets and their eggs, it was stated. That case has since been used as a precedent in several other situations.
Canada, however, has been slower to provide much real protection. Federally, marbled murrelets have been listed as threatened since 2003. In BC, it is blue-listed, meaning it is a “species of concern.” Yet all these policies have not paid off in large vistas of untouched habitat for marbled murrelets in BC.
For instance, despite a 2005 report stating that “large numbers of murrelets” were discovered flying into the San Juan River drainage area on southern Vancouver Island, where logging was ongoing, no harvesting was stopped then, or since.
Federal mapping of marbled murrelet critical habitat (yellowish areas) in an area typical of TFL 46. That habitat is being steadily converted to clearcuts and tree plantations in TFL 46 and elsewhere on the coast. (BC government Data Catalogue)
Now, 17 years later, Fairy Creek is the only remaining relatively intact watershed within the entire San Juan system.
“Many would argue that marbled murrelets—and other species like mountain caribou—are already functionally extinct,” says Dr. Tara Martin, a UBC professor of conservation science. “They’re at such low numbers that they’re no longer performing their ecological functions.”
How did this happen, when Canada agreed and planned to conserve them for more than 100 years? Both levels of government must bear some responsibility.
UBC professor of conservation science Dr Tara Martin
Martin explains that the province of BC has the richest biodiversity in Canada, and more species at risk than any other. But it is one of only three provinces with no legislation to protect its threatened species.
Enacting legislation to protect endangered species was promised in the NDP’s 2017 election campaign. Premier Horgan’s first mandate letter to environment minister George Heyman included the instruction to create it. But the legislation is yet to appear.
The federal government, too, has let wildlife down. Martin explains that although the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada declared the species endangered in 2003, the marbled murrelet recovery plan was not written for another 11 years. Worse, an action plan is still awaited. Without it, “there is little in the form of recovery,” she says.
“The action plan provides the details of the actions to undertake to recover a species,” Martin explains. She feels the federal process should be revised to develop action plans soon after species are listed—not years later.
The sad but inevitable result is that, although marbled murrelets’ critical habitat areas are identified, most of it is still not protected from logging.
“There has been no actual designation of specific stands of forest as critical habitat,” says Dr. Alan Burger. The University of Victoria adjunct professor and wildlife consultant is known for his decades of research and field studies on marbled murrelets.
“That is a major failure of the Recovery Strategy and the response by both federal and provincial governments,” he said. “There is ongoing logging in much of the forest which has been mapped as potential critical habitat.”
Yet the goal of species protection laws “is to maintain this species as a common breeder throughout its current range in BC.”
Indeed, marbled murrelets are not the only species receiving far less government support than they actually need. In a 2015 report about the lack of designated critical habitat for listed species in Canada, UBC professor Dr. Karen Hodges wrote: “The majority of species are not being afforded the protection the law is required to offer to them.”
During the past year, UBC professor emeritus in chemical and biological engineering Dr. Royann Petrell and a team of citizen scientists recorded 115 marbled murrelet sightings just outside Fairy Creek, in the next watershed over, called upper Granite Creek. Most were seen in an area Fairy Creek protestors had dubbed “Heli Camp,” on the face of a mountain which slopes into Granite Creek drainage on one side, and Fairy Creek drainage on the other.
Dr. Royann Petrell (right) and citizen scientists examine images taken in unprotected forest in the Walbran Valley. (Photo: Deborah Freeman)
Since August 2020, protestors had established several camps to protect these remaining old-growth forests, which grew uninterrupted down the slopes from Fairy Creek. Nearly 1,200 were arrested after Teal Jones was granted an injunction against protestors in its Tree Farm Licence 46, which includes Fairy Creek and much of the remaining old growth forests in the area. After the camps were routed in early August, the rate of logging increased.
Petrell described Heli Camp as “perfect marbled murrelet habitat,” with good cover to protect the birds as they fly upstream on daily fishing trips from the ocean, and wide, mossy platform-like limbs high up in towering old-growth trees, where their single precious egg might be safely hidden.
But since then, 90 per cent of the Heli Camp cutblock has been logged. (In addition, the clear-cutting destroyed most of a colony of rare, at risk, Old Growth Specklebelly lichen—which was likely the largest population ever recorded in BC.)
Of Petrell’s sightings, Martin says, “This is the remarkable thing: if that was federal land, it would be designated as critical habitat.” But because it is BC Crown land, which falls under provincial jurisdiction, it was not.
She adds that if a nest is identified in a tree, there is some protection—but only till the end of nesting season. Then the tree could still be cut down. (Regardless, it is next to impossible to find marbled murrelets’ nests, high up on wide, mossy branches in tall trees.)
As Martin sums up, “These rules are absurd. They do not do anything to protect birds or other species in the long term.”
Marbled murrelets are known to return year after year, to nest in the same stand of ancient trees. Scientists call it “high site fidelity.”
“We don’t know what happens if their nest stand is lost. But if they are like other Alcids [a family of marine birds which includes puffins and murres] in some instances, they may not breed again,” says Oregon University professor Kim Nelson.
“If the whole stand is lost to fire or logging, we really don’t know if they move to new stands. What if the nearby stands are already full of murrelets?”
Marbled murrelets do not build nests. Instead they lay their single eggs in thick, mossy depressions on wide branches. These nesting “platforms” don’t exist in smaller trees—only big, wide trees, usually of a great age, can grow such wide branches. If there is no alternative but to nest on smaller branches, eggs or chicks can fall to their deaths.
Both Burger and Martin are enthusiastic about the potential of a November 2021 ministerial order to protect marbled murrelets—except for the fact that logging is still happening in the areas it mentions.
As the situation stands, Petrell’s 115 sightings—confirmed by radar—will not save the remaining nesting habitat in the Heli Camp area, nor any of the other old-growth forest fragments nearby.
Heli Camp area—until it was logged, this old growth forest was largely intact and continued over the mountain and into Fairy Creek. (Photo: Will O’Connell)
As part of Teal Cedar’s Tree Farm License 46, almost all of these last iconic old-growth trees are slated to be clear-cut within 15 to 20 years, at most. The company’s stated harvest flow objective is to keep cutting “until all the old growth is exhausted.”
This year’s cutblocks have been authorized, and logging has begun. Roads to the cutblocks, though public, are now blocked by newly installed gates.
The gates are authorized by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development in response to Teal Cedar’s requests to restrict public access for the purpose of “protecting logging operations.” A private security firm was hired to guard the gates.
Closing or restricting the usage of roads is permitted by the ministry if property, public health, or public safety might be endangered.
Last year, similar gates and RCMP officers prevented Petrell and her team from surveying birds and their habitat at Fairy Creek and other nearby old-growth forests such as Eden Grove, Bugaboo, Walbran and Caycuse.
This year, Petrell is fighting back. Earlier this month, Ecojustice environmental law charity announced it will challenge at least eight of the road closures in TFL46 on her behalf.
“By closing access to roads that have been used regularly by the public, Teal Cedar has effectively turned wide swathes of public lands into private property,” the Ecojustice news release stated.
It also noted that the ministry’s approvals for the gates did not require Teal Cedar to maintain reasonable public access.
“The gates in TFL 46 prevent citizen scientists from identifying and protecting at-risk species in areas where logging is imminent,” Petrell said. She added that the wildlife surveys these volunteers are trying to carry out should have been done years ago by the BC government—before it approved any logging.
“At a time of biodiversity crisis,” Ecojustice lawyer Rachel Gutman added, “we need scientists like Dr. Petrell to be able to carry out their important work of mapping species unimpeded. Logging companies shouldn’t be able to stand in their way.”
Until the case is heard, however, no one is likely to be permitted to check first for signs of marbled murrelets, or their nests, in the stands of old-growth forest being destroyed in TFL 46.
At this point, the marbled murrelets’ best hope may lie with Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent mandate letter to Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change: “Work with the Minister of Natural Resources to help protect old growth forests, notably in British Columbia…”
The letter asks Minister Guilbeault to reach a nature agreement with BC, establish a $50 million BC old growth nature fund, and to ensure that First Nations, local communities and workers “are partners in shaping the path forward for nature protection.”
This is all a tall order. Premier Horgan has already indicated that $50 million would not be nearly enough money. Last year when the fund was announced, he suggested the federal government should “add a zero.”
Meanwhile, marbled murrelets are still listed as a threatened species in BC and Canada. And logging of their known and rapidly diminishing critical habitat continues—despite intentions to protect them that date back more than one hundred years.
Grace Golightly (her name since birth) is a freelance writer interested in the protection of nature and human rights.
To respond to the climate crisis, BC needs better monitoring of biodiversity—including in protected areas. It also needs to rethink previous assumptions about the static nature of protected area boundaries, including the impacts of nearby forestry. Consider, for example, Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island.
Photos by David Broadland
Bedwell Lake with Big Interior Mountain in background, Strathcona Park
THE UNPRECEDENTED HEAT DOME of June 2021 and atmospheric rivers of November 2021 herald big changes ahead for British Columbia’s ecosystems. This is not a one-off. It is an accelerating trend. It will return and be as normal as a West Coast winter rain by 2030. It is generally agreed that these extreme events inaugurate a new era of climate extremes that has been expected for some time. This raises two questions. What does this mean for the BC Parks system? And, why should we care about biodiversity? Let’s consider that first.
Biodiversity is important because it controls processes that regulate climate change. That was the central concern of the joint report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Platform on Climate Change) and the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) released in June 2021, titled Biodiversity and Climate Change. The IPCC and IPBES concluded with a joint statement that it is impossible to solve the climate change emergency without solving the biodiversity crisis. Climate change and biodiversity are inextricably inter-related. It is not enough just to eliminate fossil fuels.
Woodland Pinedrops, Strathcona Park
The events we now witness tell us what 1.1 degrees Celsius warming means. Somewhere between six to eleven years from now (2021) we can expect to cross the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold, which most scientists understand should be avoided at all costs. However, it is clear from the latest IPCC report that “in the near term (2021-2040), 1.5 degrees Celsius is very likely to be exceeded.” A majority of the scientists who wrote the last report do not expect that nations will meet 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius targets. What we see unfolding now will have enormous consequences for the distribution of most species both terrestrial and aquatic, especially for the future survival of species-at-risk in BC in the coming decades.
Species distributions are synonymous with habitat distributions. There are no species without habitats. If habitats collapse or shift, so must species. To survive, species must have corridors and alternatives to find new habitats. The thresholds they will have to cross in the coming years have serious implications for the very survival of Strathcona Provincial Park as a whole as we know it today. This concern applies to all BC Parks across the province. The degree to which they will be affected by climate change will depend on three factors: the stability of their regional biomes, their size and the degree to which they are biologically isolated. The smaller a park is the more vulnerable it is, and the more difficult it will be for its resident species to find nearby alternative habitat.
Lake Beautiful, Strathcona Park
The park is not just a series of geological formations on which life is just an ornament. Its very rocks are embedded with life forms such as lichens that give them their colours and hues. They photosynthesize, hold water and drive chemical cycles essential to life, and geological processes. As John Muir noted: “everything is hitched to everything else.” The park is therefore not just a generalized landscape for our recreation. It is a living biome shaped by its waters and snows that support specialized vegetation which in turn releases the aerosols that give us “mountain highs” and create its winds and rains and microclimates. What happens when these essential elements reach their tolerance limits and disappear?
Green False Hellebore, Strathcona Park
It might be easy to disregard these considerations if their reality and importance were not confirmed by recent research by Dobrowski et al. The title almost says it all: “Protected-area targets could be undermined by climate change-driven shifts in ecoregions and biomes.” This research shows that climate change turns many of the assumptions that have guided conservation and park planning throughout the twentieth century on their head. We assumed that the world changed slowly. It no longer does. We also assumed that we could save and preserve static areas of land that would not change for generations to come. The basic problem is delineated as follows:“The impermanence of species assemblages, communities, and ecosystems pose a challenge to conservation frameworks that rely on protected areas with static boundaries. Conservation plans based on current geographic patterns of biodiversity may be insufficient to support future biota and natural processes and may fail to afford species access to suitable climates as the Earth warms. These challenges raise questions about the efficacy of the existing protected area network and how to expand its coverage under a warming climate.”
Croteau Lake, with Mount Albert Edward in background, Strathcona Park
Sitka Valerean, Strathcona Park
As observed by Dobrowski et al, all official planning, including the much-touted Key Biodiversity Areas ( KBAs) programme, which is central to Canada’s biodiversity conservation plan, Pathway to Canada Target 1, essentially remain products of a static boundary approach.
The political interest in KBAs, and in Pathway to Canada, lies not in conservation per se, but in conservation that still prioritizes and preserves the economic interests of industry. In the KBAs own phrasing, data and boundaries “can help guide conservation investments and inform where development can occur.” KBAs are based on the twin assumptions that governments can continue to promote business as usual, while climate change is stabilized at 1.5 degrees Celsius. For reasons outlined above, we will pass 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 and if we continue business-as-usual, in the most optimistic scenario we will exceed 2.4 degrees Celsius. Neither of these assumptions is commensurate with the reality we face. While KBAs are an improvement, they do not represent the kind of dynamic approach needed to preserve biodiversity in the face of climate change.
Bedwell Lake, with Mount Tom Taylor in background, Strathcona Park
Current park planning is now as obsolescent as BC’s road and drainage infrastructure planning. Just as the atmospheric rivers tested British Columbia’s engineering standards, and will call for an increase in standards as well as re-assessments of the limits of those standards and a revision of the viability of projects, they also threaten the future of Strathcona Provincial Park and other protected areas. Until now climate change has been treated as a remote afterthought in the idyllic mountains of Vancouver Island. This can no longer be the case. Climate change is not an abstract concept. It threatens all conservation areas in ways for which traditional conservation and park planning are possibly even more woefully unprepared than were BC’s Emergency Services and Ministry of Transportation for recent events that were long forecast.
To understand what the heat dome and the atmospheric rivers mean for Strathcona Park and other protected areas, it may be instructive to learn from what is already unfolding in the iconic Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Ever since the establishment of Yosemite, first as a “protected area” in 1864 and then as a national park in 1890, parks were set aside as representative conservation areas of regional ecosystems. The assumption was that the environment and ecosystems in which they were set would remain relatively unchanged for centuries. Changes we witness today give the lie to that assumption.
Bride’s Bonnet, Strathcona Park
John Muir and countless mountaineers have noted that, against the grandeur and awe of mountains, human beings seem dwarfed by the sheer scale and power of nature. With climate change, all that has changed. As one observer—who worked as an intern at Yosemite in 1992, and returned with her son this year—recently noted in an essay aptly titled “What I saw at Yosemite was devastating”: “Now, almost 30 years later, in what might be the most profound shift of all, the power dynamic between humans and Yosemite has changed. To see nature so vulnerable not only feels depressing, but wrong, disorienting and scary.” In what should be familiar for admirers of Strathcona Provincial Park, the shrinking and potential disappearance of glaciers leading to the disappearance of streams and reduction of mighty rivers to mere trickles has reduced ecosystems at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks to mere shadows of what they were only a few years ago. With temperatures in the High Sierra valleys reaching 40 degrees Celsius, not only is hiking becoming hazardous to human health, it is endangering the survival of both plants and wildlife.
Baby Bedwell Lake and Mount Tom Taylor, Strathcona Park
Everywhere on this planet the optimal temperature for photosynthesis is 21 degrees Celsius. Plants regulate their environment by orienting and releasing aerosols to maintain photosynthesis. Below that temperature plants can slow down and close down to retain hydric cell environments and maintain life, until conditions to re-start return. Above that plants are stressed to retain the necessary hydric conditions for photosynthesis and cellular integrity. All around the world trees and forest ecosystems are showing signs of heat stress, which is interpreted as part of a global forest dieback.
On the West Coast, an annual succession of floods, drought, heatwaves and wildfires are becoming as common and as expected as sunrise and sunset. They take their toll on trees which are the backbone of our forests. In California, redwoods and giant sequoias, which were once reputed to be adapted ecologically to and dependent on periodic wildfires, are now overwhelmed by the new extreme wildfires such as we have seen in the last decade on the West Coast. In the last two years alone Sequoia National Park has lost 20 percent of its iconic giant sequoias, and the trend is likely to continue. That is climate change at 1.1 degrees Celsius. As climate change progresses to 1.5 degrees Celsius and beyond, similar conditions are likely to be visited upon British Columbia with increasing mortalities of Nootka and red cedars and Douglas fir, which like the atmospheric rivers of November 2021, have long been predicted. There is now an urgency to incorporate this rapidly changing reality in park planning.
Bedwell Lake and Big Interior Mountain, Strathcona Park
Park planning must shift from static paradigms, such as the KBA, to dynamic planning. Dynamic planning means connecting the landscape so that species are provided with the opportunity to move to analog habitats. To survive, species must be provided with corridors to move as climate changes and threats increase, to habitats that are analogous to the ones they inhabit today. Parks in BC are physically isolated units because clearcutting has all too frequently been carried out right to their borders. Biologically, these areas are regionally disconnected by surrounding clearcut operations which have destroyed even the soil fungal networks which would normally provide nutrient avenues for species shifts.
If we are serious about addressing the dangers that climate change poses, we need to restore soil carbon networks and the biodiversity networks that depend on them. In a climate emergency, conservation priorities must guide economic planning, not vice-versa. As Glasgow COP26 showed, climate change is unlikely to be addressed at COP conferences that focus on maintaining the economy and protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industries. It can, however, be addressed at home if we prioritize conservation values in planning, support inventory work and carry out planning dynamically across the landscape, not in isolation.
Deer Cabbage, Strathcona Park
Saving Strathcona Provincial Park at a time of climate change will require that we move beyond the current thinking. As Dobrowski et al observe, to address climate change we need to connect existing protected areas and provide corridors for species movement. Much of the potential resilience of Strathcona Provincial Park lies in its size and central position on Vancouver Island. Within the landscape of Vancouver Island it constitutes a vital biodiversity node. However, important parts of it, such as Forbidden Plateau, form narrow vulnerable projections in a landscape of clearcuts. Those areas of the park need to be expanded to recover the biological buffers that lost ecosystems surrounding the park formerly represented. In the case of Forbidden Plateau that would involve an incorporation of the watersheds associated with Comox Lake, and the extensive restoration of these areas from forestry damage.
Given that a large part of the problem posed by the need to develop dynamic boundaries lies in the impact of forestry operations on the resilience of the park’s ecosystems to climate change, there is an urgent necessity to change policies that guide forestry. Within the paradigm of static boundaries, forestry has been given a free hand in the destruction of areas outside the preserved areas. The park was planned in isolation from forestry, and forestry was planned in isolation from the park. Their interconnections and interdependencies were rarely, if ever, considered. In dynamic planning, we have to recognize the impact of forestry and its importance for the park’s role in maintaining biodiversity. Therefore, in dynamic planning, forestry plans must incorporate and protect conservation area values. In other words, the park community, and parks staff must first understand the dynamic relationship and only then be involved in forestry planning. The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and BC Parks must work with forestry and provide plans to protect long-term conservation values across the whole landscape. The overriding concern with climate change alters the social, political and economic priorities. The lead in planning with “Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations” can no longer be forestry and the timber industry, but the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. It requires that forestry and forestry owners and licensees work in concert with BC Parks in prioritizing climate change and biodiversity, and not the “timber supply,” as the Forest and Ranges Practices Act suggests.
Western Bunchberry, Strathcona Park
To address the climate emergency, BC Parks needs to move beyond recreation, important as that is. As per Dobrowski et al, the climate emergency makes the role of conservation and biodiversity in BC Parks increasingly important for the survival of this province’s key biodiversity nodes such as Strathcona Provincial Park. To be serious about assuming that role, BC Parks needs to be able to map species biodiversity in the parks and ecological reserves.
To a large extent that is the underfunded work that the Strathcona Wilderness Institute (SWI) has been doing for the last 3 years. SWI has been compiling and mapping species distribution lists, and promoting public education through workshops and webinars, in spite of COVID. To date, eight people—on foot—have reliably mapped at least 1682 species, which include many species references new to the park and even to Vancouver Island. (The current list on the SWI Data page on iNaturalist is incomplete.) That is the backbone of the information that BC Parks has appropriated on its iNaturalist page. SWI’s work makes Strathcona Provincial Park the best biologically-documented park in the BC Park system.
Cabbage Lichen, Strathcona Park
In 1989 Strathcona Park was saved by the public from government mismanagement. Once again the public needs to weigh in to demand that the Ministry of Environment and BC Parks develop modern park plans based on dynamic boundaries, not static boundaries. That is essential if we are to meet the challenges of climate emergency for the benefit of future generations. This will require a large and long public engagement in the park planning process. It is beyond the boundaries of conventional institutional thinking and capabilities that are beholden to government and industry. We need to think differently about geographical boundaries as well as institutional boundaries. The latter requires rethinking the abusive world of institutional privilege.
The public has now gathered enough information necessary to better manage the park’s biodiversity, for the public benefit. It has done so by providing essential biological data needed to develop modern dynamic landscape planning it has the right to expect. This is essential information needed to meet the challenge of the day: the climate and biodiversity emergencies. The information is limited but enough to plan for the restoration of soil fungal and biodiversity networks essential for enhanced carbon capture and the creation of analogue habitats. The tools and the knowledge are readily available to address climate change. Is there the will?
Therefore the question that needs to guide forestry and BC Parks is: do we take climate change seriously?
Loys Maingon (MA, PhD, MSc, RPBio) is research director of the Strathcona Wilderness Institute and BC Director of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists.