Conservation-minded residents of northeastern Washington, North Idaho and northwestern Montana may want to start hoarding Canadian quarters if they hold out any hope of ever seeing a herd of mountain caribou anywhere in the States.
The embattled hoofed animal, its antlered image stamped onto the back of Canada's shimmering 25-cent coins, may soon be impossible to find south of the 49th parallel if work continues on a massive old growth clear-cut underway in mountains north of the U.S.-Canadian border, an area just three hours from downtown Spokane.
The clear-cut, which at 3,138 acres will be the largest in British Columbia's south Selkirk mountain range when it's done late this year, is located south of Nelson, British Columbia.
The logging operation is in the heart of prime wintering habitat for the dwindling South Selkirk herd of mountain caribou -- a species listed as endangered throughout the United States since 1983 -- which migrates into forested wilds near Priest Lake and Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The frantic effort to halt the Canadian logging operation has attracted the lobbying and fundraising help of the Lands Council, a Spokane conservation group that has been specifically watch-dogging the fate of endangered "trans-boundary" wildlife populations like the caribou, grizzly and lynx for the past two-and-a-half years.
"We are calling for a moratorium [on logging] while we work on the recovery plan," says Lands Council spokesman Rein Attemann. "But it seems the owners aren't willing to talk until we have the money in our hands."
The land is privately held by South Kootenay Forestry, a development company based in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Lands Council, along with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), is scrambling to come up with enough money to purchase the property before South Kootenay clears the remaining top half of the parcel, covered in the sort of old growth forest that mountain caribou munch on during deep winter. Half of the cut is already done, with nothing more than sprawling, denuded mountainside left behind.
But according to CPAWS spokesman Gil Arnold, who last week called the situation "desperate," attempts to seal a deal with South Kootenay have been going nowhere fast. Negotiations, he says, have been "pretty onerous." What's more, South Kootenay's logging contractor has been told to continue falling and hauling timber, even with a buyer's pitch pending.
"This thing is still very much up in the air," says Arnold, a former Colorado native and Vietnam vet, "but the tragic thing is that South Kootenay Forestry will not stop cutting while we resolve this."
Efforts to contact South Kootenay co-partner and spokesperson Rob McDonald went unanswered for almost two weeks. Finally contacted last Sunday, McDonald would only confirm that a deal to sell might be in the works.
"Mr. Arnold has expressed an interest to buy the property," says McDonald, "and we're just waiting to see what that offer is."
It's estimated South Kootenay's asking price would be approximately $750,000 U.S.
Two years ago, McDonald and another partner in South Kootenay were involved in a heated and controversial plan to log and develop a stand of old growth forest on Saltspring Island, an idyllic holiday and retirement haunt between Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. The ensuing war in the woods, which included a Saltspring resident's nude horseback ride through Vancouver's business district, eventually made headlines across Canada.
Attemann and the Lands Council have relied on far more family-friendly publicity stunts to call attention to the struggling South Selkirk herd. Last weekend, during an annual Nelson street performers' festival, Attemann and company donned a collection of cardboard-and-cloth mountain caribou outfits and wandered among tourists and craft vendors. The get-ups were tailored by Spokane-area elementary-school kids.
"We had people ask us, 'What are those? Reindeer or moose or elk?,' " says Attemann. "And we were like, 'No, we're caribou.' It was a great opportunity to educate the public."
Attemann says rural residents of northeastern Washington and North Idaho have "thrown up their arms" in frustration over ways to save the region's miniscule mountain caribou population. There have been only three animals seen there in recent years.
"In the last 15 years, numbers have dropped from 30 to the teens and now down into single numbers," he says.
There are roughly 1,800 mountain caribou left in B.C., approximately 41 of those comprising the South Selkirk herd. But in the States, the species' numbers, like its story, seem all but destined for tragedy. Despite the transplant of more than 100 caribou over the past 10 years from a region in central British Columbia, the South Selkirk herd's few southward-bound animals are the last remaining mountain caribou in the southern 48 states.
"The transplants have resulted in a continual population in the [Canadian] southern Selkirks," says Attemann. "They haven't become extinct. On the U.S. side though, they may not be here for much longer."
With stacked logging trucks still rolling out of the patchy evergreen mountains near Nelson, Attemann says the effort to halt ongoing intrusion and development of the caribou's high-country habitat has to continue. A failure to purchase the remainder of South Kootenay's cut block will be a significant setback to the Lands Council, says Attemann. "Then we've failed as conservationists," he concludes. "And the caribou will have definitely taken several steps backwards in terms of their ability to recover to a sustainable population."
Darren Davidson is a reporter for the Nelson Daily News in British Columbia and a contributing editor to Canada's Explore magazine.
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