Salvage Logging British Columbia’s Wildfires – Will Wildlife Conservation and Science Matter?

by Aug 3, 2021Conservation

Where There’s Smoke…

Like most of western North America, British Columbia’s wildfires are raging this summer. Homes have been destroyed and many more are still threatened. Entire communities are on evacuation alerts. People are breathing thick smoke-filled air and some homeowners have not been allowed to return home after being evacuated. There has been no time to assess the effects of the fires on the province’s fish, wildlife or their habitats including rare and endangered species. Yet, like in past fire years, British Columbia’s forest industry is likely planning all the burnt forests they will log after the smoke settles. This tidal wave of timber salvaging will start to unfold across BC shortly and British Columbian’s will watch history repeat itself.

It’s no surprise the lumber giants move fast to get at the burned timber while it’s still warm. BC’s three largest lumber companies have more milling capacity than all sawmills in the United States combined. The majority of all timber harvesting in the province is controlled by only five private lumber companies (Canadian Forest Products – Canfor, West Fraser Timber, International Forest Products, Tolko Industries and Western Forest Products).  With sawmills referred to as “Super Mills” a lot of “fibre” is needed to feed the mill’s diets. But with all this lumbering super power small towns across BC are dying as their forest economies dwindle, fish and wildlife populations are collapsing and, in 2021, the management of the public’s natural resources will receive the lowest proportion of the province’s provincial budget in the last half century.

It’s a well-known fact the province’s major forest companies are harvesting timber to the maximum while gradually decreasing investment in BC’s forestry infrastructure and increasing assets and holdings in the US.  Getting approval to harvest burned and insect attacked forests at rates that exceed the government approved annual allowable harvest levels has become the norm in BC as the effects of climate change are now a reality. All this does not bode well for the future of the province’s wildlife though.

How Does British Columbia’s Laws Protect the Public’s Wildlife and Habitat?

There are no specifically defined legislated objectives in British Columbia for fish or wildlife populations, their habitats or for measuring biodiversity. There is no legal requirement for the use of peer-reviewed science or scientific panels in forest management in BC. There are no legislated requirements to conduct scientific assessments of the impacts that large-scale proposed timber harvesting might have on the public’s fish, wildlife or habitat like there is in mining and other major development projects in Canada. There is no legal requirement for a forest company to change timber harvesting plans based on public input. Under the current professional reliance model of forest management in BC, professional Foresters employed by the timber companies make a lot of the decisions on how the public’s resources will be treated. Government scientists, Biologists and Foresters have no authority to challenge or override the private companies’ plans to manage the public’s land as long as their timber harvest plans meet the bare minimum requirements of a severely deficient set of forest management laws in the province.

From science we know high road density on the landscape negatively impacts wildlife. Yet there are no laws in BC controlling road density to protect wildlife or habitat. Forest companies have no legal obligation to ensure logged over areas are free of the invasive weeds that choke out wildlife habitat and reduce biodiversity. We know fire improves huckleberry production for grizzly bears yet there are no laws to prevent logging machinery from impacting the re-growth of huckleberry bushes in critical grizzly habitat after a wildfire. There are no regulations that require wildlife forage and browse to be co-managed in concert with trees.

There are no legal mechanisms in BC for individuals or NGO organizations to legally challenge decisions to harvest timber in a given area if wildlife values are not being managed to the satisfaction of the public. The strongest objective set by government for wildlife management in BC is to “conserve sufficient wildlife habitat in terms of amount of area, distribution of areas and attributes of those areas”; however, mitigating impacts of timber harvesting on wildlife or habitat must be “without unduly reducing the supply of timber from British Columbia’s forests”. That’s the law in British Columbia. Timber supply trumps wildlife conservation.

Doesn’t BC Practice Sustainable Forest Management?

British Columbia was made famous by the “Bowron Clearcut” when it became one of the few manmade features on Earth that could be seen from space. This clearcut was over 300 square kilometers and was a result of salvage logging that occurred during the 1970’s spruce beetle outbreak. By the year 2020 it is estimated that 20,000 square kilometers of BC’s lodgepole pine forests affected by the mountain pine beetle will be clearcut making it the largest timber salvage logging operation in the world. Moose populations have crashed is many regions of the province as a result of the mountain pine beetle salvage logging that has already been completed. Aerially spraying herbicides to rid plantations of aspen, willow and alder continue to impact moose in the habitats where extensive pine beetle salvage logging has taken place.

Prior to the start of the salvage logging of the mountain pine beetle effected forests, an independent group of forest ecologists advised the government’s Chief Forester that around 75% of the beetle attacked forests had substantial proportions of non-pine tree species that were not affected by the beetle. If these mixed forests were left unlogged they would have maintained timber supply for the next half century and made moose populations less vulnerable to decline.  The scientist’s advice was not accepted and almost every hectare of forest with any amount of mountain pine beetle killed timber was clearcut.

Much of the general public and many politicians still believe that wildfires are bad for the environment. Forest companies add spin to these perceptions by using terms like “salvage logging” and “sanitizing the forest”. The term “salvage” only refers to reducing losses of timber and the concept has no ecological context. “Sanitation logging” is a misleading concept because it promotes the idea that a forest ecosystem needs to be cleansed of natural ecological processes like dead and decaying trees. “Catastrophic” fires or insect outbreaks are not catastrophic for forests ecosystems or biodiversity. It’s very unlikely that salvage or sanitation logging has ever helped with the ecological recovery of a burned forest. In fact, researchers at Oregon State University that studied fires that burned in southern Oregon in 2002 reported that salvage logging destroyed about 70 percent of tree seedlings that had sprouted from the forest floor and that the slash and debris left on the ground after salvage logging actually increased the risk of future forest fires.

But Doesn’t Clearcutting a Burned Forest Mimic What Mother Nature Does? 

In classical forestry education I was taught that most forests in BC originate from stand replacing fire regimes. The new forests establish over a short period of time and grow into even-aged forests. Clearcutting causes forests to also establish and mature into even aged forests; therefore, the classical forestry theory is that clearcutting mimics or is at least a surrogate for natural stand replacing wildfire. A lot of the latest fire ecology science is suggesting that a lot more of BC’s forests were subject to frequent low intensity fires that thinned the forests and kept fuel loading down while maintaining forest structure, diversity and resilience.

Twenty or 30 years after logging it can be hard to discern if you are in an old cutblock or an old burn; however, I think that’s where the similarity ends. Even with severe crown fires there is still a lot of vertical habitat structure left after the fire is out. To a moose, elk or a deer this dead standing forest still provides the visual hiding cover that allows them to feed and not been seen by predators as easily; therefore, their distribution in and use of burned habitat is not compromised.  A moose’s long legs are an adaption to living with deep snow and water but their long legs are also thought by biologists to be an adaptation to living in old burns where the snags that have fallen become crisscrossed and tangled.  The ability to live in the tangled old burns may be an adaptation to avoid predators. When a burnt forest is salvage logged it makes moose vulnerable to un-naturally high levels of predation.

The Importance of Fire to Wildlife

It has been hypothesized that the extinction of the Mammoth gave rise to British Columbia’s biodiversity.  Mammoths that grazed over vast areas of North America maintained grassland-like habitats across much of the continent. Once they disappeared the grasslands began to grow over with shrubs and birch trees which eventually succeeded to conifer forests. These new vegetation communities gave rise to an era of fire.

Over the last 10,000 years almost every ecosystem in BC evolved with a unique fire regime.  A significant proportion of these assemblages of flora and fauna are adapted to fire as either fire resistant or fire dependent species. Fire resistant species either evolved strategies of avoidance or tolerance to fire.  Avoidance is when species inhabit or retreat to habitats where the lethal effects of fire cannot affect them.  Fire tolerant species have physiological traits that mitigate or tolerate exposure to lethal conditions of fire. Fire dependent species require fire to perpetuate the species – fire is needed for at least one part of their life cycle. Fire intolerant species are sensitive to fire and are destroyed by fire and whose presence may fade from an ecosystem disturbed by fire. Many of BC’s plants and animals are fire dependent.

A fire regime is a combination of the severity of the fire and how often fire occurs. Severity is controlled by the amount and type of combustible vegetation on the landscape and the sensitivity of the living vegetation. How often fire occurs on the landscape is often expressed as measures of a fire return interval or fire frequency which are regulated by how climate and weather interact to create lightning. Science also recognizes the use of fire by the First People’s of North America as contributing to the uniqueness of some the past fire regimes. The other variables that define a fire regime include the pattern, size, continuity and season of burn. All these factors work together to create unique fire regimes across the landscape at different points in time.

Generally low severity – more frequent fires created Fire-Maintained Ecosystems which are characterized by fire that is predominantly non-lethal to most of the vegetation. On the other side, higher severity fires that burn less frequently tend to be lethal to most of the vegetation so they are referred to as Replacing Fires. High levels of biodiversity are often correlated to mixed–severity fire regimes. Mixed-severity fire regimes are influenced by mixtures of high and low severity fires at varying scales, patterns and timing across the landscape. Mixed-severity fire regimes are dominated by intermediate factors – intermediate fire severities and intermediate fire return intervals (i.e., 30-200years).

Fire mosaic is the pattern and variability of burned and un-burned vegetation across a landscape. Mosaic fire creates diverse patterns of vegetation, edge conditions, open and interior micro climate conditions that provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife species. Ecotone gradients are a pattern of ecological communities where high levels of biodiversity are observed. Ecotone gradients like the grassland-forest interface are known for high value habitats for a variety of plants and wildlife species. Fire plays a role in maintaining ecotone gradients such as the boundary between grasslands and forests where forest encroachment onto grasslands is mitigated by frequent fires. Fundamentally, fire creates complexity on the landscape which allows for plant diversity. Plant diversity allows for wildlife diversity. Diverse ecosystems are resilient ecosystems.  Resilient ecosystems are better capable of resisting or recovering from stresses and disturbances.

Ungulate winter range has always been considered to be the factor limiting ungulate populations in BC. While the limitation is generally correlated to the lesser amount of area available for ungulates to winter on, summer range nutrition is reported to play a very significant role in population dynamics as well. Summer range is a critical time for adult females and new offspring and access to high nutrition food during pre-natal and natal periods is vital for growth and survival.

There are number of reported negative population feedback dynamics attributed to poor summer range nutrition. Low pregnancy rates, low offspring production, poorer female body condition and body mass, low juvenile survival and increased vulnerability to predation and harvest are some of the population dynamics attributed to poor summer range nutrition. It is reported in the scientific literature that fire enhances nutrient cycling, improves the digestibility of forage/browse, increases the crude protein content of forage/browse and increases the long-term biomass production of forage and browse. Fire improves nutrition which leads to sustainable and resilient wildlife populations. In BC you can’t have robust wildlife populations without fire. One study in Northern BC reported that Stone’s Sheep that have access to significant portions of burned habitat had higher lamb to ewe ratios and lower incidence of lungworm than herds that did not have access to burned habitat.

In 2003, the Okanagan Mountain Park fire in burned approximately 25,000 ha of dry forest habitat south of the City of Kelowna.  10 years prior to the fire the Mountain Goats in Okanagan Mountain Park numbered around 8 animals. 10 years after the fire they had increased to 85 animals (962% increase). This increase is directly attributed to improved population dynamics resulting from habitat enhancement caused by the fire.  In game management units MU 8-9 and 8-10 the hunter harvest of mule deer and elk increased 32% and 144% respectively in the decade following the fire.  This increase in harvest occurred with about a 15% decrease in the number of hunters and 15% decrease in the number of hunter days in those management units. There was no inventory data before and after the fire so directly correlating increases in hunter harvest to increases in population size is not possible with a high degree of confidence; however, an increase in abundance due to the fire can’t be discounted either. Prior to the fire there were no mountain sheep in the area. Between 2007 and 2009 around 53 sheep were transplanted to the burned habitat and over the next 6 years the herd size increased by 14%. It is likely the favorable habitat and forage value created by the fire acted positively on mountain sheep population dynamics.

Huckleberries are fire tolerant and fire creates the conditions for huckleberry plants to thrive, expand and persist on the landscape. Since the early 1900s the Flathead grizzly bear population management unit (GPMU) in southeastern BC has had the shortest fire return intervals (most frequent fire) and the highest percentage of the land base burned by fire on an annual basis. Because of the fire regime in the Flathead and abundance of huckleberry plants, huckleberry production is a strong bottom up regulating factor for grizzly bears in the Flathead.

Populations of woodpeckers including the black-backed woodpecker depend on having significant areas of standing burned snag forests. The literature suggests this woodpecker species may be declining in BC, although trend data are difficult to interpret due to the low sample sizes. Fire suppression and post-fire salvage logging have negative implications for the species yet BC has not identified this woodpecker as a species of concern to be considered in how much of a burned forest should be logged. However, over the next few years in the United States, the potential listing of the black-backed woodpecker may lead to federal legal challenges when lumber companies plan to clearcut forests burned by wildfires.

Dr. Chad T. Hanson and his group, the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, Calif., calls any burned forest where the trees have been left alone a “snag forest”. Dr. Hanson has pressed the argument over the past decade that snag forests are among the most important plant and animal habitats in North America. Dr. Hanson has made himself a thorn in the side of state and federal agencies in the US, pestering and sometimes suing them. But gradually, policy makers have begun to acknowledge that burned forests must be viewed as special places.

The Time to Act is Now

To date in the summer of 2021, wildfires have burned thousands of square kilometers of the province. A gold rush is about to take place in the province and the gold is black charred timber, some of which is critical to leave untouched for the benefit of wildlife and biodiversity conservation. Under the current forest management system in BC there will be no involvement of scientists and no meaningful opportunity for the public to influence what happens to their fish, wildlife and habitat unless there is significant opposition unleashed by the public and First Nations that forces a change in direction from the new government.

If you care enough to change the way fish, wildlife and habitat will be treated after the 2021 fire season is over you must act now. Demand that your government mandate a new and better approach to protecting fish, wildlife, habitat and biodiversity values in the forests that were burned this summer. Tell elected officials that the business-as-usual approach to forest management in BC will not be acceptable to plan harvesting in fire affected wildlife habitats.

You must demand that your fish, wildlife and habitat values be assessed at a landscape-scale using a roundtable approach that includes scientists, biologists, ecologists, First Nations, hunters, anglers, trappers, guide-outfitters and conservationists.

The future of your (burned) public forest is in your hands. Contact your elected official today.


Photo Credit: Curtis Hall

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