Hermits of the Big Wild

by Karsten Heuer
Fall 2008

Wildlife biologist Mark Hebblewhite likes to think big. So it was no surprise to his friends and colleagues when, early in 2006, the lanky, 35-year-old professor from the University of Montana began eyeing Canada’s boreal forest for his next project. Stretching over 5,000 mile from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, the thick shawl
of spruce, pine, larch, poplar and aspen trees covers 1.5 billion acres and stores more than 186 billion tons of climate-changing carbon (the equivalent to 32 years of U.S. emissions). Its millions of lakes and rivers filter and store most of North America’s water. Home to 300 species of birds, wolverines, lynx, moose, deer, bear and caribou, it is one of only three such large-scale frontier forests left on Earth.

Yet for all its grandeur and life-giving function, Canada’s boreal forest (of which only six percent is permanently protected) is in trouble. Over half the 60 known herds of its signature species, the woodland caribou, are in decline. Assisted by a team of graduate students and colleagues from across North America, Hebblewhite wanted to find out why.

True to his leanings, “Heb” selected a massive study area, drawing a line around a western Alberta portion of the boreal forest larger than 10 Yellowstone National Parks. But instead of rushing off to study the nine herds believed to roam within that huge area, he ordered his research team to pack their backpacks for an orientation hike.

Even now, months after completing the two-and-a-halfweek trek, Heb’s normally energetic voice falters as he recalls the initial days of the trip. The clothes-tugging bushwhacking. The boot-sucking bogs. The hidden canyons. And yet it was in those wet and furry folds of the boreal forest that the team encountered their study subjects. When they did, their misery turned to bliss.

The caribou were in their sleek, early summer coats, and the scientists marveled at how the muscular animals seemed to float more than walk. White tails twitched as the caribou pranced over the soft ground, their splayed hooves sending tremors through the muskeg. Seconds stretched into minutes as curious calves approached to within a few yards. Concerned cows peeked out from the lichen-draped shadows, then gently grunted for the calves to follow. Silhouettes of bulls vanished behind them, threading their
velvety antlers silently through the tangled trees.

There weren’t many – a few scattered groups of four to six caribou each – which was exactly what the scientists expected. Unlike their gregarious barren-ground cousins, woodland caribou depend on a strategy of isolation, eking out a hermitlike existence in the boggiest, bushiest, least-accessible corners of the forest. In doing so, they separate themselves from their closest competitors – the deer and moose – and, more important, their major predator: the wolf.

It is a quirky avoidance strategy that hinges on two things: adaptation and space. Thousands of years of evolution have addressed the adaptation part – splayed hooves for flotation in the treacherous bogs and a digestive system to extract carbohydrates from lichens that are unpalatable to other animals. But humanity’s quest for more minerals, timber and oil has rendered the space part more tenuous. Attracted by the grasses and forbs that grow in new clearcuts and cutlines, newcomers are beginning to surround the old strongholds and are forcing the hermits out.

After eight days of bushwhacking, Heb’s battered crew stumbled onto a 10-yard-wide swath of fallen trees and bulldozed bush left by oil exploration crews. It was the first major human intrusion they’d seen in over a week, and the exhausted hikers couldn’t help but rejoice. Such seismic lines lead to roads, they reasoned; the traveling would be easier from now on. But as biologists, their happiness was shortlived. No sooner had they started down the arrow-straight path than a few deer and moose tracks began to appear in the mud before them. A mile later they encountered the
pad-and-claw impressions of a large wolf.

“I couldn’t have spelled it out any more clearly,” says Heb.
“Another refuge of woodland caribou was being breached
before our very eyes.”

Indeed, the seismic line led to a logging road which, in turn, led to a growing patchwork of squares, rectangles and strips that rendered the once-contiguous forest more attractive to moose and deer.

“It was hard not to be disheartened,” says Heb, “yet something about those caribou we’d encountered – their resilience and grace, I suppose – renewed our commitment to try and help them out.”

And there were reasons for hope. A handful of the multinational companies whose makeshift signs decorated the many road junctions the researchers now encountered had already approached Heb to better define how (and if ) their operations could coexist with the endangered animals. A federal recovery plan was in the works for woodland caribou. And in some places big blocks of habitat were being conserved: One such landmark agreement, protecting over 25 million forested acres in Canada’s Northwest Territories, was finalized between aboriginal, territorial and federal governments shortly after Heb and his crew completed their hike, one of the largest conservation set-asides in North American history.

Such actions are part of a burgeoning consciousness about Canada’s boreal forest, which in itself, is but a part of a much larger initiative called The Big Wild, whose goal is to protect half of all Canada’s remaining wildlands. Blanketing 57 percent of that vast country, the boreal forest is the obvious anchor in any such system of protected areas, a role strengthened by its importance as one
of the world’s largest carbon sinks, water filters and water reservoirs.

What matters most to the woodland caribou, however, aren’t the reasons why their boreal forest hideaways should be left alone but, rather, if they’ll be left alone. Will the findings of Heb’s team, along with public pressure, compel oil and forestry companies to do business differently?

Like all scientists, the researchers abstained from speculating as they arrived at their truck a few days later. But as Heb turned over the key and began the long drive back to Missoula, a quick glance at his tired crew gave him a hint of an answer:

Everyone was looking out the rear window, silently promising the caribou they’d soon be back.

About the Author

Karsten Heuer is a writer and wildlife biologist living in Canmore, Alberta, where he worked with Mark Hebblewhite studying wolves. He is currently writing his fourth book, Finding Farley, about his family’s recent canoe trip across Canada’s boreal forest.