Declining Caribou Displaced by Snowmobilers

Valhalla Wilderness Society

November 3, 2015 – Top government managers of B.C.’s Mountain Caribou Recovery Plan (MCRIP) have reported that the plan is failing to keep snowmobiles out of caribou’s winter habitat, even as caribou herds race towards extinction. In their 2015 briefing report to the MCRIP Progress Board (1), the government managers said that caribou are being displaced from winter feeding grounds by snowmobilers, some of whom are riding in areas legally closed to snowmobiling.
 
Government biologists have been documenting violations of snowmobile restrictions, and displacement of mountain caribou, for years now, warning that this may be contributing to population declines.(2) Studies have shown that snowmobiles can cause harmful direct stress to the animals, range abandonment, nutritional deficiencies, increased predation and population decline. (3)(4)(5)
 
The B.C. recovery plan was doomed to fail, as only scattered parts of caribou winter habitat were closed to snowmobiling. Some closures are only partial, and some are legally binding while others are “voluntary”. Instead of providing adequate staff and funding to enforce these closures, the government negotiated Stewardship Management Agreements (SMAs) with local snowmobile clubs, allowing them to ride in designated areas used by caribou, while also monitoring for compliance with the restrictions.
 
However, this year government managers reported numerous violations of both legal and voluntary closures, as well as tracks showing snowmobilers riding very close to caribou. Field staff report that fines for violations are too small to deter some violators, and non-payment of fines is “significant”. Enforcement officers found many members of the local clubs do not support the agreements signed by their club executives.
 
The MCRIP Progress Board includes representatives from the B.C. Snowmobile Federation and Heli-Cat Canada. In response to the government briefing report, the Board belatedly informed the public in its 2015 Annual Report (6) that the clubs “represent about 10% of sledders in BC and are not equipped to do enforcement.” The Annual Report concedes that “… voluntary closures reduce the likelihood of public compliance with closed areas and eliminate any opportunity for enforcement.” The Board recommends that all voluntary closures with a poor compliance record be converted to legal closures and fines greatly increased.
 
“We’re glad to finally have acknowledgement after 7 years and the loss of 500 endangered caribou, but what is the government going to do about?” asks Anne Sherrod, a spokesperson for the Valhalla Wilderness Society. “Further, the Progress Board cannot distance itself from the violations as if it has no part in them. The Board negotiated the Recovery Plan; getting to ride in areas used by caribou while avoiding legal enforcement is the obvious intent of ‘voluntary’ closures.” In the first year of the Recovery Plan, 2007-2008, the BC Snowmobile Federation received $105,000 in taxpayer funds, and the Association of BC Snowmobile Clubs received $11,000 to educate snowmobilers, monitor for compliance of closed areas and secure cooperation. (7)
 
In some areas the B.C. government has permitted a booming industry of groomed snowmobile trails in prime mountain caribou winter habitat. “I’ve recently counted 16 watersheds in caribou winter range with groomed trails providing more than 300 kilometres of packed snow highways for wolves and cougars to access caribou,” says Pettitt.  “This increases use, and I estimate there could be as many as 100 sleds per day using some of these trails.”
 
“No doubt the government will trot out its standard line that 1 million hectares of winter habitat has been closed off to snowmobiling,” says Pettitt. “But my field inspections have found that some areas closed to snowmobiles consist of extremely steep slopes and avalanche tracks, which caribou avoid in the winter whenever possible.”
 
Meanwhile, if you don’t have a snowmobile or need a larger, more powerful one, the Ministry of Environment’s own website will provide you with a handy list of the telephone numbers of snowmobile dealers in B.C. (http://www.snowmobile.gov.bc.ca/) “This is a shocking example of the provincial government’s double-faced policies, in claiming great concern to save the caribou by shooting the wolves from helicopters, while ignoring the highways snowmobiles create for wolves to easily reach and hunt down caribou. (5)
 
The Valhalla Wilderness Society urges the Province to immediately restrict and enforce snowmobiling to “areas that are geographically isolated from caribou habitat”. Compliance should also be strengthened by drastically increasing the fine for riding in closures and impounding offenders’ snowmobiles. Until then, the claim that the government is doing everything it can do to save the mountain caribou is flagrantly false.

Related Posts

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital