Pine beetle epidemic, related large-scale salvage logging in British Columbia's Cariboo is 'most plausible' explanation for serious decline in moose numbers, report finds, suggesting clearcuts and logging roads increased exposure to hunters

Wendy Lisney

Wendy Lisney

Aug 21, 2013 – Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER, British Columbia , August 21, 2013 () – The "most plausible" explanation for a serious decline in moose populations in the Cariboo is the mountain pine beetle epidemic, especially the large-scale salvage logging that followed, a report for the B.C. government finds.

The consultant's report said the "vulnerability of moose could have increased due either to the change in habitat (dead trees) or to increased salvage logging (removal of cover) or to the change in access associated with salvage logging (more roads)."

In other words, vast clearcuts left moose exposed on the landscape - to human and wild predators - and a proliferation of logging roads made it easier for hunters on motorized vehicles to get at them.

The Vancouver Sun obtained a copy of the report by Wildlife Infometrics of Mackenzie through a freedom-of-information request. While the lodgepole pine clearcuts made it easier for all hunters, the report singles out unregulated hunting, which includes First Nations, who are not obliged to report kills and are not restricted by the number, sex or age of the moose they take.

Because the government reduced the number of allowable hunts and because cows and calves also declined - not just bulls taken by licensed hunters - it is likely that the "unsustainable portion of mortality must come from either unregulated hunting or natural sources," the report concluded.

Researchers cautioned that they struggled with a lack of information and urged the province to increase monitoring, including the "collection of basic inventory" data and research designed specially to improve understanding of moose mortality rates.

The vast Cariboo extends approximately from Clinton north to Quesnel and from Tweedsmuir Provincial Park east to the Cariboo Mountains.

"It's fairly clear we can't put a finger on a particular cause or a smoking gun," said Rodger Stewart, director of resource management in the Cariboo for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. He said that the leading factor may even change from one ecosystem type to another, adding that limited-entry hunting opportunities for bull moose for non-natives residents have been cut by about one-third in the region. Guided hunts are also down.

Stewart said that the ministry has good information on local moose-population trends but lacks the sort of detail that can link a population decline to, say, a specific activity such as increased logging roads across a larger landscape.

The province is working with Chilcotin First Nations to get a better handle on moose kills, and is funding trapper education among natives to reduce the number of wolves in the region.

Moose is a critical biggame species for natives and non-natives alike in the Cariboo, typically generating 140 to 200 kilograms of meat each. "It certainly has an icon status," said Stewart, who also hunts the species. "It's been the bread and butter ... for a long time."

B.C.'s pine-beetle epidemic began in the 1990s, but it wasn't until 2001 that the province began ramping up the annual allowable cut in a failed attempt to arrest its progress.

In 2004, Gordon Campbell's Liberal government replaced the Forest Practices Code with the Forest and Range Practices Act. The act limited clearcuts to 60 hectares in the Interior, but did not apply to beetle salvage logging - which had no upper limit.

Salvage clear-cutting is not restricted to dead pine trees, but takes healthy, more commercially valuable species of trees with greater biological importance.

The province estimates the mountain pine beetle has killed a total of 723 million cubic metres of timber across 18.3 million hectares - an area more than five times the size of Vancouver Island.

The Sun reported in 2012 that surveys by the province over the previous two winters have discovered serious moose declines: A 70-per-cent drop since 1997 in the 5,000-squarekilometre Nass Wildlife Area near Terrace.

A 50-per-cent drop since 2005 around Prince George.

A 20-per-cent drop since 2004 in the Bulkley Valley-Lakes District in west-central B.C.

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