As giants fall: Protecting the dens of BC’s coastal bears and beyond

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Special thanks to Publisher of The North Island Eagle, Kathy O’Reilly. Originally printed Friday, May 17th in The North Island Eagle.

Imagine sleeping, a deep winter sleep. Your breathing is shallow, your heart rate low. Your hearing and sense of smell deadened by a long winter nap. Cool dirt walls surround you. A bed of leaves, sticks, and soft earth rests below your belly. As your tiny newborn cubs nuzzle you, visions of berries and salmon drift through your mind – that is, if bears can dream. The air is slightly moist, carrying new scents to your tender nose just below the old giant cedar tree you have used as home for so many years. Voices are near, voices of man. Your eyes flutter, your nose twitches – smoke, a faint chemical smell you associate with machines, saws, and bad news. Smells you run from. The high pitch hum of the chain saw slows only slightly as the sharp bar dips into the bark of the father of time standing over you – you’re awake now. Hours pass as the noise of the saw gets louder and louder. He groans, twisting on his living trunk which has stood since time immemorial. SNAP! A deep howl of tearing fiber wails as splinters fly. A shrill whine is quickly followed by a resounding CRASH! Your roof is torn off as you scramble over the side of the falling giant. Your cubs, disoriented and still finding their legs, are stuck, terrified, and barley moving. This is no dream – this is happening. The struggle for survival begins early this year.       

I was asked by multiple people to follow up with last month’s article by writing on a topic that is near and dear to many Vancouver Islander’s – the protection of black bear dens in our old growth forests. Some may view this story as sad, but I encourage the reader to think of the text in a slightly different way. The very fact we have something left to write about, to try and protect, is worthy of our attention and should give us hope that government and industry partners, communities, forest professionals, and scientists will take the homes of our coastal bears seriously in policy and extractive resource decision making. The aim of this paper is not to report nor provide concrete opinion in such complex matters – it is but to create critical dialog for us to consider in future writings and scientific field work.

Iconic species

Black bears are largely considered a keystone species of Vancouver Island’s coastal forests. Denning mothers with cubs of year (i.e., cubs born in the den that spring), juvenile or yearling cubs (i.e., cubs that are in their first winter with mom), and especially dispersing sub-adults (i.e., those that have recently left momma bear for their first independent winter), all require safe and warm winter den locations for survival during hibernation. Papa bears too!

In BC, our old growth forests hold some of the most ideal terrain and natural eco-structures for black bears to den in – old forests. Both standing and downed large-diameter trees, primarily occurring in old growth forests, provide essential denning materials, structures, and safe spaces. However, there is no regulatory or policy regime that protects these important unique features. This failure to protect the unique wildlife habitat feature of bear dens can have long term and sustained negative effects on bear populations. Our bears our important not just to a fully functioning and balanced ecosystem, but also to our collective identity as British Columbians and most certainly the identity of Vancouver Islanders. Protecting their core habitat is also protecting our own human relationships with our old forests, our economic functions of tourism, our provincial branding and international advertising, and even our overall psycho-social interrelations of who we are as British Columbians and how we wish to be seen by the world. How we treat our bears is a direct reflection of how we treat ourselves and others within society. As Dr. King once put it, bears can be, in a way, a “social barometer.”

Conquering giants

Old growth logging in BC is a contentious issue. It reared its head again in the past few weeks as the government plans to auction off new cut blocks on Southern Vancouver Island. The planned auction prompted renewed calls for better management of our old forests and the cessation of logging activities in these ancient ecosystems. The critique of old growth logging and its environmental impacts verses its economic benefits, is complex and beyond the scope of this editorial; suffice to say it has spanned decades. The protection of old forests has taken many forms over the years. From codified protective and legislative regimes, to the dewatering of legal force into the professional reliance model, our debate about old growth protection (and its relationship to wildlife habitat and diverse bioclimatic models) is often coloured in a hazy fog of complex terms, interpretations, and professional opinions – beginning with, for example, defining what is and what is not “old.”

Many forest professionals argue that “old” means an age class of 250 – 1,500+ years, coupled with certain identifiable characteristics of legacy evidence (i.e., “silhouette” or “shadow” evidence of previous old trees fallen by natural disturbance and now supporting new life), dispersed bioclimatic variance in the area (i.e., little micro climates on the forest floor that have different plant life and soil properties), as well as “stand diversity” (i.e., an identifiable combination of standing, dead, old and young trees at various stages of growth throughout the area). Some argue that with planning certain forests can be protected while others logged to realize immediate economic benefits. This planning often takes place behind closed doors and out of public view until it’s fully completed and logging commences or goes to public auction. Professionals argue that they use the best available data and best available science to manage old forests and balance the socio-economic interests of the public. Many within the public argue that our old forests should not be managed by industry or those who benefit financially from their extraction.

Transparency is essential to good faith doctrine

When we approach topics like bear den protection and old growth forest retention, it is important that government receives full, frank, and balanced information in order that they can make informed policy and legislative decisions. When forestry licencees and professional associations communicate as if they were government, or are given preferential access to government communications systems to spread information as if they were the Provincial Crown, there can be a perception of preferential treatment to extractive industries; a perception that makes it difficult to engage on an even playing field for policy discussions.

Currently, government receives much of its information and speaking points from their public relations department. These departments, in turn, frequently ask for information from industry licencees and professional associations in order that they can inform the responsible minister and create messaging to calm public outrage and concerns. The relationship between government communications and those who benefit from forest extraction is therefore factually and sequentially linked. Currently, it can be perceived as not truly independent messaging for the public.

It could be argued that there is a direct conflict of interest for major logging licencees to have access to government systems that are able to both communicate to the public and provide advice to the government. While it is understood that industry and professional relationships require government to engage with those operating industrial activities on public lands, caution is warranted that inappropriate access to sensitive government communication systems be restricted in an effort to reduce misleading and inaccurate information being given to the public about their forests, the management of their forests, and the responses to their concerns. Old growth logging falls into this category.

Discussion

The last century of old-growth logging on Vancouver Island has greatly reduced ideal habitat that bears can use for denning. As a result of inadequate protective measures, it can be argued that current forest harvesting practices do not allow forests to develop to a sufficient size for recruitment of natural dens to occur. While some forestry licencees voluntarily survey cut blocks and protect identified bear dens, there is no legal obligation to do so under the current legislative professional reliance model; many dens are found during active cutting, thus limiting available options. Protecting old growth forests goes beyond the trees. When discussing old growth logging, government requires balanced information that isn’t solely influenced by economic interests and industry partners. For bears, den sites need to be available and dispersed across the landscape in order to ensure adequate shelter in home ranges and territories. Lack of den sites can lead to a decrease in the survival of cubs, denning mothers, and dispersing sub adults. These cumulative impacts can have long-term effects on population sustainability and individual survival rates.

Falling forward

From protecting bear dens and Goshawk nesting areas, to understanding the food systems of the Vancouver Island marmot, the human interface with old forests, and many other complex biological and socio-ecological questions, our forests are much more than economy and serious questions should be raised about the sustainability of old growth logging year after year on a land base that is scarred, tired, and plain worn out. It is time for transparency in our forestry sector – this must start with the public receiving impartial and accurate information from the government; information that is not tainted by a licencee’s preferential treatment (perceived or real) and special access to government systems and information streams. Ultimately, how we treat our bears and forests is a direct reflection of how we treat each other and how we will be viewed by the outside world.

Bryce Casavant is a Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University. He recently received fellowship with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for his work, In Search of a Wild Peace. Bryce is a former BC Conservation Officer and lives on Vancouver Island.

 

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