Color is just coming back into the world with the morning twilight. Quietly, I set out from my camp in the Monashee Mountains of southeastern British Columbia. Crossing a small stream, I find tracks of an animal that had come down to the water. Perhaps having caught wind of my camp, the animal abruptly turned and went the other way. The trail is fresh and the huge, round tracks identify its maker: after years of searching, my first encounter with a mountain caribou is at hand.
...these creatures now stand as one of the last major barriers to the annihilation of one of the most unusual forest ecosystems found anywhere on the planet.
For years I had read about these almost mythical creatures of the interior mountains of northwestern North America. Once abundant, they are now on the verge of disappearing. I follow the trail along a forested mountain ridge. To the north and south, the landscape rises to craggy, snow-clad peaks. To either side, the land falls away into the characteristic steep-sided canyon walls, polished cliffs and milky emerald-colored streams of a glacier-carved landscape.
This mountain fortress I trod across, following the traces of a caribou, is in the heart of a little known rainforest hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean. The rainforest stretches discontinuously for more than 500 miles north to south across a series of rugged mountain ranges in northern Washington, Idaho and Montana in the United States and southeastern British Columbia in Canada. The territory of the mountain caribou and the expanse of this interior temperate rainforest eerily coincide, hinting at their deep relationship and the possibility that this is truly a “Caribou Rainforest.” As with so many parts of this story, traditional ecological relationships have been turned on their head. While mountain caribou evolved to depend on these remote forests to protect and feed them, these creatures now stand as one of the last major barriers to the annihilation of one of the most unusual forest ecosystems found anywhere on the planet. The legal protection of these endangered caribou is one of the only safeguards these vast tracts of rainforest have—a tenuous situation that demonstrates the need for further conservation efforts in the region.
I follow the trail slowly, carefully scanning the openings in the spruce and fir forest as I go. The air is still. Cresting a small rise I spot a bull caribou, antlers in velvet, grazing in a clearing. Only my wide eyes betray my excitement as I stop and carefully lift my camera to snap a few shots, the click of the shutter drawing the attention of the caribou. He looks at me for a moment, then moves slowly but deliberately into the forest. I do not follow. After first reading about these legendary animals years before and then having gone on numerous outings to search for them, I felt like I had seen a ghost.
Several of the region’s indigenous groups who depended on caribou for sustenance now find themselves serving as the protectors of the caribou against the same colonial forces that decimated the numbers of their own peoples: “We need them as much as they need us for protection,” said Harley Davis, former chief of the Saulteau First Nations. “Without the animals and without the trees and the forest, our culture could not survive.”
This story is one of a landscape in flux, of shifting boundaries, physical and metaphorical and a creature that wanders across it all.
Here, the stories and fates of caribou, rainforest and humans are irrevocably intertwined. What is unfolding in this mountain- and rainforest-clad region is of global significance, coming at a moment of great consequence for life on this planet. With the impacts of human-caused climate change at hand, a growing number of species on the planet are heading toward extinction as cultural rifts within human populations loom ever larger. National boundaries and twentieth-century legislation are failing to cope with the issues. Here we find a microcosm of what is playing out in ecosystems around the planet—indeed, the region is a crucible for developing effective approaches to tackling the socioenvironmental challenges we will face in the decades to come. This story is one of a landscape in flux, of shifting boundaries, physical and metaphorical and a creature that wanders across it all.
Above: This stand of old growth inland temperate rainforest is part of the home range of the herd of caribou that also use Glacier National Park in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. It was clearcut shortly after the photo was taken. The bands around the cedar log are placed there to keep the trunk from splitting when the tree is felled. The western hemlock trees were all sent to a pulp mill to make paper products.
Below: In winter, mountain caribou feed almost exclusively on tree lichens that grow abundantly in high elevation old growth forests in the region.
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