Why Washington's six caribou are crossing the border
Photographer David Moskowitz spent three years working on his new book, an exploration of issues facing the endangered mountain caribou and their habitat; and what their plight tells us about conservation ecology around the world.
In early November, Canadian wildlife officials announced that the six remaining mountain caribou known to migrate through Washington and Idaho would be relocated exclusively within Canada. The relocation of the South Selkirk and South Purcell herds marked a tragic end to the decades-long effort to reintroduce the species into the United States, where it has been classified as "endangered" since 1983.
The move didn't surprise wildlife expert David Moskowitz. As a photographer, educator and author, he's spent decades tracking the rare animals in the Caribou Rainforest — the largest of the world’s few remaining inland temperate rainforests. Tracts of the dwindling forest mountain caribou rely on can be found in the Selkirk, Monashee and Selkirk mountains that stretch from Western Canada into Idaho and Washington. Though wolf predation is the official reason for the caribou's relocation, Moskowitz thinks logging, outdoor recreation, climate change and misguided legislation and conservation efforts enabled the widespread habitat loss that makes these caribou vulnerable to wolves. Wolf predation is a symptom, not the cause, of the mountain caribou’s troubles.
All of this gives newfound importance to Moskowitz’s most recent book project.
In Caribou Rainforest: From Heartbreak to Hope, Moskowitz documents the mountain caribou as a means to reflect on the nature of our relationship with the environment and how we impact it. It's about more than one species’ uncertain future: Through discussion of the geologic history of the region — and the plants, animals and cultures that evolved from it — Moskowitz shows how the mountain caribou represents issues facing threatened ecosystems everywhere. He advocates for reevaluating entirely how we conceive of species and ecosystems, to better understand and own our place within them.
We spoke with Moskowitz about his book, his fascination with mountain caribou and their habitat, conservation ecology, the trouble with our current approaches to species rehabilitation and the importance of science communication.
The following Q+A has been edited for clarity. All images featured are courtesy of David Moskowitz.
Crosscut: Why should people pay attention to mountain caribou and the Caribou Rainforest?
Moskowitz: I had two visions for this book. One was to highlight a truly magnificent and often overlooked ecosystem. The Caribou Rainforest is a globally unique ecosystem that people have not really attended to. And then the second piece is highlighting the rainforest as a conservation parable: It is such an interesting case study of the challenges and opportunities we face, as far as conservation and social justice in the 21st century.
Your book is about caribou, but ultimately about the rainforest and ecosystems like it. Of all the animals in the rainforest, why center the story on caribou?
So the focus on caribou is two-fold. One is that, that was just the pattern that's been laid out before me. So much of the conservation efforts in the region have hung on caribou habitat conservation. So they’re like the spotted owl of this old-growth forest. So already, just pragmatically, they are that species. But on more of a storytelling note, it was actually caribou that got me interested in the story [of the rainforest] to begin with.
A few years ago, I had a month to kill, because I had an expedition cancel. And I was like, well, I'm gonna spend a month looking for mountain caribou. I had written about them in my two previous books, but had never actually seen or photographed one. So I was like, oh, I'm gonna go up to this place and go look for mountain caribou and get some photos of them and maybe make for an interesting photo essay.
And so they were kind of the access point for me to this story.
But also, I think they're a good choice because they're charismatic. They're something that draws attention. They're culturally very relevant. And one of the things that really stood out to me is listening to the indigenous people. Multiple different indigenous groups describe how caribou were a source of safety for their traditional economy. Like, "If times were hard, we knew we could go to the mountains and get caribou and feed ourselves. So the caribou took care of us." And then they see this flip, where it's like, "Wow, now we need to take care of the caribou." So the caribou were the protectors of the people, and now the people need a reciprocal relationship. Now the people need to care for these animals. So this goes hand in hand.
What was the spark that turned that thought into a book?
When I went and spent a month up [in the rainforest], I realized, a) they're super hard to find. And b), we're absolutely in the middle of liquidating this amazing ecosystem. Literally, I drive up the road to go into prime caribou habitat, and I would see their habitat coming down the road on logging trucks.
And I was like, wait a second, this is a protected species’ habitat. This is the 21st century, and we're logging old-growth forests, which is kind of mind boggling to begin with.
Plus, there's treaty obligations that we have to indigenous peoples, and some land hasn't been officially ceded from the indigenous people to the province of British Columbia, and it's like, the layers of irony just keep getting added to the story.
So after a month up there, I was like, there's a tragedy unfolding here on some level. There's no way I can't tell this story, and I need to spend more time kind of fleshing this out. Because nobody else is paying attention to the fact that we're turning old growth trees into toilet paper in the 21st century. So it's like, I can't turn my back on this story.
What’s struck you about the ways you’ve heard people talk about the relocation?
People just want to talk about caribou. There are stories about, "Oh, there's six animals left. What does this mean?" Or how the caribou are going to be removed, so it's like the end of the species. That's just the entry point into the real story here, the story that really matters to us, to humans.
Those remaining animals, they're important and intrinsically valuable for their own sake and they represent a point of cultural connection for the indigenous people of that place, and have just immeasurable value in that way and for society at large, but that is just the tip of the iceberg and it's a conversation that begins and ends with the fate of a few caribou in a remote part of the Northwest.
That we're logging old growth forests in endangered species habitat in the 21st century is even more mind-boggling.
Many reports are discussing the impact of carnivore predation on caribou as the issue, but you’ve written extensively about how maybe there are more wolves around to predate because of things like logging, and everything coming back to resource extraction.
So this comes down to again an issue of accounting. The fact is that wolves and black bears and mountain lions kill caribou; in the short term, with a small population of caribou, predation pressure might do them in. But if you end your story there, you're not telling the real story: The presence of those predators and the vulnerability of the caribou to those predators comes back to people and human choices and human-modified landscapes.
Whenever I talk about predation and the effects of predation on caribou, I cannot talk about that without putting it in the context of habitat changes, and refuge habitat destruction. And if you don't include that context, you are not telling a factually correct story, in my opinion.
Are there other narratives about the relocation that have concerned you?
Yes, the idea that we shouldn't be doing any predator control. [Ed. note: Canadian wildlife officials have destroyed 20 wolves since 2014 in an effort to decrease predation.] A lot of conservation groups have been like, "You need to stop. There's no value in killing wolves and we shouldn't be doing that. Protecting caribou is just an excuse for people wanting to kill predators, which we've been doing for a long, long time." And that also is an incorrect narrative because the reality of it is, even if we did do everything possible to restore these landscapes, it's going to be a century before the intact forest comes back. And the caribou won't be here in a century if we don't do some active management between now and then.
Which comes back to this narrative of: "Take our hands off of it. Don't touch it." It's like we crossed that bridge a long time ago and we can't just take our hands off the wheel now. The story does not do well with simplified explanations. You come up with stories that sound good, but they're not right.
There's a 20th century idea of conservation, that you could preserve a wilderness, that you can set aside a place that would just be nature, and let nature take its course. We now understand ecosystems as being connected on a planetary level, and that humans have impacted every place on the planet. So, the answer to this problem is not just make another park, right? You can't protect this place by putting a wall around it.
You have a biology background. What does all this make you think about, in terms of science communication?
Science communication is a passion of mine. I really hate sound bites. You could tell the story one way very simply, but when you go into the weeds, you realize that's not how it works at all. There are so many complexities, and an interrelatedness between issues of culture, and how ecosystems work, and that has really been my fascination with this story.
In your book you explore a host of nuanced ways in which animals, plants and even human culture have evolved out of and influence each other and their environments. That’s the whole nature of ecosystems: There’s no distinct beginning or end, and there's always more to account for because they don't have clear boundaries.
Right. But there’s a flipside to that, too. There’s another meme, where people say, “Oh, we need more research [to make decisions].” You know, you hear this from the Republicans and they're spouting this about climate change. It's like, that's not actually what I'm saying and that's not the message I'm hoping to leave people with.
It's like, yes, we need to understand things more. And yes, our starting point for sorting out what we want to do should be listening, not talking. But at the same time, I try to lay out the case very clearly that we are in a moment where we must act; and that the act of not acting is an action in and of itself.
So, we shouldn’t be intimidated by a lack of information when considering whether to intervene in the environment—even though that’s kind of what got us here?
Were you conscious about trying to include Native Americans as major characters?
Very much. I don't remember if I say it in the book, but part of my goal for this project was just to share this place and these animals and these people with the world and let those places kind of speak for themselves. So the photos in there, it's like they're delivering a message and that message is coming from those places, those mountains, those animals.
In a lot of ways it's not my story to tell. It's theirs. It's the first people of that place’s story, so, definitely their voice is an important part of the message coming from that ecosystem. So it was, for me, it felt imperative that their voices were well represented, that it would be unethical and a disservice to the mission of the project not to put those voices upfront and center.
I would also just say that, you know, this is spoken by a number of the indigenous people in the book, but the plight of landscapes and the plight of the animals of a place is tied fundamentally to the indigenous people of the place. Conservation efforts at times have tried to exclude indigenous perspectives from conservation initiatives and that really needs to be a thing of the past, so.
A mountain caribou grazes in the 'Caribou Rainforest,' one designation for the inland temperate rain forest spanning the Pacific Northwest and southern Canada.
What did the story become, if you had to pick a motif and central issue?
I hope that the book is an exploration of our relationship with our neighbors. Our neighbors being the other people we live with, and then the other creatures, birds, plants, natural systems, that we live with. So it's really an exploration of how our choices affect our community, in varying levels of detail — from our local town to the entire economics of that area to the forests that we live in and depend on.
The two issues the Caribou Rainforest is facing today is, for one, industrial resource extraction — which is primarily logging, but also mining in some places. The province of British Columbia still has a policy of liquidating old-growth forests to turn them into tree plantations. And then the second issue is climate change. So those issues are true both for the ecosystem as a whole, and for the caribou. They just track very nicely.
You note that one of the reasons all of this is such a tragedy, is that legislation (like Canada’s Species At Risk Act and our Endangered Species Act) enacted to save animals like caribou ultimately create new problems for ecosystems at large. How is this legislation either not doing its job in the rainforest or, even worse, expediting the losses?
There's two things I'd say to that. One has to do with how the laws are written and our understanding when we wrote them and how that's changed. And then the second part is how they are enforced.
To speak to the laws themselves, when the Endangered Species Act was written, we didn't understand how ecosystems work in the same way we do now. And so there's this idea of protecting individual, discrete species. We want to keep this animal from going extinct. And so, to save that species you can do things like breed it in captivity [which is what Canadian wildlife officials plan to do with the Southern Selkirk mountain caribou], or you can get rid of its competitors, or you can keep people from shooting it. Which is kind of all well and good for an individual species, but our concept of an individual species is lacking when you look at it in the modern context. Things don't happen in a vacuum. Caribou are a great example of this. It's not so much about keeping these particular animals alive, because what makes a mountain caribou is not so much its genetics, it's its relationship with that landscape.
Mountain caribou are really a manifestation of an ecosystem. You'll find caribou all over the planet, but nowhere else in the world have they adapted to live in an environment with steep topography, massive amounts of precipitation, and these sprawling dense forests. And so the way mountain caribou live on the landscape has to do with their relationship with that ecosystem. And so we can’t take those animals, put them in a zoo, and keep them from going extinct — they’re not the same animal anymore.
Putting an animal in a zoo would work for the Endangered Species Act, but it doesn't actually save the ecosystem. And [it's] the ecosystem and its set of processes that actually needs to be protected, for its own sake. Because there's millions of different organisms, not just caribou, that are accounted for there, and also because the rainforest is what's providing us with clean water, clean air, wood fiber for our homes, and all of these other various things — not to mention it provides the cultural context for the existence of all these indigenous peoples.
So how is this existing legislation used today?
Conservationists have recognized that what we need to attend to is the ecosystem. To do that, they'll use the Endangered Species Act or the Species At Risk Act to try to protect the ecosystem through habitat protection of an individual species within that ecosystem.
But that is flawed because, for instance, if the caribou disappears, then maybe the habitat protection will disappear. Or maybe you'll apply the Endangered Species Act or the Species At Risk Act in ways that will protect the caribou but not actually deal with the ecosystem. So for instance, we could literally remove 90 percent of all of the moose from the ecosystem [that attract wolves] and kill as many of the wolves as we can, and then the caribou will do better. But we obviously haven't done anything to adjust the systemic problems for the ecosystem.
There’s an irony here. Traditionally these old growth forests were the refuge habitats of caribou. They didn't have to deal with competitors or predators — nothing else could live there. So the forest protected the caribou. But now, it's actually the caribou that's protecting the forest in that there's all of this "habitat" protected for endangered caribou. And so it's literally the presence of the caribou that's keeping that forest on the ground.
And that parallels our relationship with the natural world in general. In the past, humans have been kind of at the whim of natural systems. Right? And so the forest kind of was providing for us. But now all of a sudden, the power dynamics have flipped where it's like, we could completely eradicate an ecosystem if we decided to. It's not that that ecosystem's going to eradicate us.
But you also kind of imply though that that’s not entirely true: Extraction and pollution come back and bite us.
That’s another fascinating issue. When you talk up the economics of something, you could put a 10-year horizon on it, and it looks great: "Let's log all these forests, we'll be rich." But if you put a 200-year timeline on it, it's like, all of a sudden, you come up with a totally different decision about what you should do.
So, this is another challenge that we're having. You could [log as usual] and say ‘It doesn't really matter what happens to this forest, we'll be fine,’ and maybe in the short term that's true, but in the long term it's probably absolutely not true.
How has this experience with caribou helped to define our place in nature for you?
It’s been pretty clear to me that these questions have been challenges for our society for a long time. We are very much a part of this ecosystem, a part of the landscape, a part of the natural world, and we don't really have a choice in that matter. In the same way that every other animal draws resources from its surroundings and affects its surroundings, we do the same.
There's this whole sense of guilt that people have of like,"Everything I did is going to negatively impact this place. I have a home, it's built out of wood. I need water; I need food." And it's like, actually, we can look to all these other creatures that have similar instincts and realize, that's just our desire to feed ourselves and have a home for ourselves, and care for our family and raise our young. These are very basic, fundamental drives of every creature on the planet. We are no different from all these other animals, and that's fine, that's just part of what it means to be a living creature.
But I think the challenge for us in the modern world is thinking about what are the impacts that we want to make? The question becomes how we go about carrying out those actions in way that's in good relationship with all of our neighbors.
Traveling in small herds and sticking to remote, forbidding terrain, mountain caribou are rare sights. They have long been fondly referred to as 'grey ghosts' of the forest.
So what’s the right path forward, and why aren’t we on it yet?
To really address it at a root level, you need to attend to the fact that we have lost large tracts of contiguous old forests, for instance. And that gets into the second part of this, which is how we apply legislation. The long and the short of it is there's a lot of vested interest from business, you know, multinational corporations that really drive how we apply management of things.
Let's say you could protect caribou by killing wolves and cutting back the number of moose on the landscape, and you could do that and allow logging to continue unfettered in the short term. Or the other option would be that you stop logging the habitat and start doing restoration activities that return it to appropriate refuge habitat.
Well, of course, the timber interests, which have a lot of power in the provincial government, are gonna say, well, you don't want to cut back the amount of timber you're removing. Right? That's not the way to go. So let's do these other things. They're there pushing for the short-term fix that doesn't interfere with business as usual and the resource-extraction-driven economy.
But people who live in these areas who still depend on logging are in between a rock and a hard place: If they stop logging, there's nothing else they can do to make money.
That's where the power struggle is. Because, actually, there are a lot of low-hanging fruit solutions for this [economic] ecosystem. As I would say, it's probably an example for other places.
So for instance, I talk about Harrop-Procter Community Forests. One of the arguments that the province makes is like, well we need to employ people. And Harrop-Procter's saying, well you can employ way more people and cut way less wood if you change the structure of the economy here to be, instead of this large-scale industrial-resource-extraction where we're pumping raw materials out and shipping them raw around the world. If every tree that we cut we got as much value out of it as we possibly could, we could cut a fraction of the amount of wood that we were cutting and have more money stay in the local economy.
That would make for a more sustainable local economy, which would be great for everybody — except for the shareholders of the multinational corporations that are just mining these ecosystems and these communities for capital.
And then there's the matter of history here, of disenfranchising people who sit on that capital.
A lot of what I've even talked to you about is a settler-colonial perspective on the issue. But if you look at the indigenous people of that place, the story they tell if you ask them what's going on here [is very different]. Some of it would be very similar to what I'm saying. But Chief Roland Wilson, he's like, "Oh what the province is doing is the latest form of cultural genocide. They're basically trying to remove the animals and everything from this landscape that connected us to it, so that we too will disappear."
It started with Columbus and it ended with British Columbia's forestry management practices: one continuous spread of like, how do we remove indigenous people from the landscape so we can take what it theirs.
What was the most challenging part of putting this book together for you?
It's a big story. It's a big geographic area, so it was logistically hard to get all the images that we needed for the book. It took dozens and dozens and dozens of trips every month of the year, all seasons, to go get all these images and it took tons of backcountry trips and lots of driving and communications to line up opportunities. So that was obviously very challenging and then I think I mentioned as well, on a personal level, just to not get lost in the idea that this was just a tragedy, an unfolding tragedy alone. You know, people joke [about the title]. They're like, "From heartbreak to hope? Where's the hope part of this story?" And so, to stay connected to that on a personal level, and inspired, was a challenge for sure.
You noted in the last section that a key goal of yours was striking the balance between conveying urgency and encouraging hope, so you incentivize people to act but don’t overwhelm or depress them. What’s that challenge like?
I think the whole genre of conservation storytelling, where there’s this sense of doom and gloom, is evolving.
When we tell people that the world's coming to an end, we realize people just check out from that. It's like, "What's there to do about it?" And then there's the opposite approach, this aesthetic of, "Let's just be inspiring.” But that misses the point, too.
So I honestly feel like, in large part, Caribou Rainforest was an attempt to address a topic that I feel like hasn't been nailed down.
When you want to tell a story, you want to be for real, right? It's like, this isn't a land of make-believe where this is a beautiful, perfect, pristine, intact ecosystem that's never been touched. There's some hard scars on this landscape for sure and that doesn't mean that that's all there is, but I think showing both sides of that story is important to help people understand what's there and what we need to protect and care for and what's happening there as well, for sure. [Let's] put a face on that.