Caribou closures lead Conservation to increase backcountry presence

by EVAN MATTHEWS

Photo: courtesy of the VARDA website A few examples of the various signs indicating caribou closures.
Photo: courtesy
of the VARDA
website
A few examples
of the various
signs indicating
caribou
closures.

Though the notion is nothing new, it’s the time of year when the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, along with local snowmobile clubs, spend time and resources educating snowmobilers in the Robson Valley on the importance of caribou closures.

Conservation has been doing caribou closures in the Valemount-Blue River area for about 15 years, according to Sergeant Kevin Van Damme, B.C. Conservation Officer Service.

“We chat with snowmobilers to make sure they understand where the boundaries are, and we help to educate them to understand the closures,” says Van Damme.

“In many cases the closures are there to protect live animals in those areas… as the animals are extremely sensitive to being disturbed,” he says.

Mountain Caribou populations have drastically declined over the last 100 years, according to the Ministry of Environment, with a sharp decline from about 2,500 animals in 1995 to about 1,700 in 15 herds today.

Roughly 98 per cent of the world’s Mountain Caribou live in B.C., where they are on the provincially protected blue-list. Being on the blue-list means they are considered to be vulnerable or sensitive, and require special management to ensure their survival, according to B.C.’s Ministry of Environment.

“We want to make sure everybody knows when they go out that first of all there are closures, and second of all that it is their responsibility to know where and when those closures exist,” says Van Damme.

The current range of the Mountain Caribou includes the Rocky Mountains for a short distance north and south of the Yellowhead Highway, and parts of the Cariboo, Monashee, Purcell, and Selkirk mountains, including extreme northeastern Washington and the northern tip of Idaho, according to the Ministry of Environment.

All the information regarding closures is available on the Ministry website, according to Van Damme, saying there are even interactive maps and software riders can put on their phones or GPS to give them a sense of where they are.

The software, Van Damme says, allows riders to make sure they are within a legal area as opposed to caribou sensitive areas.

“Not only are caribou closures important for the sustainability of the wildlife, but it’s important to the sustainability of snowmobiling as a recreational activity,” — Curtis Pawliuk, VARDA’s general manager.

Van Damme credits local organizations such as VARDA and the Big Country Snowmobile Association for helping to better educate riders on the subject.

Curtis Pawliuk, VARDA’s general manager, says the organization does educational programs on caribou closures, while VARDA also sends riders to do boundary patrols.

“Not only are caribou closures important for the sustainability of the wildlife, but it’s important to the sustainability of snowmobiling as a recreational activity,” says Pawliuk.

“Snowmobilers have been giving a lot of respect to the closures, and as long as we continue with that respect, hopefully we can continue to co-exist,” he says.

The only time Conservation tends to find riders in closed areas, according to Van Damme, is when it hasn’t been snowing. Riders will go out and consciously disregard the closure in order to find fresh tracks, he says.

As an preventative measure, Conservation does rounds by snowmobile and helicopter, according to Van Damme, saying he’s stopped many groups and has charged riders.

Giving someone a fine is a deterrent, Van Damme says, but the recipient may not view the fine as severely as Conservation would like. The next step, he says, is to take the rider’s snowmobile.

“We have a plan in place, and the next progressive step is to take their machine,” says Van Damme.

“We have the ability, the authority and the right, given the seriousness of the infraction, the just cause to seize the rider’s snowmobile,” he says.

Though the penalties sound severe, Van Damme says the main priority for Conservation is education.

On the very same note, Van Damme says due to the education Conservation has noticed increased levels of concern relating to caribou within snowmobile clubs.

“We all have a responsibility within our communities to protect the landscape in the most pristine and natural way possible,” says Van Damme.

“What kind of landscape and environment do we want to live in?”

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