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HABITAT is for the birds

by Rob Wener

If you have ever driven down a logging road, past the last fork, past the last cut block, up the last skid road, and onto the last landing, you have probably encountered a wall of trees. This is the end of the road.

The transition from a rock road to a forest floor is a striking contrast. Climbing over the slash piles and entering the forest can stun your senses. As you walk deeper into the trees, the forest interior reveals an environment of complex biological processes. An untold numbers of organisms from Sitka spruce to raptors rely on these processes. Processes refined by evolution over thousands of years.

What we see in a forest is an enormous unified working habitat. Virtually every clump of moss, shattered piece of bark, or hidden rivulet contributes to the requirements of all forest dwellers. Every organism under the forest's protective canopy is reliant upon the biological sphere generated by the trees' structures. Some of these organisms can adapt to changes within this matrix, others are opportunists exploiting the vulnerability of other species. And there are the losers who fall victim to habitat loss and are near extinction.

Where is the habitat?

The names of obscure and remote regions on Haida Gwaii often fall upon indifferent ears, generating little recognition or interest. Ain Lake, Security Inlet, Jiinanga, the Datlamin, South Davidson Creek all contrast to the familiar Yakoun Basin or Tlell River. Yet these geographic areas share a very significant ecological value-habitat conditions predating the industrial logging era. The Skidegate Plateau, the central area on Graham and Moresby Island still contains intact landscapes exhibiting these values. They are defined as nodes.

These nodes contain features representative of the landscapes from decades gone by. Rare high-volume stands survive in these nodes. They also retain landscape features such as headwaters, lakes, and estuaries.

These nodes were once part of a contiguous stretch of rainforest composed of interconnected watersheds. Everything was immersed by time and space within a vast green web of a multi-aged forest ecosystem. Large mossy old-growth trees buffered the climate, reduced wind and temperature extremes, conserved moisture, and excluded aggressive site-colonizing species of plants and animals. The riparian areas of this landscape were capable of storing huge capacities of nutrients and plant energy.

The disturbances made by clearcuts and roads have changed climatic conditions, stressed natural limits, and degraded ecosystems by altering forest landscapes. Today's fragmented landscape has drained the forests of its biological capacity. The problem is the scale of disturbance. On Haida Gwaii the entire central region is altered by clearcuts. These Islands are suffering from third degree burns over its entire body except the hands and feet. The biological capacity of the Islands is in shock.

Marbled murrelets need habitat

Interior forest conditions provide the seclusion and stable habitat needed to form optimum ecological features required by some wildlife species. The Marbled murrelet is a small, plump sea bird that favours nest sites on large mossy limbs within the upper tree canopy. Its nest is simply a depression containing a single egg. Its only defense against birds of prey is its mottled feather colouration, and the protection of the surrounding canopy.

Marbled murrelets are not usually seen but heard chirping high above the forest floor. Little is known about their original nesting distribution or the area of remaining habitat. They appear to be a long lived species, so the effect of habitat loss on their reproductive success is not known and only three or so nests have been identified in BC.

So what's the big deal about fuzzy little sea birds nesting in 250 year old trees? One way to approach this question is to ask 'what is so important about the location of the trees inhabited by Marbled murrelets?' Haida Gwaii's isolation from the mainland has created many unique vertebrate species and rare plant communities. The trees are different, the organisms in them are different, the climate is different-in fact, one third of the animal species found here are subspecies. Marbled murrelets are a red-listed (i.e. threatened to extinction) species. Industrial activities are not especially sensitive to bird habitat. And when logging roads are proposed to be located adjacent to nesting sites, as in the South Davidson Creek near Naden Harbour, its time to blow the whistle and stop the train.

South Davidson Creek is a representative old growth node. The creek is an important salmon stream that had its other side logged to the stream bank over the last twenty years.

A recently completed wildlife inventory submitted to, and commissioned by, Husby Forest Products has identified many occupied timber stands with Marbled murrelets in their operation area-meaning recorded nesting behaviour. This includes the Davidson Creek watershed. It states, "on-going development will possibly remove suitable habitat." Husby's response to this concern is to establish a Forest Ecosystem Network (FEN) corridor along the length of the creek. Unfortunately this FEN includes logging activities and it is too narrow.

The features of this small stretch of rainforest along the creek contain many of the values that once carpeted these Islands with one of the most dynamic and rich ecosystems on the planet. These features need to be retained over the landscape of Haida Gwaii to maintain fully functioning forests capable of sustaining creatures like Marbled murrelets.

We need a new gentler approach to exploiting the natural resources. There are people and groups here prepared to work at changing the way we utilize the forest and our attitude towards it.

If you are interested in learning about the issues raised in this article, please contact your local resource officers at DFO, MoE or Parks Canada and express your concerns.

There are also field trips and projects sponsored by local groups to connect you with the forest of trees seen beyond the last stretch of road, or down that distant inlet. Seeing is believing, and the time to participate is now.
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