Heliskiing lobby group warns of caribou impacts

Heliskiing and CAT skiing lobby group HeliCat Canada says pending mountain caribou conservation plan could have big impacts on the industry

Mountain caribou populations continue to decline across their range as logging and resource extraction continue in the last remaining inland rainforest on planet Earth. Photo: David Moskowitz

This article first appeared in print in the October/November issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Measures under consideration to protect mountain caribou in British Columbia could result in the loss of $55 million in revenue by the province’s heliskiing and catskiing industries, according to a new industry report.

HeliCat Canada, the industry trade association for heliskiing and CAT skiing operators, recently announced the findings of an economic impact analysis of moves to protect more caribou habitat.

“The helicopter and snowcat skiing industry is a valuable part of the economic and social landscape across rural British Columbia, with close to $200 million per year in sales revenue,” stated the organization in a news release. “Although the industry has been directly involved in caribou conservation for decades, recent pressure to protect mountain caribou habitat may threaten the viability of this industry unless solutions unique to the sector are implemented.”

Southern mountain caribou populations have been in decline for several decades and some herds are considered effectively extirpated due to their small numbers and/or lack of females. Environmental groups, including the North Columbia Environmental Society, have called for habitat protection, while other tools such as maternity pens and predator/prey management have also been called for. Provincial legislation to protect caribou, which largely leaves out habitat protection, has so far proven ineffective at reversing the decline.

In May, Catherine McKenna, the federal Minister of the Environment, declared southern mountain caribou were facing “imminent threat” and issued an order to the government to take action. Should an emergency order be issued, large swaths of caribou habitat would be placed off limits to many activities, including forestry, snowmobiling, heliskiing and catskiing.

HeliCat Canada says this would impact 19 of 41 helicat companies in B.C., six of which would have to close down. The Revelstoke area is home to numerous heliskiing companies, some of which operate in areas that would be impacted by an emergency order.

The report finds that heliskiing and catskiing companies would see their operations threatened because mountain caribou feed in the alpine in the winter, when the deep snowpack allows them to feed on the lichen on trees. Snowmobiling has already been restricted in many areas north of Revelstoke.

According to HeliCat Canada, terrain closures would lead to a loss of $55.2 million in revenue, 466 jobs and $20.3 million in household income.

“With so much at risk, the helicat industry is concerned about its very viability,” stated the news release. “Expert and science-based decision-making is crucial to the sustainability of this important world-class product.”

Caribou habitat protection could also have a significant impact on Revelstoke forestry companies.

Earlier this year, the provincial government sought feedback on a new management plan for mountain caribou. It’s unclear when the government will unveil their new, revised plan. The plan will likely seek to strike a balance between conservation efforts and economic interests, such as forestry and backcountry recreation. It will also have to satisfy the federal government’s species at risk legislation, under the potential threat that the federal government could step in to take over the mountain caribou portfolio if it is unsatisfied with the provincial plan.